I remember that moment because of how idealistic I was, and how much I meant it. I think I probably wore a tie. This would come as a surprise to that high-school kid, but, it turns out changing minds in Washington isn't easily done with persuasive arguments, based on research, or heart-rending anecdotes. The primary goal of most politicians is keeping their jobs.
Politicians are fairly predictable animals. Was anyone really surprised that once polls began showing the majority of Americans in favor of marriage equality, there was suddenly a rush of principled statements issued by members of Congress?
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts told Edie Windsor's lawyer during a hearing on the Defense of Marriage Act that "political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case." Roberts was right that we are experiencing a political sea change. But the holdouts still have enough power to hold up progress in Congress.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is expected to come up for a vote this session in the Senate, where it will be filibustered by social conservatives. The law, first proposed 19 years ago, makes it illegal to fire an employee for being LGBT. Activists will need 60 votes to win, but they'll probably need even more if they want to send a message to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives that discrimination isn't a partisan issue.
For comparison, the comprehensive immigration bill got a whopping 68 votes out of the Senate and its future is still uncertain in the House.
Now a new coalition of pressure groups, called Americans for Workplace Opportunity, is launching today and taking advantage of the lessons learned from state-level fights over marriage equality. We've won quite a few of those recently.
The first lesson appears to be that disparate LGBT advocacy groups and allies are most effective when working together. From Minnesota to Maine, coalitions have made a real difference when they combined resources and agreed on one cohesive message. This new ENDA-focused pressure group includes more than 90 well-known organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, American Civil Liberties Union, the Task Force, and National Center for Transgender Equality.
The second lesson is that influence costs money. The coalition announced today that it will spend $2 million persuading senators who haven't yet supported ENDA. A target list includes both Republicans and Democrats in states such as Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
But the most important lesson, if you ask me, is that polls matter. One of the most effective lobbying tools available to LGBT activists is the simple reminder that Americans are now largely on our side. Check the polls in your district, congressman. You might be surprised if you haven't taken the public's pulse in a while.
Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, activists are looking at you. The new coalition is touting a July survey conducted by pollsters Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (Democratic) and Target Point Consulting (Republican). Their poll found that 82% of Arkansans mistakenly believe it is already illegal under federal law to fire someone for being gay.
Folks in Arkansas are generally opposed to employment discrimination. The poll found 61% who said they support a federal law like ENDA. And that's just in Arkansas. National polls show support for ENDA breaking 70%. That's about where repeal of "don't' ask, don't tell" was before it finally passed.
Maybe all of this strategizing sounds esoteric. But these tactics might turn out to be the missing link that fixes a disconnect between Congress and what Americans already believe.
When I eventually did move to Washington and become a cog in the "Beltway media," I realized the main misstep in that plan I once outlined to the parents association back in high school was assuming I had to be in D.C. to make a difference. The Capitol is oftentimes a more appropriate stage for corporate lobbying than it is for giving anyone hell. If you want to make a principled argument, based on research, or heart-rending anecdotes, then talk to the people where you live. Elections aren't won in Washington.
For the sake of that high-schooler still in me somewhere, I believe in the old cliché that politicians don't decide their principles based on polls — at least not entirely. If every senator adhered wholly to polling, we'd have more centrists in office. No matter what the reason for re-examining a position, though, when the opinion polls begin to change, politicians will predictably start to wonder if they should too.
“No one should be fired for who they are or who they love," said Matt McTighe, the ENDA coalition's new campaign manager, in a statement. He led passage of marriage equality at the ballot box in Maine. McTighe already emphasizes that ENDA is "bipartisan" and that there exists a "supermajority of diverse Americans who believe in workplace fairness." In other words, if you want to keep your job, Senator, then you'll protect LGBT Americans from losing theirs.
LUCAS GRINDLEY is editorial director for Here Media. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband and two foster children. Contact him on Twitter @lucasgrindley.