Will the Democrats Pony Up?

Will the Democrats Pony Up?

WASHINGTON — A few weeks ago, Jeremy Kennedy was in Washington, D.C., shaking his fund-raising cup for the campaign to defeat Amendment 1, North Carolina’s draconian, anti–marriage equality ballot measure whose fate state voters will decide in a few short months.

As campaign manager for The Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families, Kennedy, 33, had a January 13 meeting with two Democratic National Committee officials, and his pitch to them was significant. For starters, he asked that President Obama specifically speak out against the amendment, to be voted on in the May state primary election. It’s a no-brainer, he argued, in part because North Carolina, a key battleground state, will host the September Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, where the party will renominate the president. Though it already statutorily bars same-sex marriage, North Carolina is the last southern state without a constitutional amendment banning such rights.

Kennedy also wanted high-level party surrogates to record robo-calls informing North Carolina voters that Amendment 1 would not only bar same-sex couples from marriage under the state constitution but would also strip away the “most basic personal freedoms,” from medical decision-making to child custody rights. Finally, he asked the DNC to write a check for his coalition in what may be a $3 million to $5 million campaign. Kennedy declined to go on record with the actual amount but called the figure “a sizable investment.”

His request was not entirely out of left field. In 2008 the DNC gave $25,000 to a "decline to sign" campaign in an effort to keep California's Proposition 8 off the ballot. (Kennedy’s request is well north of that amount, he said.) DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told LGBT reporters at an October fund-raiser that she would “certainly consider” allocating resources in the fight against another round of ballot measures over same-sex marriage in 2012. Kennedy is from Maine, where in 2009 national Democratic inaction during a referendum to repeal a marriage law led to a drubbing for the DNC from LGBT activists when the ballot measure passed by a small margin. And with North Carolina Democratic governor Bev Perdue’s recent announcement that she would not seek a second term, Democrats have another important reason to show up for the May primary election.

DNC officials have not yet made a decision on the request, Kennedy said, though in the January meeting they made no attempts to put him off, he added.

“When you go into a meeting like this, you sometimes get the sense that they’re just giving you face time,” Kennedy said. “I didn’t get that sense at all. I got the sense that they felt that we were running an aggressive campaign that would make an impact. LGBT voters have been key to electing many Democrats across the country for years, because these are the candidates who stand up for and represent our values. Amendment 1 is in direct opposition to these values. I think we were key to getting the president elected in 2008, and I can venture to say that energizing and mobilizing LGBT people to reelect the president is just as much, if not more, important this year.”

DNC officials did not respond to several requests for comment on whether the organization intends to commit resources to state marriage battles. Clo Ewing, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, referred questions for the article to the DNC.

The GOP presidential alternative is clearly unpalatable for many gay voters. Mitt Romney, for instance, has pledged to support a federal marriage amendment, while his foundation donated to a Massachusetts group that goes so far as to advocate dangerous and thoroughly discredited “reparative therapy” for gay and lesbian individuals. But national Democrats’ failure to engage in North Carolina and other states grappling with antigay constitutional amendments could lead to a dispirited, perhaps outraged, LGBT constituency, one that has proven to be a significant fund-raising force for the Obama reelection campaign.

The North Carolina coalition likely won’t be the only group to ask for national party dollars, even as campaign operatives increasingly emphasize that the marriage equality movement is a bipartisan affair. November ballot fights are looming in Minnesota as well as Maine, where pro-equality advocates seek to restore marriage rights via the process in which they were stripped of them more than two years ago. Anti–marriage equality groups, meanwhile, have vowed to push for a referendum in Washington, where a marriage bill is on the cusp of passage. Other states, such as Maryland, could see voter referendums if lawmakers pass equality legislation.

In Minnesota, a broad coalition of progressive groups, labor unions, political groups on both sides of the aisle, and state and national LGBT organizations “has begun having national conversations” about resources, Minnesotans United for All Families spokeswoman Gia Vitali said, though she declined to provide any specifics at this point.

Among those who agree that national Democrats should contribute to fight these ballot initiatives are congressional members representing states where the battles themselves are being waged.

“What I can say is that in Minnesota, I think we’re going to win, and it would help to have DNC support on this,” Minnesota senator Al Franken told The Advocate Tuesday. “I know the DNC is focused on the White House, and I’m not sure what they have budgeted. But to have a constitutional amendment banning same-gender marriage is just wrong. To have the party as a whole involved” in the campaign, whether through get-out-the-vote efforts or financial contributions, would be a significant boost, Franken said.

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Maine congresswoman Chellie Pingree, a Democrat representing the district that includes Portland and Augusta, had, along with Maine congressional colleague Rep. Michael Michaud, asked House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi last year for assistance in getting Democratic donors involved in the campaign to restore marriage rights in her state — a request that Pelosi, the Democrats’ most prolific fund-raiser in Congress, was eager to fulfill, Pelosi recently told this magazine.

While Pingree “is not telling the DNC what they should or should not do,” spokesman Willy Ritch said Tuesday, “National Democrats — the big donors, the activists — should support the gay marriage campaign in Maine. This is an important fight” with national ramifications.

“I think if the DNC does contribute to these marriage campaigns, it’s going to be doing so to pay penance,” said Lanae Erickson, deputy director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank. “Because here they’re having to support a nominee, President Obama, who’s not pro–marriage equality, while most of the Democratic Party is now in support of marriage for same-sex couples.” The destiny of the Democratic Party and LGBT rights, Erickson argued, is intertwined.

Some state Democratic parties have already become involved. The North Carolina Democratic Party, which recently voted to officially charter the LGBT Democrats of NC among its auxiliary ranks, has pledged $5,000 to the campaign against Amendment 1. “I met with the executive director of the party, and he said, ‘We’ll do everything and anything to help you,’” Kennedy recalled. The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is among that state’s pro-equality coalition members, which also include the Log Cabin Republicans and a group called Republicans Against the Minnesota Marriage Amendment.

But some big-ticket LGBT Democratic donors say privately that national support from the DNC isn’t necessarily appropriate, despite Rep. Wasserman Schultz’s remarks last fall. The DNC’s overriding focus is on Obama’s reelection and electing Democrats; any decision to wade into highly charged state fights would depend on whether it’s judged to be in the political interest of the Obama campaign to do so. And donating to one cause may open the floodgates to requests for supporting myriad other ballot initiative campaigns affecting Democratic constituencies. “This is a good cause, and I sympathize with their plight,” said one LGBT donor of the North Carolina campaign, “but despite my personal proclivities, money is not unlimited. I don’t think it’s the DNC’s role here.”

Erickson at Third Way points out that the DNC hasn’t seen the marriage issue as outside its role in the past. Prop. 8 is exhibit A. “The question is how much money they’ll invest,” she said.

 National Stonewall Democrats executive director Jerame Davis, whose organization in 2009 urged the DNC to donate $25,000 to Maine’s No on 1 Campaign (it did not), took a middle approach to the issue. He would welcome DNC support in the marriage campaigns and said he was confident that they will be involved, but also attempted to put the focus squarely on Romney as well as national Republicans, who lobbied extensively for anti–gay marriage initiatives in President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign as part of its get-out-the-vote strategy for social conservatives in swing states such as Ohio.

Of Romney, Davis said, “It has come out recently that Romney funneled millions into the Prop. 8 fight in California via direct contributions, as well as through Bain's charitable foundation. Will he be doing the same in North Carolina, Minnesota, Washington, or any of the other states where marriage fights are on the ballot?”

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking in North Carolina. President Obama has not yet specifically condemned Amendment 1, though White House officials have repeatedly said, “The record is clear that the president has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples. The president believes strongly in stopping laws designed to take rights away.”

Democratic resources could make an impact, Kennedy said. Though recent polling shows that a solid majority of North Carolinians opposes equal marriage rights, most also don’t support a measure that would prohibit other types of relationship recognition, such as civil unions or domestic partnerships. That’s what Amendment 1 would do.

“We really believe that we can win this,” Kennedy said. “But I would not be surprised if people are deeply disappointed, and wounded, if we lose it.”

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