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This Boogeyman Gets Paid to Scare You

This Boogeyman Gets Paid to Scare You

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Scare tactics are not uncommon among political consultants. Frank Schubert, whose anti-marriage equality media work we'll likely be seeing a lot more of in the coming months, is no exception.

In print, Schubert's name is sometimes preceded by the word "mastermind" in describing the Sacramento-based strategist's role managing the 2008 Yes on 8 campaign in California, one that tapped the base fears of 7 million voters who ultimately supported the ballot measure. Religious liberty threatened, children indoctrinated -- Schubert conveyed both messages superbly in cynical TV ads. His firm's work included notorious spots that have been replicated in same-sex marriage fights in other states. One in particular, of a young girl telling her mother she had learned in school about a prince marrying a prince and how she could marry a princess, had a significant last-minute effect among undecided voters in Proposition 8.

Industry honors followed. Schubert and business partner Jeff Flint won the American Association of Political Consultants' Public Affairs Team of the Year award in 2009, and penned a victory-lap essay describing the Yes on 8 campaign as though it were on par with discovering a cure for pancreatic cancer. To be fair, success required a skilled and disciplined manager to keep diverse religious denominations and political interests on message. "I don't know how he kept that coalition of all those crazy people together. That's the miracle of that campaign," said Fred Karger, an openly gay GOP presidential candidate and perpetual antagonist of the National Organization for Marriage, one of Schubert's clients.

But the founder of Schubert Flint Public Affairs announced last week he was leaving his namesake firm, this after his marriage work defined his business and detracted from its bottom line. "I was surprised, if only for the fact that if he was going to make this break, I thought he would have done it sooner," said one political consultant. "Before 8, he had a consistent corporate client base." After? "Not so much. Something tells me I don't think he had much of a choice in making this move."

Admitting that there are "strong passions on both sides" of the marriage debate -- as though it were a baseball team rivalry rather than a civil rights battle -- Schubert acknowledged the business development problem in an email accompanying a news release on his departure. His old firm, now rebranded as FSB Core Strategies, had ceased boasting of the Prop. 8 victory, having long since scrubbed any mention from the company website's homepage.

"[B]eing involved in those issues has resulted in a reluctance by some in the general business community to hire my firm for new work," Schubert wrote. "Additionally, the media focus on my marriage work has overshadowed the work of others in the firm who are accomplishing a lot of great things for our clients."

A devout Catholic with an openly lesbian sister, Schubert wrote, "At the same time, there is a tremendous need for accomplished consultants to work on issues like marriage, life, religious liberty, and similar subjects - all issues that I care deeply about.... I have carefully and prayerfully considered the pros and cons of the conflicting paths, and I have decided to focus my work on the issues I care about."

The note was part farewell, part launch of his own new PR firm, Mission: Public Affairs, which may become the go-to anti-LGBT campaign firm for the largest raft of state ballot measures since 2006. Schubert has previously denounced "fanning hostility" -- this in response to NOM's recently-released trove of internal documents that detail race-baiting tactics -- but said he's not above old-fashioned wedge politics in the marriage campaigns ahead.

The first stop is North Carolina's Amendment One on May 8. A super-DOMA referendum that goes far beyond Prop. 8, the referendum would prohibit same-sex marriages as well as any other form of legal relationship recognition for gay and lesbian couples, such as civil unions and domestic partnerships.

So far, Schubert hasn't been a very public figure there, though he mentioned in an interview with the Sacramento Bee last week that he would soon be traveling to the state for the campaign. And he appears to be working closely with the NOM-backed Vote for Marriage NC, according to an email obtained by The Advocate. The March 3 message from Vote for Marriage NC executive director Tami Fitzgerald about a $45,000-donor includes Schubert among the coalition's executive committee member addressees.

Ads preaching the wisdom of Amendment One have Schubert's aesthetic and strategic touch, with Fitzgerald and conservative faith leaders sounding the warning bells of religious liberty and, as Schubert put it in 2009, admonitions of "how this new 'fundamental right' would be inculcated in young children."

"The people who are going to be most impacted are going to be our children," Fitzgerald said in a recent online video. "If we were to destroy that structure behind marriage we would be creating more homes that have children who grow up without either a mom or a dad." (Discussion on what real harm Amendment One would do to children of gay couples in the state doesn't quite fit the video's faux-inspirational arc, with a soundtrack borrowed from the more contemplative moments of HBO's Six Feet Under, and is thus omitted.)

In Minnesota, where voters will decide a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in November, Schubert has already been involved as well. According to a 2011 campaign finance report, the anti-marriage equality group Minnesota for Marriage paid his former firm about $111,000 during the months of October through December.

As of the most recent disclosure reports, Minnesota for Marriage counts only seven individual donors to the campaign, all from the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, said Kate Brickman, a spokeswoman for Minnesotans United for All Families, which is working to defeat the antigay amendment. "We have the support of more than 10,000 Minnesota donors, coming from every county in Minnesota," Brickman said. "Our opponents continue to rely heavily on non-Minnesota interest groups."

The impending rematch in Maine, where Schubert managed a successful 2009 ballot initiative campaign that repealed a marriage equality law with media tactics grafted from Prop. 8, hasn't yet begun in earnest. Marriage equality advocates have built an extensive education campaign in the state and see poll numbers in their favor, but their opponents are thus far keeping a low profile in a state where NOM fought vigorously in court against campaign disclosure laws.

The court documents recently unsealed from that lawsuit showed NOM's fondness for Schubert's media work and its planned future reliance on his firm to execute national strategy. According to a December 2009 internal memo, NOM tapped Schubert Flint to manage its Stand for Marriage D.C. campaign to repeal marriage equality in the nation's capital, an effort estimated to cost $6 million at the time, though it has since failed to bear any fruit (the latest news from the campaign's website dates back to well more than two years). NOM paid Schubert Flint $155,000 in campaign management fees in Maine, and planned for his firm to create Spanish-language ads "to make opposition to gay marriage an identity marker, a badge of youth rebellion to conformist assimilation to the bad side of 'Anglo' culture."

Schubert and NOM's relationship remains cozy. On news of Schubert's new political shop last week, NOM enthused on its blog, "One small step for a man -- one giant leap for life, marriage and religious liberty!"

But will Schubert's bag of tricks work in 2012? The Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families has laid out in no uncertain terms how Amendment One is disastrous to child welfare. Their main points, via the coalition's website:

-A child of an unmarried parent could lose their health care and prescription drug coverage, putting the child's health at risk.

-A child could be taken away from a committed parent who has loved them their entire life if something happens to the other parent.

-It threatens existing child custody and visitation rights that are designed to protect the best interests of a child.

In other states, Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, is circumspect about how marriage equality advocates plan to counteract misleading, think-of-the-children ads that proved so effective in previous campaigns, other than to say that LGBT advocates and their allies are not going to be caught off guard. "We know Frank's playbook, and this isn't 2008," Solomon said. The ground has shifted, he explained, pointing to multiple national polls that show accelerating support for marriage equality.

The Courage Campaign's Rick Jacobs, who maintained an amusing repartee with Schubert during the Proposition 8 trial, where the two sat in the same overflow courtroom, said Schubert's tactics at this stage amount to "a cookie-cutter approach to marriage fights. He tries to scare people into believing that if gays and lesbians are treated as people, their kids will catch the gay."

"He hasn't many tools left in the drawer," Jacobs added. "Fear has always worked for him. That's why the more we can tell stories, the more we can show people, not tell them, that we are people with kids and love and life, the more his scare tactics will fall flat."

A fellow consultant said of Schubert's new anti-marriage equality venture, "I don't know how big of business there could possibly be here. But knowing him, he's going to attempt to corral all of it."

Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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