When Jo Deutsch and Kathryn Lehman are en route to Capitol Hill for meetings with Republicans, they find it best to avoid certain conversations. The debt ceiling is off the table. So are their respective political resumes -- one has worked for Barbara Boxer, the other Newt Gingrich. In fact, the two lobbyists could not be more divergent on most issues -- except repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
DOMA, which House Republican leadership is defending in several legal challenges, is a deeply personal issue for Lehman, because 15 years ago, she helped to write it.
"We're not here to agree on everything. Just one thing," said Lehman, sitting at a massive circular conference table during a recent interview at lobbying firm Holland & Knight's D.C. office on Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Though, I found out over the weekend that you like Harry Potter books," Deutsch points out with a broad smile. "So there are two things we have in common." Deutsch is a liberal Democrat and earlier this year became the federal director of Freedom to Marry, the organization founded by marriage equality movement "godfather" Evan Wolfson. A Smith College graduate, she has been a supporter of the National Organization for Women since junior high and has devoted decades of her career to lobbying for unions.
Deutsch and her partner, Teresa Williams, have been together for 28 years and have three children. However improbable legislative repeal of DOMA is in the near future, Deutsch's professional raison d'etre,as Freedom to Marry national campaign director Marc Solomon sees it, "is to make our strongest case in D.C. with every influential player. Members of Congress, political operatives, the press corps -- you name it."
And by hiring Lehman, the organization is taking a page out of the playbook from Proposition 8 opponents, who hired polar opposites Ted Olson and David Boies to make a court win happen.
Lehman, who has a law degree from the Catholic University of America, joined Holland & Knight in 2005 after working for a who's who of GOP lawmakers -- Gingrich, Tom "The Hammer" DeLay, Dennis Hastert, and Deborah Pryce among them. As The Hill noted in November, the Republicans' takeover of the House in the 2010 midterm election has only raised her lobbying profile in Washington.
When DOMA was being written in 1996, Lehman was chief counsel for the House Subcommittee on the Constitution for former chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois. She oversaw the execution of all the subcommittee's work, including the drafting and passage of DOMA. At the time, the right to marry for gay people existed nowhere on Earth, yet a court case in Hawaii was stoking both homophobia and fear that states could be forced to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.
When the legislation was drafted and debated in committee, Lehman was not out of the closet (not out to even herself, she said). "I have to say I do recall vividly sitting there, and listening to Barney Frank, who was the ranking member of the subcommittee during the hearings. And Barney's saying, I just don't understand how if I'm in a loving, committed relationship with my partner, how it hurts somebody else's marriage," she said. "I remember thinking at the time, Yeah, I'm not sure about that, either."
Lehman isn't the only one involved at the time who's had a change of heart. Rep. Bob Barr, the bill's original sponsor, now supports its repeal, arguing that DOMA is "neither meeting the principles of federalism it was supposed to, nor is its impact limited to federal law," as he wrote in a 2009 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.
"I'm not an activist personality. I've been a staffer my whole career," Lehman explained of her new involvement in lobbying for the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA. "It's not a secret that I'm gay, it's not a secret that [Lehman's partner] Julie [Conway] and I have been together for seven years. ... But I really felt like it was time to step up, to step out. And I've recognized the work of people who I don't really agree with politically in the gay and lesbian community, but who have done a lot of work to make my life better."
This spring, Lehman joined forces with Freedom to Marry's Deutsch on the recommendation of Campbell Spencer, a vice president at public affairs firm DCI group who previously worked as Midwest regional director in the Obama White House's Office of Political Affairs. Spencer describes Lehman as a well-respected lobbyist with the key Hill relationships needed to get in the door. What's more, "She has this transformational narrative," Spencer said. "She can tell a story of growth and evolution, which is a story a lot of folks can relate to and understand."
Deutsch covers Freedom to Marry's lobbying efforts alone when it's time to talk with Democratic lawmakers. But she and Lehman work together on the GOP side and are usually joined by Log Cabin Republicans executive director R. Clarke Cooper in meetings.
Though some GOP presidential candidates seem to think otherwise, an anti-gay marriage position is not a winning electoral strategy, Deutsch and Lehman argue, and it's a clear turn-off to the pivotal independent voters. For starters, six states and the District of Columbia already allow same-sex marriages and have not seen the disastrous societal effects that anti-marriage equality forces continue to predict. Multiple national polls analyzed in a July Freedom to Marry report by George W. Bush pollster Jan van Lohuizen and Obama campaign adviser Joel Benenson indicate that support for marriage equality not only is growing but also has accelerated significantly in recent years.
The conversations with members and high-level staffers are often as much about rallying their support for repeal as they are about educating those who have not considered the devastating effects of DOMA on gay couples (lack of health care benefits, immigration sponsorship rights, and tax advantages being among them).
As Cooper, an Army reserve captain, explains in meetings, the recent repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" will only further highlight DOMA's consequences.
"I think that on a very real level, they have not heard this before from anyone," Deutsch said. "Hearing it from Kathryn and hearing it from Clarke, it's a rude awakening. In almost every conversation, at some point the member will say, 'But I really still do believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.' But what has fascinated me is that in no office have they said, 'Well, can't we just go the civil union route?' No one has brought up civil unions. It's a vehicle, an out, that you can take to get away from the marriage piece, and no one's going that route."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida may not have been the first Republican to conclude that DOMA has to go, but she was the first one bold enough to step forward and cosponsor the bill to repeal it. Last month, a few days after she released prepared remarks written for a Log Cabin awards dinner in which she stated that "defining marriage is not part" of the federal government's role (she did not ultimately give the speech), Ros-Lehtinen became the 125th cosponsor of the House bill, introduced by New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler. (California senator Dianne Feinstein is the Senate sponsor.) "I voted against the constitutional amendment defining marriage [in 2006], so I'm pleased to cosponsor the repeal of DOMA and work with my colleagues on marriage equality," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.
The most senior female Republican House member, Ros-Lehtinen has stepped out on LGBT issues before, but never on one this divisive.
"I suspect that Ileana's cosponsorship of the repeal legislation may be a catalyst for some other [Republicans] to support it," former congressman Barr wrote in an email response.
That's certainly what Lehman and Deutsch are hoping.
Deutsch, Cooper, and Torrey Shearer, a colleague of Lehman's at Holland & Knight, had met with Ros-Lehtinen's legislative director in July. The team has visited about 15 to 20 GOP offices, in both the House and Senate. Ros-Lehtinen has been attacked by the usual suspects for her decision -- Family Research Council and National Organization for Marriage being the chief antagonists -- but response has been mostly positive. "Her role is a welcomed sign of true and rare leadership, and her change of heart on gay marriage is also a story about what our children teach us about humanity," journalist Fabiola Santiago wrote in a September op-ed for The Miami Herald.
"We've called every office that we've gone to see, to make sure they know that the door is now open, that thanks to Ileana, the water's fine. Come on in," Deutsch said. "I had a couple of good discussions [last month] from member staffs who understand that we're talking about a whole new picture now."
Those who can't see that new picture -- or won't yet support DOMA repeal even if they can -- are being lobbied to at least oppose antigay amendments to appropriations bills. In June the House passed the annual defense spending bill with several amendments that broaden the reach of DOMA in the military, including one by Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri that would bar military chaplains from acting in their official capacity to perform same-sex weddings and stop ceremonies from being performed on bases. (The Pentagon announced Friday that it would allow military chaplains to officiate the weddings anyway and that bases are "sexual orientation neutral" when it comes to private ceremonies.)
Freedom to Marry's federal program will expand into a Beltway salon series this fall and winter, featuring Democratic and Republican operatives, as well as "Third Party right-of-center think-tank leaders," according to the organization.
"On one level, it's been like anything else," Lehman said of her marriage lobbying compared to her day-to-day practice, which includes lobbying on appropriations and federal regulations. "But I just feel an obligation to educate [Republicans] on this issue, on how my views have changed. ... There's an opportunity for momentum, and we're trying to capture that opportunity to move forward."