There were two unequivocal winners to emerge from Maine on the morning of November 4. The first was the National Organization for Marriage, a major funder of the antigay Yes on Question 1 campaign, which successfully overturned marriage equality in the state despite being outspent by opponents. And the second was Schubert Flint Public Affairs, the Sacramento, Calif.-based consulting firm NOM hired to lead its media strategy in Maine -- in large part because of Schubert Flint's success in spearheading a similar winning strategy a year ago in support of California's Proposition 8.
Headed by archconservative Maggie Gallagher, NOM has long been chalked up as a far-right activist group -- albeit a formidable one, as proven earlier this month. But Schubert Flint, founded by political strategists Frank Schubert and Jeff Flint, is more mainstream than its connection to Gallagher and her group initially suggests. In fact, the firm's relationship with at least two Fortune 500 companies -- businesses that regularly court gay and lesbian consumers and have received consistently high ratings on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index -- are of particular note, considering Schubert Flint's status as the go-to media strategist for antigay marriage initiatives.
Reynolds American, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds and maker of cigarette brands like Camel and Winston, has a longstanding relationship with Schubert Flint, hiring the firm to produce multimillion-dollar campaigns in opposition to tobacco tax hikes. In 2006, Reynolds American paid Schubert Flint $1.1 million to fight California's Proposition 86, which would have added a $2.60 excise tax to a pack of cigarettes (the payments to Schubert Flint were made through Reynolds's front group, No on Proposition 86: Californians Against Unaccountable Taxes). In July, anarticle in the Northern California newspaper Contra Costa Times about a possible state cigarette tax increase quoted Schubert Flint partner Richard Wiebe as a representative of Reynolds American, which opposed the tax hike.
Reynolds was given an 88% rating on the HRC index this year, largely for its antidiscrimination policies and gay-friendly partner benefits.
Ford Motor Co., one of 123 Fortune 500-ranked businesses to earn a perfect score from the HRC this year, contracted with a consultant from Schubert Flint as recently as May -- just six months after California voters approved Proposition 8 -- to assist in a PR campaign around the reintroduction of the Ford Fiesta to the U.S. market. A Ford press release available online lists Schubert Flint's main office number and Nancy Limon as the main contact. Limon works for Direct Impact, a communications firm hired by Ford, but she is also a senior account supervisor in Schubert Flint's Irvine, Calif., branch office. Ford also has worked in the past with Schubert Flint on its Driving Skills for Life campaign, a national teen education program.
"The LGBT community should take a good hard look at any company that's using any suppliers actively working against LGBT equality," said Justin Nelson, president and cofounder of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, of Reynolds American's and Ford's relationships with Schubert Flint. "We'd hope that when this is brought to [a company's] attention, that they'll rectify the situation."
Neither corporation indicated to The Advocate that it intended to rectify anything. Maura Payne, vice president of communications for Reynolds American, acknowledged that her company continues to work with Schubert Flint for "strategic counsel on tobacco-related issues, particularly tax increases under consideration in certain states."
"We retain suppliers like these for their expertise, not for any political ideology their employees may or may not personally hold, nor the ideologies their other clients may hold," Payne said in a statement. "We don't feel it is our right to dictate to our suppliers what other clients they should be allowed to work for."
Ford, for its part, said it was "not aware of who [Schubert Flint's] other clients are," according to Mark Truby, the company's director of global and corporate communications. "Through Direct Impact, we've engaged [Schubert Flint] to work on product and technology local PR products for Ford. ... We have no plans to change [that] at this point."
Both corporations' association with the antigay PR firm calls into question whether Reynolds American and Ford should retain such high marks on HRC's Corporate Equality Index, which rates businesses on their LGBT-friendly policies and includes criteria that a business "exhibits responsible behavior toward the LGBT community" and "does not engage in action that would undermine LGBT equality."
Daryl Herrschaft, director of the HRC Workplace Project, said that companies "should only do business with firms that reflect their own internal nondiscrimination policies. And while Ford and Reynolds American may not support the antigay work of this PR firm, their relationship sends a troubling sign to employees and customers about whether the companies truly live their inclusive nondiscrimination policies in everything that they do."
"To my knowledge," Herrschaft continued, "these companies were using this firm for services that did not relate to LGBT issues. While the companies' association with this firm shows that they need to do a better job of monitoring their suppliers' and vendors' policies so that they conform with their own values, we do not view it intentional effort to undermine LGBT equality."
Reynolds American's high marks on the corporate index have been contentious among anti-tobacco advocates in the past: The company earned a perfect score in last year's survey, though Reynolds lost points this year for its lack of a firm-wide diversity council and the absence of transgender-inclusive insurance coverage. "Reynolds American is contributing very directly to the rate of smoking among gays and lesbians," said Joseph Lee, a social research specialist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Department of Family Medicine's Tobacco Prevention and Education Program. "If people in our community are dying earlier of all these related diseases, HRC is, in a way, enabling that and making it OK."
Ford too has had a volatile relationship in recent years with both pro-gay and antigay activists. The American Family Association boycotted the company earlier in the decade for its LGBT-inclusive antidiscrimination policies and equal benefits offered, while gay activists alleged the automaker caved to conservative pressure when in 2005 it pulled ads for luxury autos from gay publications. The company asserted the decision was a cost-saving measure, and subsequently reinstated ads for Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles in gay media.
NOM, which contributed $1.8 million of the $2.5 million raised for Yes on 1's Stand for Marriage Maine, hired Schubert Flint to create a media campaign modeled largely after the firm's California ads that focused on gay marriage being taught in public schools. NOM leaders are currently looking ahead to potential gay marriage fights in New Jersey and New York, which could pass marriage legislation by year's end.
Schubert, a seasoned political strategist whose firm earned the American Association of Political Consultants' 2009 Excellence Award for Public Affairs Team of the Year, took an aggressively visible role in both the California and Maine antigay marriage campaigns -- unusual for a political strategist in state ballot initiatives.
"I've never seen a consultant become the person leading the victory lap on election night, praying and thanking God for the victory," said one consultant and election observer from Maine's Question 1 campaign. "Once you put yourself out in that position, you're locked into it. You can never be half pregnant."
Calls for comment from Schubert and Flint were not returned.