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For Arizona,
Three’s a Crowd

For Arizona,
Three’s a Crowd

Wedding_rings

All eyes are on California's battle for marriage equality, but two other states also are facing ballot initiatives this November -- and folks in John McCain's home state are starting to feel ignored.

In the 10 years since Alaska passed a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality, 25 other states have followed suit. But in 2006, Arizona voters bucked the trend, defeating a proposed amendment that would've banned same-sex marriage -- and barred unmarried straight couples from receiving domestic-partnership benefits. The win gave gay rights activists nationwide hope that they too could prevail at the ballot box.

Now that hope is being put to the test in California, Florida, and once again, Arizona, which all face ballot initiatives against same-sex marriage this election cycle. But while donations are pouring in to defeat the initiatives in the first two states, money is only trickling into Arizona's gay rights groups. Timing is partly to blame: The Arizona measure didn't qualify for the ballot until June 27, compared to June 3 in California and February 1 in Florida. But a bigger factor could be the perception that Arizona's antigay Proposition 102 is bound to win at a time when Republican John McCain, the state's senior U.S. senator, is running for president. On July 28, McCain told the Associated Press that he doesn't "believe what is decided in California should be imposed on my state of Arizona." He could very well get his wish. If donations and attention are the currency of this campaign, marriage equality advocates could be up a creek.

"We're hearing from individuals who have the money to fight these things that they're giving to California and Florida because they feel like they can win there--and are skeptical about our chances here," says Robert Tindall, a Phoenix human resources consultant and board member for the state's American Civil Liberties Union. Adds Rebecca Wininger, a member of the Phoenix chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, "To say that one fight is more important than another dismisses the other fights."

And yet that's the story the numbers tell: At press time the California campaign to defeat Proposition 8 had raised more than $7 million, while Florida's effort against Amendment 2 had brought in more than $2 million. In Arizona? Just a few thousand dollars, according to Barbara McCullough-Jones, executive director of Equality Arizona, which launched the "Vote No on Proposition 102" campaign on July 23. McCullough-Jones says she expects to raise less than half of the $1.9 million her group raised to fight the initiative in 2006.

Meanwhile, polling suggests that voters in both California and Florida have a reasonable shot at defeating their state's amendments. In a Field Poll released July 18, 51% of likely voters in California said they would vote against Prop. 8; and while a June Quinnipiac University poll indicated that a majority, 58%, of registered Florida voters favor Amendment 2, that's still shy of the 60% that's required to pass the antigay amendment. (Both Florida and Arizona already have statutes that forbid same-sex marriage, as did California before the state supreme court struck it down on May 15; Florida's Amendment 2 would also ban domestic-partnership benefits for unmarried couples.)

In Arizona, however, marriage equality opponents seem to have the edge, thanks in large part to their calculated decision to drop the domestic-partnership issue from the measure. "In 2006 people [opposed gay marriage] by about 65% to 35%, but they didn't want to deny benefits to domestic partners," says longtime Arizona pollster Bruce D. Merrill, adding that polls today show that 60% of likely Arizona voters still favor limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. So even if Equality Arizona could afford to blanket the state with anti-Prop. 102 ads, Merrill says the group would still face an uphill battle.

But to national gay rights leaders, the stakes are highest in the Golden State. Evan Wolfson, executive director of the New York City-based Freedom to Marry, compares the battle in California to Gettysburg. Although the Civil War didn't end with that bloody showdown, it was the "turning point," he says. "When we [permanently] hold the freedom to marry [in California], the arc of our movement will be dramatically changed, and everything else we're fighting for will be that much more attainable -- that much sooner."

Kate Kendell, executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, agrees. Any state where marriage equality has been won but is now threatened "would be at the top of everybody's priority list," she says. "When you add in the fact that California is a behemoth in terms of population, it's naturally going to be where resources and attention gravitate."

Furthermore, Kendell says, success in each state will depend on grassroots activism, not media coverage or donations from national gay groups: "They're going to be won or lost based on local mobilization." (At press time the Human Rights Campaign, for instance, had given a total of $675,000 to the California and Florida efforts but nothing to the fight in Arizona.) She sympathizes with the frustration in Arizona -- "It's a wonder I have any hair left," she says of her worry that folks weren't acting quickly enough in her own state. And she is encouraging NCLR members to donate to Arizona's Vote No on Proposition 102 campaign, even if it means they can't pay their annual dues to NCLR. (The group is collecting money solely to be used for California's fight.)

If there's a silver lining to Arizona's predicament, though, it's this: The national religious right groups also seem exclusively focused on California. On July 30 evangelical leaders held a conference call to whip up enthusiasm among pastors at 215 sites across the three states, but talk was dominated by California's Prop. 8, according to an account published online by People for the American Way. Charles Colson, the alleged Watergate conspirator-turned-Christian minister, called the California struggle "the Armageddon of the culture war."

In the end, gay rights activists are hoping for a hat trick, though that seems unlikely given the odds facing Arizona. But Freedom to Marry's Wolfson insists that one victory is paramount. "Holding California is an outright win," he says, whereas in Arizona and Florida "we will not have advanced -- but simply beaten back an attack." It's the difference, he says, between rising in the morning and getting out of bed: "Waking up's a good thing, but you would like to have more in your day."

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