Outside groups gird for gay marriage fight

Last modified: 1/2/2011 12:00:00 AM
The Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., has vowed to do 'whatever it takes' to repeal gay marriage in New Hampshire. Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in Boston is promising to do 'whatever it takes' to stop them.

From Massachusetts to Maine, Washington to New York, gay marriage activists have their eye on New Hampshire, where lawmakers this session will consider whether to repeal the year-old law permitting same-sex marriage.

As local activists pay homage to the idea of a 'New Hampshire discussion,' both sides are preparing for a deluge of outside money and support.

'There's national implications on the line,' said Kevin Smith, executive director of Cornerstone Action, a Manchester-based conservative advocacy group. '(Outside groups) have a vested interest.'

Mo Baxley, executive director of New Hampshire Freedom to Marry, pointed out that groups like the Washington-based National Organization for Marriage already participated in the New Hampshire elections. 'Whether we choose to or not, I think we're going to be a battleground state,' Baxley said.

Same-sex marriage was passed by a Democratic-led Legislature in 2009, mostly along party lines. Democratic Gov. John Lynch signed it into law that June, and the first couples were married Jan. 1, 2010. When the gay marriage bill was first introduced, few expected it to pass, and the stunning votes in the Legislature gave activists little time to prepare.

Now, however, the legislative calculus has flipped, with Republicans winning 19 seats in the Senate and 298 seats in the House. It seems likely that a gay marriage repeal will pass the House and Senate. The major question is whether opponents of same-sex marriage will have the two-thirds vote necessary in both chambers to override Lynch's promised veto. This time, local and national advocates have ample time to prepare their strategies.

'We've been ramping up,' Baxley said. 'I think long term the people of New Hampshire support marriage equality, and support equality period. . . . In the short term, I think we've got a battle on our hands.'

The lead organizations in the fight are likely to be Cornerstone Action and New Hampshire Freedom to Marry. Cornerstone is affiliated with a national organization - CitizenLink (formerly Focus on the Family) - which could support state efforts. But both sides are also attracting attention from other groups.

On the side of repealing gay marriage, the National Organization for Marriage spent nearly $1.5 million on campaign ads against Lynch. The day after the November election, National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown said in a press release that the organization is 'poised to start taking back territory where (gay marriage) was wrongly enacted in places like New Hampshire and Iowa. That will be the next battleground, and we are confident of victory.'

Brown said last week that the organization will continue to work closely with Cornerstone 'to make sure that the wrong of forcing same-sex marriage on New Hampshire is corrected.'

The Family Research Council also has a presence in New Hampshire, which it plans to continue. It contributed the legal maximum donation of $5,000 to Cornerstone's PAC during the elections. Tom McClusky, senior vice president of the group's policy wing, said the group has invested in making New Hampshire's Legislature more friendly to traditional marriage. 'We don't want to see that go to waste,' McClusky said.

Supporting same-sex marriage is the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay rights advocacy group. The group has been making contacts in New Hampshire and is likely to be the biggest out-of-state player here. Though spokesman Kevin Nix said the group is still developing its 2011 agenda, insiders say the group is looking for a local lobbyist.

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders staff attorney Janson Wu said the group would do 'whatever is necessary to save (same-sex) marriage' in New Hampshire.

This year, Lynch spoke at a conference of the Gill Action Fund, a group of political donors aimed at expanding gay rights, leading to speculation that Gill Action could bankroll efforts in New Hampshire. A Gill Action spokeswoman said its office was closed last week and no one was available for comment.

Maine's example

How much money and effort will be poured into the New Hampshire campaign depends on what type of bill is ultimately proposed. In Maine, which held a statewide referendum that ultimately vetoed the state's gay marriage bill, local and national activists spent more than $6 million to sway public opinion.

The anti gay marriage group there, Stand for Marriage Maine, was led by a local pastor, Bob Emrich, and representatives from the Catholic Diocese in Maine and the National Organization for Marriage. It spent between $2 million and $3 million. The group hired the same public relations firm that worked on a California referendum and got help from the Family Research Council and Family Watch International. Emrich said the National Organization for Marriage was the largest financial contributor, donating around $1.5 million that helped with TV and radio ads, staff, mailings and public relations. The Family Research Council organized rallies and helped with communications and training activists.

Meanwhile, the pro-gay marriage group, Vote No on One: Protect Maine Equality, spent more than $4 million on the referendum. The Human Rights Campaign, the ACLU, the Gill Action Fund and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force all helped out, according to campaign manager Jesse Connolly, and the campaign was funded by 24,000 individual and group donors.

When the Maine Legislature was debating gay marriage, staff made phone calls and went door to door, targeting people in certain legislative districts. Field organizers tried to persuade constituents to talk to their legislators, write letters and show up at public hearings. Once the question got on the ballot, there were TV and radio ads.

Connolly said because the national groups had fought similar battles before, they were a valuable resource. They collaborated with in-state activists and provided staff, funding and information on best practices that were used elsewhere.

A campaign on the scale of Maine's seems unlikely in New Hampshire unless an initiative ends up on the ballot, but groups could deploy some of the same strategies.

Avenues for repeal

For now, there are at least two proposed repeal bills in the Legislature and one constitutional amendment. Only the constitutional amendment has the potential to go on a statewide ballot, but not until 2012. Rep. David Bates, a Windham Republican who proposed two of the bills, said he anticipates moving forward with a repeal bill this session but perhaps not pursuing the constitutional amendment until 2012. A constitutional amendment would require a majority vote of 60 percent in the House and Senate, and a two-thirds' majority of the state's voters. The governor would not have a role.

Bates said it may not make sense to go ahead with a constitutional amendment this year, when it would not appear until 2012, and the goal of repealing gay marriage could be accomplished sooner by a law change. 'This legislation is intended to restore the marriage law, to put it back where we were four years ago,' Bates said.

Both Bates and Manchester Republican Rep. Leo Pepino, who also sponsored a repeal bill, say they believe there is popular support for repealing gay marriage. 'My phone never rang so much for a month,' Pepino said, recalling the furor when same-sex marriage was passed. 'When people have a chance to speak, they say no.'

Last year, Bates led an effort to ask voters at town meetings whether they wanted to vote on a constitutional amendment on marriage. In around 60 towns, voters approved the measure. Voters in about 30 towns defeated it and about 30 towns tabled it.

Activists on both sides acknowledge that even with Republicans holding veto-proof majorities, it is not certain that two-thirds of the lawmakers will agree to repeal gay marriage. Some libertarian Republicans are hesitant to involve the government in regulating marriage. Others say the Legislature should focus on the budget, not social issues. Many incoming House members were elected on campaigns of fiscal responsibility and have not taken a public position on gay marriage. No one in the Senate appears to be strongly championing a repeal bill, though many will likely support it.

Grassroots efforts

Since same-sex marriage passed, 975 gay couples have tied the knot, which could lead to legal difficulties if the courts are asked to determine their status should a repeal happen.

Activists on both sides say constituent input is likely to be the key to any campaign, and efforts will focus on grassroots organizing. Pro-gay marriage activists will try to find people like Jeffry Burr of Franconia. Burr and his husband got married Jan. 1 and are active in a North Country community group called Our Neighbors, Our Friends, which was started to fight the anti-gay marriage town warrant articles in March.

Burr said he believes the Legislature has more important things to worry about than repealing gay marriage, but he is prepared to testify and to be a public face for the issue.

'It doesn't make sense to me that our legislators can play political football with a population of citizens in the state, with our legal status and our rights,' Burr said.

Baxley said her group is focused on finding others who are willing to talk to their representatives. 'We're having community meetings saying here's the lay of the land, here are the steps you need to take to call your representative, to come forward, to tell your story,' Baxley said.

Similarly, Wu, of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said the organization recognizes the importance of finding families to explain to legislators and the public why gay marriage is important. 'One of the most powerful messages is having actual married families talk about how important those protections are for them and their children,' Wu said.

Smaller grassroots groups may also play a role. A Facebook page led by two New Hampshire college students committed to protesting repeal has more than 230 'friends.'

On the other side of the issue, Smith, of Cornerstone said constituent outreach will be his primary focus as well. While the National Organization for Marriage funded TV and radio ads in states that had popular votes on same-sex marriage, Brown said the strategy in New Hampshire will focus on targeting legislators.

'We'll work to support Cornerstone to ensure constituents and supporters contact their legislators and stand up for the importance of marriage,' Brown said.

In the past, the Family Research Council held conferences for pastors, activists and legislators, where it invited local and national experts and instructed activists on lobbying techniques. McClusky said the council could hold similar conferences this session. (The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, has recently labeled the FRC extremist over claims it made about gay men and lesbians. The council has responded by calling for civil debate.)

Ad war may be inevitable

Local advocates say they hope New Hampshire residents won't be overshadowed by national organizations. Former Portsmouth state representative Jim Splaine, a Democrat who sponsored the bill establishing same-sex marriage, said he hopes to see a 'conversation with New Hampshire people talking about the value of equality.'

'I'm hoping it's not going to become a battleground of outsiders,' Splaine said.

But at the same time, local groups rely on the resources provided by national organizations.

Baxley said she hopes the debate won't devolve into expensive TV ad wars. But if the vote turns out to be close, Smith said he could envision running ads across the state.

While both sides blame the other for introducing national money into the gay marriage debate, the end result is that both sides rely on it. 'We need to reach out to try to match some of the resources,' Baxley said. 'This stuff is expensive.'

And those who have been in similar positions say national attention may be impossible to avoid.

'I'd think people in New Hampshire are a lot like in Maine. They like to deal with their own business. But I don't think that will be possible,' said Emrich of Stand for Marriage Maine. 'Whatever New Hampshire does now will become the next indicator of where the momentum is. . . . When it comes up in New Hampshire, it won't be limited to New Hampshire by any means.'

(Shira Schoenberg can be reached at 369-3319 or sschoenberg@cmonitor.com.)

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