Prop 8 foes slow to pick up on Mormon involvement
by Dan Aiello
In the weeks just before the November election, No on Prop 8 campaign officials say they had only just begun to know the extent of Mormon involvement in support of Proposition 8, and claim that, at the time, the issue of the Utah-based church's involvement in the California initiative "was not vote-determinative," according to internal polling conducted in the midst of the campaign.
In the months since the election, however, the extent of Mormon involvement in the same-sex marriage issue has emerged, leading some marriage equality activists to ask why the No on 8 campaign wasn't better prepared for what even church officials admit has been a focused 20-year strategy to thwart same-sex marriage.
Kim Farah, LDS spokeswoman, contends that a 1997 memo describing the Mormons' political same-sex marriage strategy for California and Hawaii, reported on by the Bay Area Reporter late last year, reflects a church position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage that has remained "highly consistent."
The involvement by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the passage of Proposition 8, which eliminated same-sex marriage in California, was unprecedented, said No on 8 officials.
The record amount of money contributed by Mormon Church members as a result of a directive issued by LDS leaders was "unprecedented in any anti-LGBT campaign – not just here in California, but in the history of our entire nation," Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California and an executive committee member of the No on 8 campaign, told the Bay Area Reporter in an e-mail.
No on 8 campaign manager Steve Smith agreed.
"I am not aware of any church that has engaged in that kind of political action ever before. Churches all the time go to their membership and ask them to vote one way or another, but never to ask for this level of involvement or contribution," said Smith.
Smith, a veteran of California politics and a principal with Dewey Square, a political consulting firm, warned, "I think it bodes incredibly ill for the future of politics for any church to involve itself in an issue like this, the way the Mormons did."
"The Mormon Church's involvement in California politics is not altogether new, but this degree of involvement of any church in a constitutional amendment in this state is unprecedented, especially in the mobilization of a grassroots army," Marriage Equality USA media director Molly McKay told the B.A.R. "I think it's fair to say that the Mormon Church pulled out all the stops this time and was not going to be content until its religious doctrine was enshrined in our state constitution."
Recent campaign finance records released by the Yes on 8 campaign show that the church spent about $190,000 in fighting same-sex marriage. Hundreds of Mormon Church members from California and elsewhere also contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the campaign after being asked to do so in a letter sent from high-ranking LDS officials last summer.
But the Yes on 8 campaign noted that lots of donors to No on 8 were also from outside California. Campaign manager Frank Schubert was asked why the campaign felt the need to raise money from people in Utah and elsewhere.
"Are you kidding me? The No [on 8] campaign raised tens of millions outside of California," Schubert wrote in an e-mail. "This was a national campaign on both sides. We raised money wherever we could find it, as did the other side."
Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the religious watchdog group Freedom from Religion Foundation, believes Smith's concern about religious involvement in political campaigns is justified.
"Churches do not have to fill out a 990 form like we do as a 501(c)3, nonprofit organization," Gaylor told the B.A.R. Gaylor said that lack of transparency in reporting allows religious organizations to disguise or hide the level of their contributions to a campaign or candidate, keeping the public in the dark about just who's backing the issue.
Last week's B.A.R. article examined the Mormon Church's role in Hawaii in the 1990s during that state's same-sex marriage battle; a new push for civil unions is now making its way through the legislature in that state. In the 1990s, the church established a front group, Hawaii's Future Today, that to the public appeared to be a "grassroots" effort to protect the definition of marriage.
Gaylor believes the LDS involvement in Proposition 8 "crossed the line," and is the best example of why increasingly politicized church organizations should lose their tax-exempt, non-reporting status.
"Every single news story has pointed out that [the marriage equality battle] is a religious, not a secular fight, so every time it's an unequal battle," Gaylor said.
A complaint over the Mormon Church's involvement with the Prop 8 fight, filed by Fred Karger of Californians Against Hate, is currently under review by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission.
Schubert was critical of the FPPC complaint and Karger's group.
"This is a hate group whose purpose is to harass supporters of traditional marriage," Schubert said. "Their complaint is without merit. The LDS church has filed all appropriate information with the FPPC. They spent approximately $190,000 in in-kind contributions. They made no cash contributions."
Blast from the past
Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a member of the No on 8 executive committee, grew up Mormon in Utah and was the first female staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. Her history has led some in the LGBT community to ask why the No on 8 campaign didn't better anticipate her former church's actions.
"I knew the church would be involved and told Steve that they would be a significant force – especially after the [LDS] president's letter in June that made it clear they were going to pull out all the stops," Kendell said. "They put in likely 70 percent of the Prop 22 money and very likely the same percentage with Prop 8."
While Kendell's comments appear to indicate the LDS involvement in Prop 8 was proportionately comparable to its support of Prop 22, she claimed church members' overall financial contribution to Prop 8 surprised the campaign.
"I think we all were stunned at just how muscular the church's role was," Kendell said. "I would not have imagined that they could have raised $20-$25 million." Kendell qualified her comment, referring to the recent unearthing of documents detailing nearly two decades of Mormon involvement in the issue. "Keep in mind we did not know at the time just how deep and strategic and all-encompassing they had been on this issue for over a decade. If we had known that, it would have had some impact perhaps – but most of the yes votes were from folks who were all too happy to have the church take the lead."
What was and wasn't known
No on 8's Smith admits that he became aware of the Mormon factor late.
"We began only to understand in mid-summer how heavily involved the Mormons were – not until the October 5 financial report – and that was very late," he said.
Smith said he discovered the Mormons were involved after asking an old friend for help. "I have a good friend who grew up Mormon and he, when I started to get suspicious, I asked him if he could recognize the names of other Mormon families [from his ward] and he said yes. So I pulled the donor list from the Zip code he grew up in southern California, and he confirmed that most of it came from Mormons."
Smith was suspicious both of the donation amounts and the timing.
"The way they did it, and I'm not sure if they planned it this way, but it certainly worked out this way, was that in late July, early August at the latest, [the Yes on 8 campaign] started buying media at a rate that showed they had to be out-fundraising us," he said. But Smith claimed that up until then, the financial reports did not reflect that level of fundraising for Yes on 8.
What Smith said the No on 8 campaign learned October 5 was that the vast majority of Mormon contributions were in the amount of "$750 to just under $1,000, so a lot of these contributions weren't being reported, because they didn't have to, and it wasn't until October 5 that we learned the extent" of the influx of money from Mormons.
"We were expecting to be behind by $2 to $3 million, but we found out we were behind by over $10 million," Smith said.
The B.A.R. found that two Mormon elders directly involved in promoting the LDS position, Richard "Dick" Wirthlin and Whitney Clayton, made individual contributions from California addresses totaling $901 and $500, respectively.
Smith noticed differences between the Prop 8 campaign and the Proposition 22 campaign in 2000 in California. In that election, voters overwhelmingly approved the initiative that defined marriage as between one man and one woman in the state's family code.
"With Prop 22 they bussed in thousands and thousands and thousands of volunteers," he noted. "In this case the Mormons chose to hide their involvement. What you can attribute that to is either they thought it would be more effective, or they were embarrassed about what they were doing."
Even before Smith became aware of the number of Mormon donations coming in, he said he knew of some involvement, enough that the No on 8 campaign began asking voters if Mormon involvement in the issue mattered to them. "We were polling in late August – certainly late summer – and again in early October," asking Californians how they felt about the Mormon involvement, he said.
"There were a significant number of people who were bothered by it, a percentage – I don't recall the exact number right now – that were very much so, but it was never determinative and, to be frank, we felt we had much stronger arguments," Smith said.
Smith later declined to provide the questions asked and the percentages of respondents that found the issue troubling.
Smith made the point, however, that the extent of Mormon involvement was not fully understood at the time by either the campaign or the voters, something that is only now coming to light.
"Had we known to what extent they were involved, there may have been some sort of a cumulative effect that may have actually helped make the issue vote-determinative," Smith said.
Kendell confirmed the No on 8 campaign did poll on the Mormon issue.
"I do remember we asked that question and the results were pretty underwhelming in terms of the percentage of voters for whom it was an issue," Kendell wrote in an e-mail. "I do not remember the figure, however, and I would need full executive committee authorization to permit Steve to release the data."
Evidence of the Mormon Church's tactics was hiding in plain sight. In addition to the homosexual legalized marriage strategy memo and the Richley Crapo documents that the B.A.R. previously reported on, the B.A.R. has uncovered the transcript of the PBS religion and ethics documentary, episode 326, produced by the late Art Lord, who was NBC News' Burbank bureau chief, in which San Francisco reporter Vic Lee states that, "To gather the 700,000 signatures to get Prop 22 before the voters, [Pete] Knight's organization reportedly received $5 million from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and $350,000 from the Catholic Bishops of California."
The late state Senator William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale) was the driving force behind Prop 22 nine years ago.
Lee, who was a contributing correspondent for the show, said in an interview last month that he was not responsible for gathering the information used in the documentary.
"The research was his research," Lee said, adding that Lord "had an absolutely sterling reputation."
In the episode, LDS Elder Douglas Callister states, "We were not the institution or organization that caused this to be placed on the ballot, but once it was placed there, it became apparent that Californians would need to vote one way or the other ..."
In the Ballard memo, its author Elder Loren C. Dunn stated that the HLM strategy was to use the "referendum route" in California as passing legislation through the Statehouse would be "virtually impossible."
Farah, the LDS spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail to the B.A.R. that the PBS claim was "false," but did not respond to a request for any evidence that the Mormon Church disputed the charge when it aired in 2000.
Kendell, who was on the No on 22 executive committee, said "the Knight folks had raised around $6 million total." Regarding Lord's claim that $5 million had come from the LDS, Kendell said, "I had not heard this information, but it would not surprise me."
No on 8 campaign manager Smith, however, doubted the figure. "It wouldn't have taken that much to qualify the initiative. If that's true it's a huge surprise because it was not known at the time." The B.A.R. could not find corroborating evidence in reports filed with the secretary of state's office, but, according to an archives official, California does not require such reporting before an initiative qualifies for the ballot.
Susan Lord, Art's widow, told of the $5 million figure mentioned in her husband's program, said, "he was always about accuracy."
Lessons for the future
No on 8 campaign officials said some of the tactics employed by the Mormon Church in its fight to block same-sex marriage were not that different from what for-profit businesses sometimes do.
"Whether we like it or not it's not uncommon to create these kinds of organizations," No on 8's Smith said about the Mormon's creation of the front organization Hawaii's Future Today, which was described in the B.A.R. 's February 5 article. "Even corporations like Microsoft will create one to promote one idea and then Google will create one to promote the opposite. But it is not very often that a church feels it necessary to hide behind what is essentially a front group. That is uncommon. In fact, I've never seen it before."
"Teacher's unions, activists, and religious groups just don't find it necessary to hide who they are or why they're supporting a cause," Smith added.
"Wow," said Kendell. "This just goes deeper and deeper. It certainly wouldn't have hurt the campaign to have information which confirmed that the Mormon Church [had a history of engaging] in activities that were deceptive and intended to mask the extent of the church's anti-marriage activities. Given that many of those who voted for Prop 8 don't like the Mormon Church anyway, I don't know if it would have made any difference in the outcome. But certainly the public at large needs to know this.Ó
Those fighting for marriage equality said the community needs to learn from Prop 8's passage.
"My hope is to really be urging our campaign and our community to learn from this experience so that we aren't continually reinventing the wheel so that we aren't getting blindsided by the arguments, strategies, and people that keep appearing from the same group of people," said McKay. "There's absolutely no reason that a strategy can't be made that recognizes this is what they do and this is who they are."
McKay believes more should have been done during the campaign to address the Mormon factor.
"We should have been much stronger in pointing out the LDS positions: barring women from positions of power, opposing stem cell research, opposing reproductive choice, contraception, their historic exclusion of black people from their church until 1978," said McKay, who believes the campaign should have asked California's voters, "When your constitutional rights are at stake, would you rather have the Mormon Church or the California Supreme Court decide what the law requires?"
Joseph "Robb" Wirthlin and his wife Robin Wirthlin were among the LDS members the church recruited to aide the Prop 8 campaign in California, including a weeklong bus tour through the state to drive home the misleading claim that children would be taught about same-sex marriage in public schools if Prop 8 was defeated.
The story of the Wirthlins became suspect at the end of the campaign when it was learned that Robb was the grandson of LDS Apostle Joseph B. Wirthlin and the nephew of LDS elder and Prop 22 internal pollster Richard "Dick" Wirthlin.
Both Robb and Robin Wirthlin had moved into a Massachusetts school district already embroiled in a fight over same-sex marriage curriculum and, and along with another prominent LDS family, the Gals, who had moved into the district as well, joined the district's anti-bias committee. Then within a matter of weeks the Wirthlins brought a lawsuit against the school district. The federal suit was thrown out, but the Wirthlins became stars within the conservative religious communities opposed to marriage equality.
Schubert, the Yes on 8 campaign manager, told the B.A.R., that like other Mormon volunteers, "The Wirthlins were not compensated for their time." Only their airfare and hotel expenses were covered by the campaign. The new finance reports from the secretary of state's office showed the Wirthlins were paid $768 for "staff/spouse travel, lodging and meals" by the Yes on 8 campaign.
In a previous B.A.R. article on the Wirthlins, Schubert said the decision to involve the Wirthlins in the campaign was his, and his alone, though he did not say whether or not the LDS leadership offered the Wirthlins to him.
In fact, in November Schubert told the B.A.R. he wasn't certain if Elder Dick Wirthlin was retired or even still living, a comment that seems strange since Wirthlin was not only involved in polling for Mitt Romney's presidential bid, he contributed to the Yes on 8 campaign and Schubert was working intimately with Robb Wirthlin, Dick Wirthlin's great-nephew.
Same team, same playbook
Future campaigns should anticipate the involvement of the Mormon Church, whether its support is out in the open or behind a stealth organization, as well as the issues and tactics that emerged during the Prop 8 campaign, believes McKay.
"They're just watching us more closely than we're watching them and that's a mistake," she said.
The discovery of Crapo's documents confirm Farah's statement that the LDS position is a "highly consistent" and persistent Mormon strategy that has been present in every same-sex marriage battle, judicial, legislative, or political, since 1988.
"It's like we've been showing up on the field and not knowing the team we're going to be playing against," said McKay, who said people now know "it's been the same team. It's a strategic disadvantage. They have the same playbook and they keep using it."
No future campaign can justify surprise by the tenacity of the Mormon leaders in their quest to deny marriage equality to same-sex couples, or underestimate their level of commitment to the issue, believes McKay.
It is notable that the Mormon Church no longer holds to Brigham Young's "eternal edict" that homosexuals should be put to death, anymore than it still massacres settlers traveling through Utah. But the evolution of Mormon sentiment toward same-sex couples still contains the discrimination present in the words of its former leader.
To view the B.A.R. 's previous stories on the Mormon Church and Prop 8, see http://ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=3414, http://www.ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=3520, and http://ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=3689.