Online extra: Political Notes: Gay politicians need to lead Prop 8 repeal campaign, say advocates

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Monday June 1, 2009
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During last year's failed No on 8 campaign, the state's elected LGBT politicians were largely ignored by those running the effort to defeat the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in California.

Instead, lawyers, lobbyists, and advocates working for numerous LGBT organizations headed up the campaign committee and deferred many decisions on strategy to the straight political consultants they had hired. In the campaign's television ads straight allies had a more prominent role than LGBT people, from Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and the state's superintendent of schools, Jack O'Connell to actor Samuel L. Jackson.

Last year, rather than approach the LGBT Legislative Caucus to work on the No on 8 fight, openly gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said that "quite to the contrary; my elected colleagues and I were pretty much, how shall I say it, less than encouraged to participate."

The lack of prominence given to LGBT lawmakers was in stark contrast to the 1978 fight to defeat Prop 6, known as the Briggs initiative, which would have banned gays from working in public schools had it passed. The late gay Supervisor Harvey Milk was the public face of the winning campaign, traveling across the state doing interviews and debates about the homophobic ballot measure.

In the eyes of many people that Political Notebook contacted over the last several weeks, the cold shoulder given to the out lawmakers during the fight against Prop 8 was a fatal error. It is a mistake they do not want to see repeated as the community now turns its attention to repealing Prop 8 at the ballot box due to the state Supreme Court's ruling last week that it was validly enacted by voters in November.

"The good news is that there is a deep reservoir of experienced political leadership in the LGBT community. There are a number of individuals who know how to wage tough campaigns and win them," said political consultant Eric Jaye, a straight man who is working on San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom 's gubernatorial bid. "There are several generations of elected LGBT officials who led movements before and been through tough fights who are stepping forward even more now to move this movement forward. There are also straight allies like Mayor Newsom and many others who will do whatever they are asked to do."

Rafael Mandelman, president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, said he hopes the repeal fight mirrors the Obama presidential campaign from last year, where several "super smart" political operatives oversaw the overall strategy but allowed any and all grassroots efforts to be launched across the country by people in their own communities.

"It makes sense to have some politically savvy people at the top than what we did last time," he said. "We have a vast reservoir of formerly elected queers and those people could do it."

Even Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who was part of the leadership of the No on 8 executive committee, says it is a role she does not believe she should repeat during the repeal fight.

"I am not in a leadership position and won't be in any future campaign. It is not the best role for NCLR or for me to play," said Kendell.

As for designating an out politician to be in charge of the next campaign, Kendell was skeptical if that would be the right approach.

"I am not certain one person in a state like California can play that role. It needs to be an enormous grassroots campaign and some number of campaign professionals in charge," she said.

Asked if he would be willing to step aside and let others lead the repeal effort, Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors, whose management of the No on 8 effort has been severely attacked since the measure passed, did not rule it out.

"We are willing to do whatever it takes to win back marriage," said Kors.

But a number of LGBT activists have jumped ship from working with EQCA to banding together with the Courage Campaign to work on the repeal effort. AIDS quilt founder Cleve Jones, a close friend of Milk's, is lending his support to the progressive group, which he sees as offering the best strategy for overturning Prop 8.

"EQCA, of course, will do everything they can to rebuild their credibility. I don't think it is realistic to think they will pack up their tents and go away," said Jones. "They are going to do their best to get it right this time. It remains to be seen if that will be effective."

In addition to having grassroots activists on the ground, the next campaign can draw from a treasure trove of current and former LGBT politicians who have experienced a rough and tumble political fight personally, such as former lesbian state Senators Carole Migden and Sheila Kuehl or former state Assemblyman John Laird , an out gay man, to be its figurehead or public face.

Migden told the Notebook that she agrees that the next campaign needs more politically savvy leaders. While she is willing to do whatever is asked of her, she said that the community must ultimately be the one to decide how the repeal effort is structured.

"I wholeheartedly believe we will win in November 2010 and I hope the campaign is run by a thoughtful composition of decision-makers. Whoever the stakeholders are, it is not up to me to prescribe," said Migden. "It is sort of not a proprietary issue anymore; it is a public domain issue. In the smaller view I think folks who made the decisions last time have admitted some mistakes and have been willing to step aside from pivotal decision making."

Of course, gay Assemblymen John Perez (D-Los Angeles) and Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) could also be tapped, but both men will be up for re-election next year.

Two logical people who could be the public face for the repeal effort, as well as oversee management of the campaign, are Leno and his colleague in the state Senate, out lesbian Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego). They are the highest-ranking out politicians in the state and neither will be on the November 2010 ballot, as Leno was just elected last year and Kehoe isn't termed out until 2012.

"This will be a completely different election, but if people see a role for me to play, I am there to play it," said Leno.

He cautioned, though, that unlike during Milk's day, when he was the lone out elected politician in the state, there are countless LGBT people serving in office and the gay community itself is extremely diverse. Leno doubted having one person lead the repeal effort would work.

"One of the big differences �" and people need to think about this �" between now and 1978 was we didn't have the community infrastructure we have now with all the different advocacy groups," said Leno.

Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club Co-Chair Susan B. Christian raised the same points and said there is not the sole figure like Milk who can rally the LGBT community these days.

"I have thought about this. But once again the problem is, who?" she said. "Who in our community has the political depth, the cultural depth, and who understands where we are in this moment in this time and not where we were during" the Stonewall uprising 40 years ago this month or Milk's time in the 1970s.

"Who has the broad enough vision to understand that this fight is not just about marriage but about achieving equality across the board?" asked Christian.

There is no question, added Christian, that new leadership is needed for the repeal fight. But she said there is no evidence yet of that happening and groups like EQCA and the Courage Campaign need to clearly state what changes will be made.

"I think we all wonder, obviously, the same thing. The first question we all need to ask is what will be different if you are leading this? And is the Courage Campaign really any different than an organization like EQCA?" asked Christian. "They are trying to lead and aggregate power to themselves, which is what organizations do. They need to explain to us why they should be leading us."


And now for something completely different

At the annual Milk Club dinner last Thursday, May 28, Ammiano put his comedic skills to good use on stage and delighted the audience of more than 250 people with several zingers.

He said he was late to the event because he was in Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's famed smoking tent at the state Capitol in Sacramento "redecorating a little, putting a, oh, a bong here and some disco balls here."

He also thanked the six justices on the state Supreme Court for allowing their majority opinion upholding Prop 8 to be written by Miss California USA Carrie Prejean. Prejean, of course, became a media sensation in April for saying she doesn't believe in same-sex marriages during the Miss USA Pageant.

And when Terrrie Frye failed to come on stage to receive the club's Volunteer of the Year Award �" she was in the bathroom �" Ammiano quipped that the medical marijuana supporter was outside smoking and that she is a "real grassroots organizer."

In fact, Ammiano said that during Obama's run for president last year, "Terrrie always said, 'Yes we cannabis," riffing on his campaign slogan of "Yes We Can."

For more coverage of this year's Milk Club dinner, which honored its female leaders, check out this week's issue of the Bay Area Reporter.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @

Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail [email protected]