QUEER VOICES
09/13/2013 10:42 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Republican-Led Marriage Equality Campaign Called Off Amid Skepticism (UPDATE)

Earlier this summer, two Republican-backed campaigns to legalize same-sex marriage in Florida and Arizona drew the suspicion of the established gay rights community.

Equal Marriage Florida and Equal Marriage Arizona -- launched in June with the support of Gary Johnson, the libertarian nominee for president in 2012 -- sought to put a measure legalizing gay marriage on those states' ballots as early as 2014. The campaigns were the unexpected brainchild of Republican strategist Tim Mooney, a man whose previous professional accomplishments include running the 2004 campaign against marriage equality in Utah and helping to elect Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an opponent of marriage equality.

Now, after numerous national and local gay rights organizations have expressed skepticism and concern not only about the campaigns' origins, but also about their strategy, Equal Marriage Arizona has suspended its operations and Equal Marriage Florida has decided to wait until 2016 to attempt to put same-sex marriage on the ballot, according to Johnson's office.

Erin Ogletree Simpson, a former volunteer co-chair of the Arizona campaign, said she was surprised and disappointed by the response from established gay rights organizations. "We evidently stepped on some toes," Simpson said. "The local, state and national lesbian and gay advocacy organizations expressed publicly an unwillingness to support the effort, and without their support it became impossible for us to go forward. That was discouraging."

Before the group called it quits, Simpson said they had gathered around 9,000 signatures and $100,000 in donations. Despite her disappointment with Equal Marriage Arizona's early demise, she said she was encouraged by the response from local gays and lesbians with whom she spoke, and looked forward to working on another campaign to secure same-sex marriage in her state.

Equal Marriage Florida, for its part, is continuing its work to put marriage equality on the ballot, but the campaign has shifted its originally stated goal from 2014 to 2016. Vanessa Brito, who runs the campaign in Florida, did not immediately respond to request for comment.

In interviews with The Huffington Post in August, a dozen gay rights advocates from across the political spectrum expressed doubt that the campaigns could succeed, as well as skepticism about the motives behind them. This was due in part, they said, to the fact that the campaigns had been launched without prior consultation with any advocates or organizations with an established track record of legalizing same-sex marriage at the ballot box.

Mooney, who served as a consultant to both campaigns, declined numerous requests for an interview with The Huffington Post. In conversations with gay rights advocates -- and in a blog on The Huffington Post -- Mooney claimed to have had a change of heart on the issue of same-sex marriage since his work on the Utah ballot measure in 2004, which aimed to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

Simpson, who came out as gay more than a year ago, said that it was short-sighted of established gay rights organizations to push out newcomers, no matter what their prior views. "It's poor form, when someone approaches you, to cast aspersions on them and question their character," she said.

Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, a leading advocacy group devoted to legalizing same-sex marriage, was one of the strategists who questioned the Equal Marriage Florida and Arizona campaigns. However, he said, his organization does welcome newcomers and pointed to one of its recent campaigns, Young Conservatives for the Freedom To Marry.

"There's a difference between working closely with newcomers and having a political operative who is unknown to anybody, with a questionable track record, expecting the community to invest millions of dollars in a campaign," Solomon said. "We are about one thing and one thing only, and that is winning the freedom to marry as quickly as possible. That's the only lens by which we look at our involvement in specific campaigns."

Despite the setback for the initiatives, a spokesman for Johnson, Joe Hunter, said that the former New Mexico governor remains committed to the cause. "Gov. Johnson's Our America Initiative continues to talk with various marriage equality advocates around the country, with a particular eye toward forming coalitions that will bring libertarians, socially tolerant Republicans and Independents into the effort alongside the more 'traditional' marriage equality organizations who have been fighting the good fight for years," Hunter said. "We believe such a coalition is not only possible, but vital if gay marriage is to succeed at the polls beyond reliably Blue states."

UPDATE: Sept. 15 -- Although Joe Hunter, the Johnson spokesman, said that Equal Marriage Florida had shifted its focus to 2016, Vanessa Brito, who runs that campaign, maintains that 2014 is still a possibility.

"We have established that we will make a determination based on polling to be conducted in Jan. 2014," Brito wrote in an email to HuffPost. "At that point, Equal Marriage Florida will decide whether 2014 creates too high a risk for the ballot initiative. If so, we will move to 2016."

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