03/30/2012 06:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Celinda Lake: North Carolina Anti-Amendment-One Win Could Change the LGBT Rights Movement Forever

Politico has a story out Friday, March 30 about how Republicans have "come nearly full circle on same-sex politics" and have backed off from their once-vociferous and loud anti-gay rhetoric. It helps that former Bush Solicitor General Ted Olson considers the American Foundation for Equal Rights' constitutional fight to overturn Prop 8 the most important case of his prestigious conservative career. It's a far, far cry from the election-year wedge tactics of Karl Rove in 2004 (after burying his gay father) and the recently revealed national strategy proposed by the National Organization for Marriage.

The Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families, which has been battling the horrific anti-gay Amendment One on the May 8 ballot, has also picked up support from North Carolina Republicans such as former Republican mayor of Charlotte, Richard Vinroot, a one-time conservative nominee for governor, and other notable Republicans who oppose Amendment One.

But something else spectacular is happening in North Carolina: the anti-Amendment-One campaign has reframed the perennial anti-gay "kids" message. According to prominent pollster Celinda Lake, who is working with the campaign, if they can raise the money to air TV ads produced by Chad Griffin and his business partner Mark Armour, Amendment One could be stopped in North Carolina, and this could change the LGBT movement forever.

Celinda Lake allowed her conference call comments to bloggers to be on the record. I transcribed most of them for a story for Frontiers because I think this is could well be a turning point in our political maturation, and I wanted people to see the thinking that went behind it. My Frontiers story is coming out on Monday, but I decided to post it early (below) to hopefully contribute to the momentum that is happening in North Carolina. Here's an excerpt from Lake's comments:

I mean we have been in our movement on the run on "kids" for decades. And it's time to take it back. And we can. We can in tough terrain, in a tough state, and I think we can change forever the terrain in which we're operating -- and that alone, I hope, will motivate people to give money to make sure that this campaign gets that message out.

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A few months ago, when LGBT politicos considered the lay of this year's initiative and referendum landscape, as well as the reelection of Barack Obama, the Democratic effort to retain control of the Senate and retake the House, plus all the post-redistricting statewide and local elections, many looked at the horrendous Amendment One in North Carolina on May 8 and shrugged. It's the South, for heaven's sake! What chance do gays have of winning there?

A good one, long-time respected pollster Celinda Lake, who is advising the Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families, told national LGBT bloggers and reporters recently. Why? Because the poorly written constitutional amendment that recognizes only heterosexual marriage as legal would have unintended consequences that would harm children and eliminate scores of existing, hard-won laws that protect unmarried people, especially woman in domestic violence situations, Lake says.

The National Organization for Marriage has already poured $50,000 into passing Amendment One, and, according to documents ordered released by a Maine court reviewing a complaint about NOM's campaign to strip marriage rights there, NOM considers North Carolina to be integral to their overall national strategy. NOM is one of the few non-church-based groups on the anti-gay Vote for Marriage NC website. (See Peter DelVecchio's story on the NOM documents in this issue of Frontiers.)

Of particular interest is NOM's explicit strategy to divide blacks and gays and to manipulate Latinos. A section in the "Not a Civil Right Project" reads, "The strategic goal of the project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks -- two key Democratic constituencies." The idea is to recruit African-American spokespeople and then "provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots."

In the section entitled "Internationalizing the Marriage Issue: A Pan-American Strategy," NOM wants to alarm Latinos (Hispanics) that the gay effort to make marriage rights equal would force assimilation into "the dominant Anglo culture."

After considerable bad press, NOM President Brian Brown tried to push back in an email to supporters: "[I]n just a few weeks people of every race, creed and color will come together to decide the future of marriage in North Carolina. If you want to know why we stand up to the attacks, it's because I know we are speaking for so many good people like you."

But the "unintended consequences" argument used by the Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families is having an effect. On March 28 the Charlotte Observer reported that former Republican Charlotte Mayor and gubernatorial candidate Richard Vinroot joined U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers and John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, among other prominent Republicans, in opposing Amendment One.

Reacting to comments from Amendment One supporter House Speaker Thom Tillis, Vinroot told the Observer, "My reaction, was, 'My gosh, the legislature wants us to put something in the Constitution that the leader of our party -- the speaker of the House -- doesn't think will stand the test of time for more than a decade.' ... I can't imagine amending the Constitution for something he believes is that tenuous."

In a March 29 post on her famous blog Pam's House Blend on Firedoglake, lesbian blogger Pam Spaulding says of a new Public Policy poll:

This is good news in many respects. Minds are not made up in this state; they don't know just how extreme Amendment One is -- this is an education and get-out-the-vote challenge, as I've said all along. The latest from Public Policy Polling:
It may seem inconsistent that a majority supports either gay marriage or civil unions but also supports the amendment that would ban both of them. But what we find is that voters don't actually know what it does:
  • Only 31% of voters correctly identify that Amendment 1 bans both gay marriage and civil unions.
  • 28% think that it only bans gay marriage.
  • 7% think that it actually legalizes gay marriage.
  • 34% admit that they don't know exactly what the amendment does.

The poll, which came out before the media explosion around NOM's divisive documents, points out that "[w]hen voters are informed that the amendment bans both gay marriage and civil unions their tune changes quite a bit. Only 41% of voters say they'll support it knowing that, while 42% are opposed."

Spaulding and LGBT and ally bloggers nationwide have been helping raise money to get anti-Amendment-One education advertising on radio, TV, and direct mail -- to reach 34 percent of voters.

What Celinda Lake revealed in the conference call with bloggers is that Chad Griffin (of the American Foundation for Equal Rights and soon to be president of the Human Rights Campaign) and his business partner Mark Armour are producing the ads, with Liz Chatterdon producing the mail pieces.

Perhaps even more importantly, Lake says that while the campaign against Amendment One is still an "uphill" battle, if it is defeated as the first such anti-gay initiative in the nation, it will have an enormous impact on the subsequent initiative and referendum battles. Moreover, Lake said, "Honestly, if we win with the children's argument, I think it's hard to overstate the difference this would make for this movement -- as well as how everyone in this community is going to feel. It's nice to be able to stand up for all of our kids for a change."

Usually discussions with pollsters are off the record, lest the "opposition" learn the campaign's messaging and strategy. But the Families coalition feels that this "first-in-the-nation" election on May 8 is so critical that they and Lake agreed to allow her presentation to be made public. Here's much of what Celinda Lake said (edited and truncated for space):

This is an uphill fight, but we think there are a number of things that really speak to the potential that we have here.

One, we do have a powerful frame here: protecting children. As someone who has been very involved in movements (in a number of places), it is so nice to be in a place where we're seizing the offense on the children's message, rather than just dreading the day when "Two Princes" comes up on the air or whatever. We think being aggressive on this message and getting this out can change, frankly, not only the results in North Carolina but the context in which we operate in every single other state this year and beyond.

We have a very, very strong message that children being raised by unmarried parents deserve the same access to legal protections and the same access to health care benefits as children being raised by married parents. This is really an interesting state because they do see, as part of their core values system, protecting the children of the state. This is a message that has over two thirds of the voters strongly agreeing with it -- not just agreeing but strongly agreeing. Over 70 percent of the women strongly agreeing. Over 80 percent of the African American community strongly agreeing, and of course as children of unmarried parents -- very salient in the African-American community and very, very strong in our key markets -- over 60 percent agreeing in Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, and in Greensboro.

Secondly, we have the domestic violence argument, which is also quite strong. And we have 60 percent of people agreeing or being convinced by that message, domestic violence being a very salient issue in North Carolina. We've actually worked for decades with several women elected officials there who've been very visible in the domestic violence movement. North Carolina -- a funny state. Some people don't realize: North Carolina, for example, for 20 years, has had the highest proportion of working women of any state in the country. It was always passionate, for example, about equal pay laws because it had so many women working in the textile industry. So this is a state that has had more of a women's-issue dynamic to it than people have appreciated. And it has a long history of being supportive and active on domestic violence and does not want to undermine domestic violence laws, particularly for unmarried women. So that is a very, very strong issue.

The third thing is these business endorsements mattering, particularly in Charlotte. Interestingly, the economic messages didn't matter as much, but this Bank of America [opposition to Amendment One], if there's any place that Bank of America could have any more impact than Charlotte, I'd like to know it. And so those kinds of things that are happening -- very, very strong for us.

And if one of our goals is to literally consolidate the African-American community and move the African-American community our way, and then to consolidate independents and white Democrats, we have an incredible advantage here because the campaign has been so successful in getting elected officials to come out against this thing, including some Tea Partiers and some Republicans. But overwhelming, basically every Democrat has come out, obviously culminating with the president coming out.

And literally to be able to say to these voters, "This amendment is flawed. It harms people we don't want to harm. We want to protect our kids. We want to protect women from domestic violence. And literally everyone you're going to vote for today, on Election Day, has come out against this initiative. Every single person you are voting for, Ms. Democrat, Mr. Democrat, and many of the independents, every single person you're going to vote for says this is not a good idea, this is not a good amendment for our state."

I think in the end, that really carries some validation of our arguments. And that is something we haven't honestly had other places. People have been much quieter; they came out much later. They didn't want to be associated. And here it's been a much more relentless drumbeat and people raising questions from the get-go that this thing was flawed.

And the other thing: we're taking away something here. We're taking away health care benefits from our kids in North Carolina. We're taking away domestic violence protections from our unmarried women. We don't want to do that. We don't want to take things away. Why would we want to do that?

What's interesting is the history of North Carolina -- or at least the mythology that North Carolinians tell themselves about themselves -- is that they have fought domestic violence for a long time. They have some of the earliest laws.

And this is a state that really worked hard, actually, to insure all of its kids. Its SCHIP program was always very, very popular in North Carolina. And you can see, as a real core identity to primary voters, this notion that we're going to protect all our kids -- not just my kids -- we're going to protect all of our kids.... We've worked really to get it so all of our kids have these protections. We don't want to start taking it away now because their parents aren't married.

Two messages that work very well in the African-American community (and frankly, the African American community is really tough for us, so we've really got to move them): The children of unmarried parents deserve the same access to health care benefits and the same legal protections as children being raised by married parents. And that is a phenomenon that the African-American community is acutely aware of. There's multi-generations where you have grandparents raising kids -- very, very strong, and over 80 percent said they strongly agreed with that.

And then the other thing that worked in the African-American community is that our state constitution should guarantee that same legal protections to all citizens and should not single out one group to be treated differently.

Now, obviously, they didn't have gay and lesbian people in mind when they were thinking about that. They were thinking about their own racial experience. But there is a norm there, and God knows there's the validators for that norm with the ACLU's opposition and the NAACP's opposition. And I would just emphasize the NAACP's opposition, as well, and the ministers who are opposed to it. So those were the two things that were really strong in that community. The children of unmarried parents are a very familiar topic in the African-American community, and the state constitution should guarantee the same legal protections to all citizens and not single out one group to be treated differently.

The issue here is that we've got to completely change the issue terrain, and that takes money. We have winning messages. Our problem is that people, if they just go into the ballot box without being exposed to our campaign, are going to think, "Marriage is between a man and a woman. And I believe in that."

Sadly, North Carolinians, including these primary voters, are very, very strong on that value. It's a very old, very religious primary electorate. They really, firmly believe that marriage is between a man and a woman and it should stay that way. We might all wish it were different, but over three quarters of all of our groups believe that strongly.

So we had to change the issue terrain. That's the storyline in their head right now. We've got to switch it to these unintended consequences, these harms that can come and these things we don't want to do, starting out with poorly written, unintended consequences, and this is what it's going to do. So we have to completely reframe the issue, and that takes money. We can do it; I'm very, very confident in our ads and in our mail. We have a team that can deliver the emotional content that we need. But they have to have the money to do it.

[Prop 8 campaign manager Frank] Schubert's coming in. Good job, [coalition,] you scared them. The bad news is: they're scared, and they brought in their tops guns. And we know we can expect them to use children against us, and I personally think that, win or lose, we can beat them back on children. Winning, God willing, or even losing by a modest margin -- that will change this movement forever, if we can take away from them the ability to hammer and hammer and hammer us. I'll never forget in Hawaii that they started with showing little kids and dogs and implication being bestiality. Just horrific stuff.

I mean we have been, in our movement, on the run on kids for decades. And it's time to take it back. And we can. We can in tough terrain, in a tough state, and I think we can change forever the terrain in which we're operating -- and that alone, I hope, will motivate people to give money to make sure that this campaign gets that message out. Because if it starts to run on kids and then we're beaten badly, it's the worst of all worlds, because we didn't get out our message on kids, people will think, "Oh, wow. We'll never be able to win this thing on kids." And the answer is: yes, we can! We can take it back. We can take this terrain back now.

And that's the message that's going to be taken into other states. And honestly, if we win with the children's argument, I think it's hard to overstate the difference this would make for this movement, as well as how everyone in this community is going to feel. It's nice to be able to stand up for all of our kids for a change.