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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
July 28, 2006

Cincinnati rights foes may not have enough signatures

Only two over the minimum, but the campaign to keep the ordinance is still on

Cincinnati--A group that wants to put the city�s new LGBT equal rights ordinance to a vote in November has only two signatures more than the minimum needed to do so.

Challenges to some of the signatures may lower the number even more, allowing the measure passed in March to take effect without an election.

The ordinance�s backers, however, are not waiting to find out. They are going ahead with their election campaign.

Its opponents, Equal Rights Not Special Rights, turned in 7,656 valid signatures for the referendum, the Hamilton County Board of Elections announced June 20.

This is two signatures over 10% of the total city votes in the last governor�s election--the number required by law to move forward with the vote.

However, ordinance supporters intend to challenge many of them for violating Ohio election law.

Cincinnati attorney Jennifer Branch, who represents the pro-ordinance Citizens to Restore Fairness, says she has counted at least 879 signatures that should be rejected because the signature gatherers changed what the voters wrote on their form.

Equal Rights Not Special Rights, formed by anti-gay crusader Phil Burress of suburban Sharonville, paid workers to gather the signatures.

Branch said she sent a letter to Cincinnati finance director Joe Gray asking him to look into the matter before he certifies the referendum for the November ballot.

ERNSR turned in 1,592 petition forms to Gray on April 14 after collecting signatures for 30 days. Before turning them in, they had the Board of Elections screen some of the forms, which they estimated had more than 14,000 signatures.

The sample showed that about half were valid signatures of Cincinnati registered voters--a trend that held when the board later examined all of them.

But that�s the only thing the Board of Elections checks. The other part of certification is making sure that the forms were completed properly and according to law.

Branch said she will ask the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court to rule the altered signature lines invalid.

However, that can�t happen until Gray decides whether or not he will send the referendum to the ballot. That decision has to be made before next Wednesday, August 2, when city council must approve his decision.

Gray did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The referendum drive stems from ERNSR�s objection to the ordinance, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity among protections from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. A dozen other Ohio cities have similar measures.

The events resemble those of 1993, when council passed a nearly identical ordinance and ERNSR convinced voters to pass Charter Article 12 invalidating it, and forcing council to repeal the part protecting gays and lesbians.

Citizens to Restore Fairness led the initiative repealing Article 12 in 2004, allowing council to pass the new ordinance.

Election campaign has begun

CRF co-chair Gary Wright said his side isn�t waiting around to see if the referendum makes it to the ballot or not.

�More signatures should be disqualified,� said Wright, �but just because they should be doesn�t mean they will be.�

CRF has begun their campaign to preserve the new ordinance in the November election, hiring Sarah Reece to serve as campaign manager. She started work on June 19.

If the campaign moves forward, more will be hired to join Reece and staffers provided by the Human Rights Campaign, People for the American Way and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Reece took leave from her post as a senior field organizer with NGLTF to direct the Cincinnati effort.

A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Reece also worked with Heights Families for Equality in 2003 to pass the Cleveland Heights domestic partner registry. She also worked as an organizer on the effort against Kentucky�s marriage ban amendment that passed in 2004.

Reece headed last year�s campaign which kept Maine�s LGBT equal rights law.

Three weeks ago, CRF moved into a new office in the Walnut Hills neighborhood.

�Folks are going to see us all over the place,� said Reece, �and already have.�

Canvassing began officially on July 1 in the Evanston neighborhood, which was chosen because it voted to keep Article 12 in 2004.

Reece said that even there, canvassers are finding that 80 percent of voters they talk to support the ordinance, and they are also finding people who want to volunteer and contribute money.

�The bad news,� said Reece, �is there is still not a big enough team.�

The 2004 effort had more than 2,000 volunteers. Reece said 500 have turned up so far for the current one, half being people of color.

Reece said another addition for this campaign will be people dedicated to organizing communities of faith in order to be sure the matter does not become another wedge issue for other campaigns.

Heading the canvassing efforts is volunteer Jill Benevides, who said canvassers have been successful because they have been good at helping neighbors understand the issue.

Benevides said that initially, many people think their 2004 vote to repeal Article 12 settled the matter of protecting LGBT people from discrimination. Still, canvassers are finding a higher percentage of support this time.

Benevides said volunteers are also finding that people are willing to invite them into their homes to talk, and offering cold drinks, which was less frequent before.

�It is so transformative and powerful to say the words �gay� and �transgender� in someone�s home sitting on their couch,� said Benevides.

Citizens to Restore Fairness can be found at www.citizenstorestorefairness.org.

 

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