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February 13 , 2009

Two groups now working to save Cleveland partner registry

Cleveland--By the time Cleveland’s domestic partner registry hits the ballot next fall, there will be two separate campaigns working to save it.

Rifts over campaign strategy and personality clashes have divided Cleveland Families Count, which seeks to preserve the registry. Part of that group has left and is forming a second campaign that is yet unnamed.

The registry, passed by city council on December 8 and signed two days later by Mayor Frank Jackson, was immediately attacked by anti-gay ministers and lay people. They began collecting petition signatures to force the measure onto the ballot, where they hope voters will repeal it.

Cleveland Families Count, formed in December, now is composed mainly of the people that lobbied city council last year to pass the registry.

The group forming the second campaign says that the lobby group did not anticipate the backlash and was unprepared for it.

Their second criticism is that Cleveland Families Count insisted on putting resources and energy into an attempt to negotiate the anti-registry effort away, halting the campaign and wasting time.

The negotiations, in a pair of January meetings with the Call and Post editorial board and the board of the NAACP, were not successful. Rev. C. Jay Matthews of Mount Sinai Baptist Church, who is leading the attempt to repeal the registry, told the Gay People’s Chronicle on January 27 that his group is not going to stop, and that they expect to have their petitions completed by the end of this month.

The initiative to repeal the registry is likely to be on the ballot in September or November.

The measure, similar to ones in Toledo and Cleveland Heights, allows unmarried couples, both same and opposite-sex, to register with the city and receive documentation of their relationship. It grants no rights or responsibilities, but will be helpful in gaining benefits such as health coverage from private employers.

If Cleveland voters repeal it, the move could send a chill across Ohio. Other cities, including Columbus, are considering registries of their own. A repeal will also make LGBT equal rights laws more difficult to pass in other areas, such as employment non-discrimination.

The last time a city ballot initiative was used in Ohio to quash LGBT equality was Cincinnati’s Charter Article 12, passed in 1993. It took eleven years for voters to repeal it. A pair of referenda in 1989 and 1990 repealed sexual-orientation equal rights laws in Athens and Wooster; the latter one has never been restored.

Ohio’s constitutional ban on marriage and civil unions, passed by voters as Issue 1 just over four years ago, has also slowed progress and spawned lawsuits to protect LGBT families and their children.

Other anti-gay groups are joining Matthews’ campaign, which is called the Cleveland Coalition of Churches.

The American Family Foundation was the latest to weigh in with a January 30 rally at Matthews’ church to train campaign volunteers. The Alabama foundation’s  mission is “To help spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the unsaved of the world, focusing on the family for this endeavor.”

Cleveland Families Count is now comprised of Equality Ohio director Lynne Bowman, Cleveland LGBT Center director Sue Doerfer, Cleveland Stonewall Democrats president Keli Zehnder, civil rights attorney Leslye Huff, TransFamily director Jacob Nash, activist and campaign strategist John Farina, African American LGBT journalist Sherry Bowman and People of All Colors Together co-chair Kevin Calhoun, with Mike Schuenemeyer of the United Church of Christ’s National LGBT Office and Brian Royer, Northeast Ohio Field Director for America Votes.

“The split is divisive and disruptive,” said Doerfer. “It’s bad for the LGBT community. It makes us look like we don’t know what we’re doing.”

“It’s a personality problem, mostly it is,” Doerfer said, stressing that the rift is over strategy, not goals.

The other group is comprised partly of people who were involved in Heights Families for Equality, the group that organized the 2003 initiative to create the Cleveland Heights partner registry that Cleveland is copying. Others in the group come from the field operation of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

David Caldwell, who led the Cleveland Heights registry campaign, agreed to speak for the group. Others spoke off the record, indicating that once their campaign is organized, they will go on the record, too.

“We have a group of people with lobbying experience, and a group of people with campaign experience,” Caldwell said. “The lobbyists are insisting that they should run the campaign. We don’t think that’s the best outcome for the community.”

The campaign tactic in contention is canvassing neighborhoods to identify supportive voters and more campaign volunteers, and also to raise funds, and how much this should be done in relation to other campaign methods.

The only two successful pro-LGBT campaigns in Ohio have been based on voter identification canvassing. Those are the Cleveland Heights registry and the Cincinnati campaign to repeal Article 12 a year later.

Caldwell is a nationally known expert on the technique and has worked with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force on campaigns in other states, including Florida and Maine. A professional software designer, Caldwell created a system to manage the campaigns and the data they create.

“This community needs a better campaign than they know how to run,” said Caldwell, “and they [Cleveland Families Count] are not going to let us run that campaign.”

“It still needs done,” Caldwell said, “and we’re going to let our work speak for itself.”

As soon as Matthews announced his intent to repeal the registry, Caldwell and others started canvassing and organizing phone banks. Volunteer turnout was reportedly strong and growing.

The tension between the groups started heating up when Bowman and Doerfer moved the location of a December 21 canvass after LGBT faith leaders in the meeting of Cleveland Families Count  expressed concerns that canvassing the Sunday before Christmas was not a good idea. “We compromised and ended up canvassing in Jay Westbrook’s ward around the Clifton area because of the perceived high number of LGBT and other progressive people who live in the neighborhood,” Doerfer recalled.

 A January 18 canvass was canceled with the hope that suspending the campaign would make it easier for NAACP chair George Forbes to convince Matthews to call off the petitioners.

Doerfer canceled a third canvass, which was to be in a predominately black neighborhood on February 8, due to lack of volunteers.

Doerfer said her group agrees with the need to canvass, but said Caldwell thinks “everything else is basically easy and useless,” and he doesn’t value “other work like meetings with block clubs and media.”

Doerfer said Cleveland Families Count is planning a rally May 7 to celebrate the registry’s opening.

Caldwell and Doerfer describe a February 4 meeting to reconcile the factions differently. What’s clear is that there are differences over how much time should be spent on each campaign activity and who should decide how resources are allocated.

Caldwell is also critical of Cleveland Families Count’s fundraising. It is generally agreed that the citywide campaign will cost as much as $1 million.

So far, according to Doerfer, the group has between $2,000 and $2,500.

Doerfer acknowledged that the Cleveland Families Count campaign could be the smaller of the two efforts.

“The goal is to protect the registry,” Doerfer said. “If they can do it without assistance, that’s awesome.”

Caldwell said his group is looking beyond protecting the registry.

“No Cleveland LGBT group has voters as its focus,” Caldwell said. “We think we need one in order to succeed as a movement. Not just for this crisis. You can’t repeal Issue 1 without voters.”

Cleveland Families Count can be contacted through

Caldwell can be reached at


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