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February 27, 2009

Cleveland registry campaign heats up

Cleveland--Two campaigns are revving up to preserve Cleveland’s domestic partner registry once it hits the ballot.

The registry, passed in December, quickly came under fire from anti-gay ministers and community activists who began collecting signatures to repeal it by voter initiative.

The group opposing the registry, called the Cleveland Coalition of Churches, is headed by Rev. C. Jay Matthews of Mount Sinai Baptist Church.

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 may also make LGBT equal rights laws more difficult to pass in other areas, such as job discrimination.

This has brought assistance for Matthews from the national anti-gay groups from as far away as Alabama.

Two campaigns have emerged to defend the registry. One is made up of known community leaders, including Cleveland LGBT Center director Sue Doerfer and Equality Ohio director Lynne Bowman.

The other is comprised of activists, many with experience running door-to-door voter identification campaigns.

Doerfer is the spokesperson for the first group, called Cleveland Families Count, which was formed in December.

She said CFC is preparing for a rally on May 7. They have also hired attorneys to check the signatures collected by Matthews’ group, and challenge any that aren’t valid.

“We have been identifying coalition partners inside and outside the LGBT community,” Doerfer said, “and attempting to educate the press.”

CFC successfully lobbied the African-American weekly Call and Post to editorialize for the registry, and for the Cleveland NAACP to pass a resolution supporting it.

Doerfer said CFC has gotten pledges from the Human Rights Campaign and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to help with developing the campaign message, training volunteers and campaign tactics.

The second group, formed earlier this month, is Ask Cleveland.

“My biggest concern is that when the registry passed in December, there were 39 weeks to September 8, now it’s just 28 weeks,” said Doug Braun of Ask Cleveland. “Time keeps ticking away.”

September 8 is the Cleveland primary election, when the registry may be on the ballot.

Braun and several others in the group were part of Heights Families for Equality, which created the Cleveland Heights registry by voter initiative in 2003. Some members came from Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, which involved canvassing at the local level.

Ask Cleveland runs its campaign under the name Keep the Registry.

It was formed because its members believed CFC was concentrating on areas they didn’t believe were productive, and not spending enough time canvassing Cleveland neighborhoods to identify voters, volunteers and donors.

In volunteer participation, Ask Cleveland is the larger campaign.

Braun, who spoke to a reporter while setting up a phone bank for 12 volunteers, said the group has been calling voters twice a week and canvassing weekly with around 25 volunteers out at a time. The Ohio City neighborhood was canvassed on February 21. Because campaigns of this type grow as canvassing brings in more volunteers, those numbers will increase.

Lisa Hazirjian, also an Ask Cleveland spokesperson, said the group has the goal of building an LGBT equal rights movement in the Cleveland area. This includes increasing the number of people working on LGBT rights and strengthening the political skills of those involved.

“The fundamental thing we are doing is asking,” said Hazirjian, “for votes, volunteers and funds. That’s where the name comes from.”

“The act of asking is central to our existence,” Hazirjian added.

Hazirjian said she attended a Lakewood screening of the film Swing State--about Lee Fisher’s 2006 campaign for lieutenant governor--and asked for volunteers.

“Half the room signed up,” Hazirjian said.

Ask Cleveland is also seeking the help of non-LGBT people.

“So many people who are not LGBT care passionately about LGBT rights,” Hazirjian said.

“Most Cleveland voters are persuadable,” she noted, “because most are not aware of the registry yet.”

“It’s a big undertaking,” Hazirjian said, “and there’s not an infinite amount of time to do the work, but we’re going to stand up and defend our rights.”

The registry is expected to be on the ballot in either September or November depending on what city council does when the petitions are filed.

Cleveland Families Count can be contacted through

Ask Cleveland can be contacted via




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