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March 9. 2012

Equality Ohio cautious on marriage measure

Columbus--Equality Ohio says they will exercise caution before endorsing a proposed ballot initiative by Freedom to Marry Ohio to amend Ohio’s constitution to allow same-sex marriage.

The statement comes after Ian James, the measure’s backer, spoke to 116 participants in the eighth annual Leadership Summit held in Columbus on March 3, which was sponsored by Equality Ohio.

“We will issue a statement soon, but we are going to wait until we hear back from more people and until the board has had a chance to discuss it to release a public statement,” said Equality Ohio director Ed Mullen.

Mullen said he expects Equality Ohio to issue the statement by March 21, adding, “I think research, deliberation and community input are critical and don’t want to issue a statement until we are comfortable that we have the necessary information.”

Equality Ohio was organized as a statewide LGBT advocacy organization in 2005 after Ohio’s marriage ban amendment was passed by voters the year before. One of the group’s purposes is to repeal the amendment. They were preparing to survey community leaders beginning March 6.

This additional caution resulted from skepticism expressed at the summit following a presentation by James.

James and a committee of five others filed 1,764 signatures and a summary of a proposed amendment with the Ohio attorney general on March 1. This is the first step to a ballot initiative to amend the Ohio Constitution.

If 1,000 of them are valid, the attorney general has ten calendar days to determine if the summary is “fair and truthful.” If it is, the petitioning committee then must collect an additional 385,253 valid signatures to send the initiative to ballot.

There is no time limit to collect the signatures, which must come from throughout the state. The Columbus Dispatch reported campaign officials saying that could happen “in November or next year.”

However, James told the summit audience he is planning for 2013.

The summary was filed by James and Andrew Murphy, Julie Driscoll, Kasey VanBuskirk, Jennifer Stack and Ben Deutschle, all of Columbus or its suburbs.

It proposes to do more than repeal the current marriage ban amendment. It would enshrine marriage between two consenting adults, regardless of gender, in the state constitution. The language also allows for religious organizations to decide which marriages they recognize and keeps in place laws about marriage that, for example, prevent siblings or other close relatives from marrying.

Another provision keeps the section of the 2004 marriage ban amendment that allows “political subdivisions not to recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals.”

Worry about too little preparation

Resistance to the amendment proposal has come about over fears that its sponsor, Freedom to Marry Ohio, has not done the necessary preliminary work, has not engaged people with expertise or influence and did not get consensus on the proposed language.

Jacob McClain of Ask Cleveland noted at the summit that James had not been in touch with organizations expert in LGBT ballot initiatives or sought counsel from a campaign in Maine that also seeks to overturn that state’s marriage ban by initiative this year.

“This is a movement here,” James answered. “We’re ahead of the establishment. We’re not going to wait for someone to tell us this is the time to go.”

“This is not an individual effort,” said McClain. “The coalition needs to know what it’s doing before a campaign can be waged.”

Privately, participants expressed concern that launching a campaign before the necessary preparations are made could lead to failure, and a more difficult and more expensive second attempt due to resources wasted and campaign fatigue.

Campaign may cost $10 million

An initiative campaign to repeal the marriage ban amendment will likely cost $8-10 million, and require tens of thousands of volunteer hours. In comparison, the 2011 Ohio referendum that preserved the bargaining rights for public employees cost the losing side $12 million and the winning side $42 million.

Ohio’s LGBT community has proactively waged two initiative campaigns, both successfully: the 2003 Cleveland Heights measure that created the domestic partner registry, and the 2004 initiative that repealed the anti-LGBT Charter Article 12 in Cincinnati.

In both instances, a significant amount of work was done prior to proposing anything for the ballot. In Cleveland Heights, Heights Families for Equality began organizing, training volunteers, working with field experts from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and raising preliminary funds a year earlier.

In Cincinnati, the same process took two years, and both were still difficult campaigns. During his later presentation to the summit, newly-elected Cincinnati Councilor Chris Seelbach, an organizer of the Citizens to Restore Fairness repeal group, talked about that effort and the work done beforehand.

James said early in his presentation that this proposal came about after a month of social media and on-line organization that started out as a campaign to cajole Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman into joining a list of U.S. mayors that support marriage equality. But it quickly grew into a statewide ballot initiative.

“It’s important and necessary that we pursue this,” James said. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We’re adults.”

“We have stirred it up a bit,” James said. “This is what democracy looks like.”

Of the successful online petition effort aimed at Coleman, James continued, “This is growing bigger than we thought it would be. We need to expand beyond central Ohio.”

“And at the end of March we’ll birth a petition,” James said.

James was a leader of the 2004 effort

James is the chief executive officer of the Strategy Network, a campaign consulting firm. According to its website, the firm’s specialties include ballot planning and management, voter identification and persuasion, petition and ballot placement, door to door canvassing and web based communications.

In 2004, the Strategy Network was contracted by Ohioans for Growth and Equality to run a campaign against the marriage ban amendment. That campaign was called Ohioans Protecting the Constitution. James was the political director of that campaign. His then business partner Alan Melamed was the campaign’s manager. Until just before the election, all campaign employees were considered employees of the Strategy Network, paid by fund transfers between the campaign and the company.

The 2004 campaign was criticized by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force for having too little field operation, too little fundraising effort, and an ineffective message. NGLTF withdrew its support for the campaign.

The Strategy Network was criticized for running a campaign that was too dependent on raising money to buy ads--ads for which James and Melamed were to get commissions.

The commission was estimated to be about ten percent of the buy, though neither Melamed nor James would disclose the figure at the time. The campaign spent $500,443, about half of what it raised, on commissioned media.

Melamed acknowledged receiving his share of the commission. James told the Gay People’s Chronicle in 2004 that he did not get his.

A financial stake in the new campaign?

At the end of his presentation at the summit, James took questions. The first one asked whether James would have any financial stake in the campaign.

“I am a volunteer,” he answered. “My husband and I are contributors.”

Freedom to Marry Ohio lists its address as 1349 East Broad Street in Columbus, which is also the address of the Strategy Network.

When asked in an email, “Will your company, the Strategy Network, or any company you may affiliate with professionally, have a stake in this campaign, should it go forward?” James ignored the question.

James said at the summit that the fiscal agent for the new campaign would be Progress Ohio.

Progress Ohio’s managing director Joyce Patton confirmed that, but would not disclose how much money has been raised.

“The campaign is a week old,” said Patton, later explaining that what she meant was the arrangement was a week old.

“We’re not revealing that information at this time,” Patton said. “When the reports are required, that information will be available.”

Asked if there was more than one dollar, Patton said there was, indicating the existence of some funds.

When asked if he would withdraw or postpone the initiative if he didn’t have the support of the LGBT community at this time, James said, “Freedom to Marry continues to receive broad support from the community and allies. As Freedom to Marry Ohio seeks a place on the 2013 ballot, the coalition will continue to have a thoughtful dialogue with the LGBT community and Ohio this year and next. Ample time remains for people to be heard, and the processes to move forward. As it does so, the Freedom to Marry Ohio Coalition seeks to strengthen the community and lead a statewide winning effort to guarantee equal protection under the law.”

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” he concluded.

Related stories

Petitions would bring marriage to Ohio  February 24, 2012

The lessons of Issue 1: Ohio needs better statewide preparation for the next ballot issue, leaders say  January 14, 2005

‘No on 1’ group won’t be fined for credit card account mixup  December 24, 2004

Anti-Issue 1 group reports money problems to state  December 17, 2004

Out of Issue 1, a new statewide group is born  March 11, 2005

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