Gay Rights Groups Spar Over Possible Ballot Issue

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Activist Ian James with Freedom to Marry Ohio angered some members of the Human Rights Campaign by announcing a measure to legalize gay marriage in Ohio would appear on a ballot in 2014.(Photo: Freedom to Marry/Human Rights Campaign)
Activist Ian James with Freedom to Marry Ohio angered some members of the Human Rights Campaign by announcing a measure to legalize gay marriage in Ohio would appear on a ballot in 2014.(Photo: Freedom to Marry/Human Rights Campaign)

A spat over when, not whether, to put before voters an amendment legalizing same-sex marriage in Ohio may be overshadowing the amendment itself.

For a time, the big news for several gay rights activists was that a Wednesday meeting in Columbus marked the largest-ever gathering of national marriage equality leaders. Fred Sainz is with the Human Rights Campaign, which has been involved in several same-sex marriage ballot issues that have been approved by voters and has been watching the battleground state of Ohio.

When that meeting concluded, there were zero decisions that had been reached in terms of when this would be on the ballot.

But not long after that meeting, the head of an Ohio-based group that’s been gathering signatures to put a same-sex marriage amendment before voters issued a news release, saying it will be on the ballot next year. Ian James says he was speaking only for his group Freedom Ohio.

“No one else is in charge of that campaign. We want to move forward beyond ’13 and into 2014. And that’s what we said. And that’s what we said. We also said we were glad to meet with other LGBT leaders around the country to talk about marriage equality.”

There’s been a struggle between James and Freedom Ohio and Ohio’s leading gay rights group, Equality Ohio. James has wanted the amendment on the ballot soon, saying polls show it has support, and has recruited some high-profile Democrats to help.

Equality Ohio preferred to wait, noting that voters approved an amendment defining marriage as only between one man and one woman less than 10 years ago – an amendment James was involved in trying to defeat.

2014 is a big year for statewide and Congressional elections. And national groups say they’ve been careful in picking the right time to approach voters, since these campaigns are expensive and exhausting. So Sainz says they felt betrayed by James’ press release, and felt he was trying to force them into supporting an issue next year.

What Ian did was not only completely inappropriate, but it was not the way to build a spirit of trust or support or cooperation, and we consider it the very walking definition of unethical behavior.

James says he was just stating that his campaign will move toward next year’s ballot, with or without the support of national gay-rights groups.

“There’s no strong-arming of groups from Washington DC to being involved in an Ohio campaign,” James says. “This is about Ohio. This is about Ohioans and Ohioans are going to address this issue because we’re the ones that don’t have the rights. And frankly, I think it’s unfortunate that anybody would suggest that we just continue to wait until the quintessential quote-unquote ‘right time’ arrives.”

But Sainz says this doesn’t mean that the gay rights community is divided – in fact, he says there is unanimity here.

“Every organization is aligned on one side of the issue. It’s Ian who’s the outlier. He’s clearly out to represent whatever selfish interest that he may have, and that he is not acting in the best interest of gay and lesbian Ohioans.”

James doesn’t have much of a response to the words directed at him personally, but deflects back to the campaign that he says is still looking to the 2014 ballot.

“The reality is we’re going to keep pushing forward, we’re going to have a positive conversation, there’s no need for name-calling and we’re just going to keep on moving forward in a positive way to bring about marriage equality for all Ohioans,” James says.

The latest Quinnipiac poll in Ohio on same-sex marriage was in April, and it shows Ohioans are leaning toward it 48 percent to 44 percent, but just four months earlier 47 percent were opposed and 45 percent supported it.

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    “Freedom to Marry is not behind the signature campaign to advance marriage in Ohio” and will not be partnering with it, said the group’s national campaign director Marc Solomon.

    “Freedom to Marry Ohio is not part of Freedom to Marry,” Solomon added, “We probably share the same cause, but we are not the same organization.”

    Freedom to Marry Ohio is the group backing an initiative to amend the state constitution to repeal the 2004 marriage ban and allow same-sex marriage.

    The Ohio group’s leader, campaign consultant Ian James of Columbus, ran a social networking campaign last winter to get Columbus mayor Michael Coleman to sign onto the national group’s Mayors for Marriage campaign.

    Inspired by the success of that effort, James filed ballot language with the Ohio attorney general last month, the first step to amending the state constitution.

    “That is not our approach to doing things,” Solomon said. “Ballot measures are expensive and we need to do years of groundwork, hit benchmarks, and get the state to where we can win.”

    “Getting to the ballot is the last step. It should never be the first step,” Solomon added.

    The statewide LGBT group Equality Ohio is also not supporting James’ effort as it currently stands.

    “We have created a board-level committee to do strategic planning to discuss going forward on the amendment,” said Equality Ohio director Ed Mullen.

    Mullen said before Equality Ohio gets involved, it will conduct its own polls, consult with constitutional scholars and progressive policy experts to determine the best amendment language, and hold public forums around the state to hear what people need and want to support.

    “Ultimately, we’d like a broad coalition,” Mullen said, “and a sound plan for moving forward.”

    Mullen believes James’ plan to be on the 2013 ballot is too soon to do what needs to be done.

    James counters that his campaign “caught fire on the Internet with Support for Gay Marriage on Facebook growing to more than 200,000 grass roots backers almost over night.”

    “Almost overnight, we had more [than] 1,400 volunteers in all 88 counties stand up and ask how can they get involved and help. It has truly been inspiring,” James says.

    However, James doesn’t answer questions about who these people are or how organized they are.

    Asked in an e‑mail, “If LGBT organizations with an interest in marriage equality and constituencies are not aboard, will you postpone or slow your effort until they can be brought into the coalition?” James ignored the question. He has indicated in the past that he has no plan to slow down.

    Campaign and firm have same address

    One question James has refused to answer, three times, is whether or not his businesses will profit from a marriage campaign. Campaign consultants get paid whether they are successful or not.

    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.

    He is also the CEO of Professional Petition Management, LLC, which is a signature-gathering firm.

    In order to make the ballot, Freedom to Marry Ohio will need to submit 385,253 valid signatures from all around Ohio.

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

    In 2004, the Strategy Network was contracted by the now-defunct Ohioans for Growth and Equality to run a campaign against the marriage ban amendment, which was then on the ballot. That campaign was called Ohioans Protecting the Constitution. James was the political director of the campaign, and 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.

    According to reports filed with the Ohio secretary of state, the Strategy Network was paid $131,800 for consulting between July and October 2004. Another $8,145 was passed through the Strategy Network for employee salaries and benefits.

    The Strategy Network and James separated from the campaign on October 28 of that year.

    The relatively short OPC campaign raised a little over $1 million, with consulting payments to the Strategy Network averaging around $32,000 per month.

    A successful campaign to amend Ohio’s constitution would likely cost around $10 million.

    The Strategy Network and Professional Petition Management have consulted for gaming and casino interests regularly since 2006. They worked on a 2010 issue establishing standards for livestock, and they worked for a campaign that defeated a 2007 referendum on a new law limiting strip clubs.

    New ballot language is approved

    Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine rejected James’ initial ballot language on March 9. In a letter, he told petitioners that the summary they submitted was not “a fair and truthful statement of the proposed constitutional amendment.”

    On March 26, James and the petition committee submitted new text and signatures. DeWine certified them on April 3, clearing the way for the statewide petition.

    The new language simply states: “Be it resolved by the People of the State of Ohio that Article XV, Section 11 of the Ohio Constitution be adopted and read as follows: Section 11. In the State of Ohio and its political subdivisions, marriage shall be a union of two consenting adults not nearer of kin than second cousins, and not having a husband or wife living, and no religious institution shall be required to perform or recognize a marriage.”

    The current Section 11, which is the 2004 marriage ban amendment, would be deleted and replaced by this new text.

    “They have cured the objections [DeWine] raised before,” said Mullen, who is an attorney, “but there are still continuing objections around the community.”

    Mullen said the broad community needs to discuss and come to consensus on the amendment language before taking the process forward, and Equality Ohio plans to do that.

    Solomon pointed to the marriage initiative now underway in Maine as an example of how ballot initiatives should be approached in order to ensure their success.

    “Maine is a small state, about 900,000 voters,” said Solomon, “and there has been hard work going on for years, since 2009 continuously, to raise money, do public education, and even run television spots. They never stopped campaigning.”

    In 2009, Maine lawmakers passed a same-sex marriage law, but voters repealed it in a referendum. Marriage equality proponents hope to persuade voters to enact a similar measure this November.

    Freedom to Marry and other national LGBT advocacy organizations are supporting that effort.

    “We want to see and be part of smart campaigns that bring about the freedom to marry,” said Solomon. “Campaigns would be wise to figure out a smart, realistic pathway and a plan that is very heavy on public education.”

    Asked if the current Ohio effort looks like one of those campaigns, Solomon said, “No.”

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