Appraising Arizona

Jim Burroway

November 8th, 2006

Update 11/9/06: There are still 341,000 mail-in ballots to be counted, and these ballots probably won’t be counted for several days. With Arizona’s Proposition 107, the so-called “Protect Marriage Amendment”, stlll teetering inthe balance, I’ve updated this post to reflect that uncertainty.

A few weeks ago, Arizona was derided for ranking dead last in Morgan Quitno’s annual reference book, Education State Rankings, 2006-2007. While Arizona was derided as the “dumbest state in the union”, its citizens displayed a remarkable level of simple common sense in the 2006 mid-term elections by defeating Proposition 107, the so-called “Protect Marriage Amendment.”

The results are in still tricking in, but Prop 107 appears to have been defeated. Current results show it going down by 32,226 votes out of 1,151,012 votes cast (48.6% “yes” vs. 51.4% “no”). However, there are still some 341,000 ballots left to be counted so the final result can still change. But win or lose, this is a good day to be an Arizonan. I couldn’t be more proud.

Even though it may be early, LGBT and allies around the country are cheering this as a historic triumph. I imagine that gay-advocacy offices from coast to coast were looking over the data to see if this reversal can be repeated elsewhere. And we all hope that this represents a harbinger for things to come. At the very least, political scapegoating of gays and lesbians is not the reliable tactic it used to be.

But I’m afraid its too easy to look at Arizona’s potential defeat of Proposition 107 and assume it’s some sort of high-water mark for anti-gay extremists. What happened here was the result of a very unique set of circumstances, a combination of luck, organization, and Western common sense. Many factors lead to the proposition’s apparent defeat, and as I see it these factors boil down to:

  1. a hapless organization supporting the proposition,
  2. a brilliant, well-researched and disciplined campaign against the proposition,
  3. A “de-gayed” message that focused on the proposition’s impact on heterosexual couples,
  4. and the unique climate and circumstances of the LGBT community in Arizona.

Let’s look at what happened in detail.

A Hapless Organization Supporting Prop 107

Prop 107 was authored and supported by the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP), which often lobbies the state legislature on social conservative issues. Len Munsil was CAP’s president when they proposed the measure and began ushering it through the process of getting it on the ballot. As the measure was going through the petitioning process he resigned to run for governor, and this prompted suspicions that Prop 107 was nothing but a ploy to energize the conservative base and propel him to the governor’s office. (In fact, he was soundly defeated 63%-35%, losing in all seventeen counties)

When Len Munsil resigned, the task of ushering Prop 107 fell to his replacement, Cathi Herrod, who struggled to get the measure on the ballot. They had difficulties with lining up petition circulaters, difficulties with getting the minimum number of signatures, and dificulties getting the petitions gathered and turned in on time.

But in the end, CAP managed to get it done and their next task was to sell the measure to Arizona voters. And again, they ran into difficulties.

The truth is, Prop 107 never polled very well in Arizona, and CAP never mounted a wide-ranging campaign in response to the polls. They apparently assumed it would pass simply because Arizona is a very conservative state and, well, these measure always passed everywhere else.

CAP’s message was unfocused and aimed largely at the choir. Most members of CAP appear to have an evangelical background, and their message was presented using the cultural language of evangelicals. Because they did little outreach outside of evangelical, fundamentalist, or Catholic circles, they were never able to connect with Arizona voters outside of their own little Amen-corner. The guest editorial columns they submitted to Arizona newspapers were often illogical, inconsistent, and poorly written. What’s more, Arizona doesn’t have much in the way of mega-churches, and except for CAP and the Alliance Defense Fund, there are very few organized anti-gay organizations. This means CAP had few allies to help carry their message to a larger audience.

A Brilliant, Well-Researched and Disciplined Campaign Against Prop 107

Soon after the anti-marriage onslaught of 2004, a small group of Arizona activists got together to discuss what to do if an anti-marriage amendment was proposed for Arizona. They didn’t know when it would happen but they felt that it was only a matter of time. They began a post-mortem on campaigns in other states and identified several strengths and weaknesses. With that data, they began to formulate a strategy for responding to an amendment in Arizona. In other words, they didn’t wait for Prop 107 to show up. They were strategizing before CAP began their efforts.

Arizona Together was the result of all that work, and their first big break came when CAP decided to go for the Cadillac of anti-marriage proposals, basing it on the Ohio amendment that passed in 2004. CAP’s proposal read:

To preserve and protect marriage in this state, only a union between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage by this state or its political subdivisions and no legal status for unmarried persons shall be created or recognized by this state or its political subdivisions that is similar to that of marriage. [emphasis mine]

When Arizona Together saw they second half of the amendment’s wording, they knew it was their best shot at defeating it. Based on what was happening in Ohio, Michigan, and other states to heterosexual couples because of their amendments, Arizona Together knew that the unintended consequences of banning gay marriages and anything similar to it would be their opening. And Arizona Together was ready, with polling data, market research, a superb fundraising campaign (almost all of their funding was raised in the state), a massive outreach strategy that went far outside the usual LGBT and progressive political organizations, and a clearly defined and disciplined message.

A “De-Gayed” Message

The disciplined message that Arizona Together sent out didn’t rely on arguments about marriage equality or gay rights. Instead, they focused their arguments on what the ballot measure’s passage would mean for straight people:

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, chair of the campaign to defeat Proposition 107, conceded that the strategy of the media campaign was to show straight couples who would lose their domestic partner benefits. That’s because the initiative would not only have constitutionally barred gay marriage but also precluded governments from adopting policies that allow employees to add their domestic partners — whether of the same or opposite sex — to their health insurance or to gain any other benefits.

Sinema, who is bisexual, justified that by saying that out of an estimated 112,000 unmarried couples living together in Arizona, only about 18,000 are gay. She said the $2.1 million campaign was necessary to convince Arizona voters that this is more than just an issue affecting gays.

I attended a message training session last summer where this was hotly debated. Many were upset that the LGBT community was invisible in Arizona Together’s campaign messages. Some felt that we were passing up a good opportunity to educate the public about LGBT issues and concerns. But Arizona Together representatives pointed out that supporters of gay marriage have an easy bumper sticker message with “one man and one woman”, while our issues are too complex to be told in the short span of a campaign season.

They also had focus-grouped research that said that people vote according to their own personal concerns and priorities, and less so from an altruistic sense of helping others. When messages about equality and fairness were put before focus groups, the messages fell flat. But when concrete examples were presented about what happened to straight couples in Ohio and elsewhere, they sat up and took notice.

For example, Arizona Together pointed out that Arizona is a retiree haven. And many of these retirees are widows and widowers who meet, fall in love and move in together. But they often don’t marry because pension plans often force a spouse to give up his or her pension upon remarriage. With Prop 107, they had a lot to lose, especially those who take advantage of Tucson’s domestic partner registry which makes city services and fees based on marriage status available to domestic partners. For senior on fixed incomes this can be important. Also, Tucson’s domestic partner registry guaranteed hospital visitation and medical decision-making rights. This too would have disappeared with Prop 107 along with the registry.

This message seems to have taken root among Arizona’s retirees. Older Americans tend to be very strongly supportive of same-sex marriage bans, but according to exit poll results posted at CNN, 45% of Arizona’s voters aged sixty-five or older voted against Prop 107. This compares to only 35% in Virginia and 29% in Wisconsin who voted against their marriage amendments.

So, while it may be a great victory if the amendment go down in defeat, it would be a terrible mistake to take it as a victory for the LGBT community. It wasn’t. Prop 107 was failed or nearly failed because of what it would do to unmarried heterosexual couples. Gays and lesbians were largely invisible in the debate.

The Unique Climate and Circumstances of the LGBT community in Arizona

Arizona is a classically western state which famously values the idea of rugged individualism. Arizonans, while deeply conservative, prefer their governments small, their freedoms large, and their neighbor’s noses very far away. Mr. Conservative himself, Barry Goldwater, was a supporter of gay rights. Arizona’s conservatism often has a distinctly libertarian feel.

Arizona’s gay community largely fits in well with that spirit. Phoenix and Tucson both have very large and active gay communities, but neither city has much of a “gayborhood.” In Phoenix, most gay businesses are scattered around the north-central part of the city, but the concentration of LGBT residents in that area is quite low, especially compared to “gayborhoods” in most other cities. Tucson has no recognizable gay neighborhood at all; its gay citizens are spread pretty evenly throughout the city.

What this means is that while Arizona is about average in terms of the proportion of gay people, almost all of its LGBT citizens live among straight neighbors. This means that Arizonans in general are more likely to know someone who is gay than citizens in many other states.

Think about it: if the bulk of Arizona’s gays lived in just a few neighborhoods, if there were Arizona Castros, WeHos and Chelseas, then that means that there would be fewer straight people with constant casual contact with the nice gay couple down the street. This geographic integration, I think, is an important part of why Prop 107 failed. An awful lot of straight Arizonans know their gay neighbors, and they are apparently reluctant to vote on something that would be harmful to their neighbors.

Conclusion

It was a great thing that Arizona has apparently defeated Prop 107. If the result doesn’t hold, then its passage is likely to be razor-thin. In any case, I’m immensely proud of my adoptive state, and I am especially proud my own neighbors.

I hope that the Arizona Together’ success can be repeated elsewhere when our opponents look for someone to scapegoat. But I think it is important to recognize the possibility that what happened here may be unique. If CAP had offered a “cleaner” amendment without the domestic partnership prohibitions, if CAP had reached out beyond its own base, if Arizona’s gay community were less integrated, if Arizona Together hadn’t gotten its act together before CAP began their efforts — if any of this had been different, we might not be celebrating today. As it is, the margin of Prop 107’s defeat so far is not large. But it may be large enough.

See Also:

Center for Arizona Policy Concedes
Were Arizona’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban Opponents Deceptive?
Arizona Is Still Going Strong
De-Gaying The Marriage Debate?
Gay Marriage Is Still Illegal In Arizona

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