Metropolis: Wednesday, October 19, 2005
McKissic: It is ‘absolutely important that believers bring their belief to the ballot box.’
Jackson: ‘We are targeting those who ... don’t believe government should be restricting the rights of American citizens.’
Campaign of Whispers

It’s a quiet fight being waged over the anti-gay marriage amendment.


If you were in Houston this past week, you may have seen some controversial commercials on tv, showing actual gay and lesbian couples, describing their lives and struggles, and suggesting you vote against Proposition 2 on the Texas ballot next month.

If you stayed home in Fort Worth, and you’re neither gay nor a Christian conservative, you might at this point be asking “what commercial?” and “what ballot?”

That’s because there’s a rather strange political campaign going on in Texas right now, being waged in very different ways in different parts of the state. And the reason is that both sides in the battle over the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage agree on at least one thing: Both think that low turnout is their key to victory.

Because there are no federal or state races on the Nov. 8 ballot — and very few local issues aside from Houston’s mayor and council races — turnout for Prop 2 will likely be small, about 5 to 10 percent of the registered voters. That premise makes for careful campaigning: Both sides need to get their voters to the polls without making enough noise to wake the opposition.

“For either side the game is the same,” said J.D. Angle, a Fort Worth political consultant and board member for the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. “We both know who our base of supporters are and how the low turnout works in these constitutional elections.”

Kelly Shackelford, chair of the Texans for Marriage Political Action Committee, a group working with church groups to pass Prop 2, said low turnout favors the other side. “Polls say the majority favors this definition of marriage,” Shackelford said. “Low turnout can mean a big part of the majority doesn’t show up. That’s our challenge.”

While gay marriage bans were big campaign issues in some states during the 2004 presidential election — and received lots of campaign money from many sides — the debate in Texas is flying below the radar screen in most areas. In Fort Worth, there have been no real rallies or yard signs and few endorsements — for either side — by local politicians.

Lisa Thomas, president of the Tarrant County Stonewall Democrats, a gay rights political organization, says the campaign here is very much behind the scenes in some ways. “We are just encouraging our volunteers to talk to all of their friends and co-workers and neighbors and let them know how this amendment affects all of us,” Thomas said. “We are also emphasizing that this is just another example of the legislature doing nothing with education or anything else, yet they can come up with an amendment like this.”

Those who are in favor of the gay marriage ban are working quietly as well, mostly in churches. The Texas Restoration Project, a conservative “family values” group aligned closely with the Texas GOP, has been holding private meetings with church pastors for a year, teaching them how to register voters and get the message out.

The Rev. William Dwight McKissic, pastor of the Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, has been working with his congregation to get out the vote “for the biblical view of family. I believe it is absolutely important that believers bring their beliefs to the ballot box and invoke their belief in the Bible. Just as the atheists and the secularists and the homosexuals bring their beliefs to the ballot, why can’t the Christians?”

The statewide groups looking to defeat the amendment are choosing their battles carefully, coming at it from some different angles. The tv ads shown in Houston, paid for by the Washington-based National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, are putting gays out there as real people, not just political animals.

That’s also the upfront strategy that gay rights campaigners are using — in some cities. “We are instructing our supporters to go out and knock on doors and have an honest conversation and tell them they are gay,” said Ted Jackson, who was brought in by the Log Cabin Republicans from Ohio to work in more conservative circles to defeat the amendment. “If we are fair and honest, we can find support on both sides of the aisle. The trick for us is to find out who these people are in the middle ground and get them out and vote.

“We are targeting those who are fiscally conservative and those who don’t believe government should be restricting the rights of American citizens,” Jackson said. “We are looking for the mom in the suburbs who voted for Bush but knows friends or neighbors who have gay children or who has a gay child herself.”

Jackson said the gay rights groups fighting Prop 2 are concentrating their efforts in Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio — cities that have either large gay populations or a strong Democratic base, or both. That’s part of the reason Fort Worth and Tarrant County voters aren’t seeing ads or much public campaigning by the gay rights groups. A big “we’re here and we’re queer” showing could upset local conservatives sufficiently to remind them to go vote.

While Americans are seeing more and more gay characters on tv and in movies, and while cultural acceptance of homosexuality seems to have increased in many ways, Texans apparently are drawing the line on marriage. A source with one of the conservative groups said their polling data indicates 70 percent of Texans support the amendment.

Another issue that might come into play is race. Democrats have always relied on the black vote for civil rights issues, but in the case of gay rights, African-Americans are not always on board. In a 2003 New York Times national poll, 75 percent of African-Americans opposed same-sex marriage, compared to 59 percent of white voters. A study last year found that 58 percent of blacks thought sexual orientation could be changed, while just 39 percent of whites thought it could.

“I’m insulted by a comparison between gay rights and civil rights,” said McKissic, an African-American. “They’re confusing my skin with their sin.”

A conservative source working for the passage of Prop 2 thinks the African-American vote will cancel out gay rights supporters. “If they think blacks are just going to follow them because they are Democrats, they’ll be in shock after the election,” the Christian conservative said. “I would rather be campaigning in some church in an urban area with a totally black congregation instead of chasing after soccer moms in the suburbs. If that was how the election was decided, we would win every time.”

Which describes just how different this campaign is than most: Conservative Christians are chasing black church-goers, and gay rights campaigners are working the suburban soccer-mom circuit. And both sides are tiptoeing through the voter lists, trying to “narrowcast” their message and not set off the bullhorn.

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