Stopping the Nonsense
The No Nonsense campaign gears up to derail the national anti-gay crusade
Why is this man smiling?
For someone who faces formidably long odds in a statewide battle against a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions, former Austin state Rep. Glen Maxey is remarkably chipper these days.
At his South Austin consulting office, currently doubling as the headquarters for the No Nonsense in November campaign, Maxey on this particular September morning is knee-deep in an unusual pile of logistical quandaries: Hurricane Rita is barreling toward the Gulf Coast, more than a million people are spilling out of Houston (a strategic voting hub for both sides of the Proposition 2 battle), and, for various reasons, a handful of Maxey's key field lieutenants are temporarily out of commission. And the election is just six weeks away.
Despite all that, Maxey is beaming.
Because, he says, even in beet-red Texas, there is hope. It helps that several factors are in play that could dramatically alter the right-wing's "moral values" agenda, which had its greatest national impact in the November 2004 election sweep of 11 states with constitutional amendment questions on the ballot. To be sure, last year's presidential election was a defining moment in the social conservatives' mission to as Gov. Rick Perry has put it "legislate morality." By contrast, the election story unfolding this year is not only abbreviated Texas is the only state with a marriage amendment on the November ballot but the ending is much less certain. The corollary inclusion of a ban on civil unions, an amendment added on the House floor by the bill's sponsor, Pampa Republican Rep. Warren Chisum, has sparked concerns from otherwise lukewarm quarters that it could wreak havoc on the state's common law marriage statute as well as domestic partner benefits. The hope is that Chisum's overreaching could help defeat the amendment.
With the exception of a few scattered local ballot items, the Nov. 8 election is largely a constitutional amendment affair nine in all, none remotely as inflammatory as Proposition 2 that typically produces small voter turnouts. But an emotional wedge issue like this one could kick up some unexpected results. Two years ago, voters surpassed the projected turnout to decide the proposition limiting medical malpractice claims. And big insurance companies narrowly won what was supposed to have been a hands-down victory.
And win or lose on Proposition 2, Maxey's hunch is that Texas, of all places, is in a unique position this year to begin making progress on marriage equality. He points to statewide polls that, even before the Katrina disaster, showed voters frustrated with elected officials from here to Washington. "Anger is on our side," he says cheerfully. "I've never seen it like this." According to Maxey (who also happens to have been the state's only openly gay legislator), in one poll a full 59% of voters agreed that lawmakers should have spent more time on school finance than on restricting the rights of gay people; only 29% held the reverse. Anger, says Maxey, is one of three reasons why people vote. The second reason is fear. "And we have fear on our side," he says. And third: "A casual voter votes when someone in their peer group asks them to do so. [As in] college students asking college students to vote, bowlers asking bowlers, seniors talking to seniors, church members talking to church members ... It's the most effective reason people vote, and [it's] the way this campaign is being organized."
Outside Texas, gay rights supporters agree that in spite of its redneck reputation, the Lone Star State holds strong potential. "Texas is an unusual state for people to understand," said Dave Fleischer of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. "It's a red state, but it's not an irrevocably red state." Because the state is so large, the task force is focusing most of its efforts in Houston, based in part on the city's history on gay-related ballot measures. In 2001, a hard-fought effort to stop the repeal of the city's domestic partner benefits lost by just 6,700 votes. "That was a heartbreaker," Fleischer recalls. But progress had been made, nonetheless, considering a devastating loss in 1985, when a nondiscrimination measure marked the second-biggest loss in the history of anti-gay ballot measures in the country, according to Fleischer. "1985 wasn't all that long ago," he says, "so when you consider that we went from a 19% loss, to just under 50% [total] in 2001, you can understand how attitudes toward LGBT people have changed."
In that sense, the No Nonsense campaign has crafted its message "Marriage matters. Family matters." based largely on the results of focus groups, whose participants were selected for two very specific reasons: They were heterosexual and they were opposed to marriage for gay and lesbian couples. What campaign leaders discovered was that most straight married people have no idea of the basic legal rights they enjoy that are denied gay couples and their children. Once they were given that knowledge, the focus group participants were adamantly opposed to discrimination against gay couples. "A majority of Texans disagree with discrimination," Maxey said. "Our campaign intends to have a majority of the voters who cast their ballots believe that bigotry doesn't belong in the Bill of Rights.
"Texas," Maxey goes on to say, "is absolutely the best positioned state to win this election. ... If we even surpass the Oregon vote [43% for the opposition] we will have what I call the 'Paul Hackett moment,'" he said, referring to the Ohio Democrat who narrowly lost a congressional bid, giving Republicans a scare in what had been considered a "safe" GOP district.
"And if we win, it will change for all time the gay and lesbian movement," Maxey says. "It will change the national debate."
This is not to suggest that the No Nonsense camp doesn't suffer the usual bouts of jitteriness and paranoia that accompany such a campaign. One of Maxey's concerns is that Proposition 2 opponents will deem the situation hopeless and neglect to vote altogether. And he's concerned that the other side will turn out in droves.
But the pro-amendment campaigns the Texas Marriage Alliance and the stealth Texas Restoration Project have their own worries. They fear their supporters may have grown complacent with the overwhelming victories they've achieved on constitutional marriage amendments in 18 other states, and they'll just assume their vote won't be needed. Kelly Shackelford, president of the Plano-based Free Market Foundation (a Texas affiliate of Focus on the Family), acknowledges that possibility, which is one reason the pro-amendment campaigns are relying on pastors across the state to get out the pro-Proposition 2 vote. "Most people don't understand the mechanics of this election they look at what happened in the other states [in 2004] and assume that it's going to win here." But that was a presidential election. "We've just got to make sure to get the word out," Shackelford says. "What we have going for us are thousands and thousands of pastors who are talking to their congregations." (See "Saving HeteroTexas," below.)
Without the attraction of any hot races on the ballot across the state, everything's up in the air. "We really don't know what will happen," Shackelford says, "because we've never seen anything like this on the ballot. This is such a strike-to-the-heart issue." But he's convinced that no matter how successful the other side is in getting out the vote, their only chance of victory would be if the pro-amendment campaign fails to do its job. "I know they're very organized," he said of the anti-Proposition 2 effort. "They're working hard and I give them credit but their only chance of winning is a massively low turnout."
Maxey doesn't buy that. "Those whose votes are cast are those who win," he says. "If every voter in Texas voted, we'd have no Republican elected officials. Sadly, that's not the case, and those who vote elect those who serve."
Even the prospect of Proposition 2 failing to pass gives Shackelford pause. "It would be big news," he says. "I think it would be shocking to most people. It would be a major wake-up call to Texas."
In fact, backers of the marriage amendment are so fearful of losing that they have accused the No Nonsense campaign of conspiring to bus in people from other states to vote "no" on Proposition 2 they even voiced their concerns with the Secretary of State's office. Fliers bearing that allegation were passed out around Downtown and the UT campus. The handouts were rather unsophisticated, Maxey says, as was whoever was distributing them, considering the area is home to some of Austin's most progressive voters. What Maxey's most angry about, though, is that Chisum, his former legislative colleague, would buy into the rumor. "That is just such a bizarre and ludicrous accusation," Maxey says. "They should be ashamed of themselves." Nevertheless, he's getting a certain amount of enjoyment out of it. "No self-respecting homosexual would come to Austin on a bus," he laughs. "I'd have to fly them in."
But the pro-amendment campaigners are certainly aware that the same calculated accusation made in Amarillo or Palestine may be received much more seriously. In any case, no investigation is under way into the bus allegations, said Secretary of State spokesman Scott Haywood. "All we can do is monitor voter registration and watch for unusual spikes," he said. The registration deadline is Tuesday, Oct. 11, and early voting begins Oct. 24.
Maxey says he realized things were looking up for the anti-Proposition 2 campaign when the executive board of the Texas AFL-CIO overwhelmingly voted in late September to oppose the measure. Maxey was at first concerned when he heard that the board had voted before he'd provided them with an informational packet to help influence their decision. "This is not a liberal organization," he says. "But the truth is, more heterosexuals than gay people cohabitate." It was that aspect of the proposed law that the state labor federation emphasized in announcing its opposition, pointing out that the amendment's language (prohibiting state recognition of "any legal status identical or similar to marriage") could encourage both governments and private companies to withdraw or courts to prohibit health benefits that are currently provided to unmarried partners, as well as their children. "The proposed constitutional amendment goes beyond limiting marriage to one man and one woman," said AFL-CIO President Emmett Sheppard. "It threatens the livelihood of any nontraditional household in which a couple has never sought to marry."
Many lawmakers who otherwise support a ban on same-sex marriages were turned off by the broader language prohibiting the state's recognition of civil unions. That's the main reason the legislation passed by only the narrowest margins in the House and Senate, where constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority (100 votes in the House and 21 votes in the Senate). The final tally in the House was 101-29, with Speaker Tom Craddick casting a rare vote to push it over the hump, and eight members abstaining. The measure squeaked through the Senate 21-8.
Austin attorney Robert F. Andrews, testifying before a Senate committee in May, called the bill "irresponsible and constitutionally reckless." If it passes, Andrews told the Chronicle recently, "it will devastate common law marriage in Texas. Children across the state who ordinarily have rights will suffer. We're actually talking about the child's rights here. It's a disaster waiting to happen, and children across the state are going to lose their access to benefits. Nobody took the time to study the impact on civil unions, and [legislators] passed up an opportunity to clarify the bill," he said. "It's just ludicrous."
The ludicrousness of it all is precisely why the No Nonsense in November coalition took its name, capitalizing on the consistently low marks voters give elected officials in opinion polls. "This is not just about November 8," Maxey explains. "Everything that we do here is geared toward taking out the politicians of nonsense in 2006, so we never have to deal with this bullshit again."