Lessons From Maine: An Interview With Equality California's Geoff Kors

After voters in Maine repealed the state's legalization of gay marriage this past Tuesday by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent, California's gay-marriage activists are still gearing up for a challenge to overturn Proposition 8. Some want to put a measure on the ballot in 2010; others, in 2012.

What lessons do you think gay marriage activists can take away from what happened in Maine?

I think we have to really look at the vote and analyze it before we can draw any specific conclusions, but what's clear is, even though we significantly outspent the opposition for the first time, and supporters of equality out-organized the opposition, our side still fell short. So I think one of the lessons to take away from this last election, and from last year on Prop 8, is how far we've moved on this issue in a remarkably fast time.

What follows is a lightly edited interview from Thursday evening with Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, one of the principal groups that led the "No on 8" campaign in 2008.

The last two elections, both Maine this year and California last year, we lost by less than five points. Four years ago, the average we lost by was 25 to 30 points. The movement is tremendous in the direction of equality, and I think the biggest lesson is we have to keep doing what we're doing. We have to keep telling our stories, we have to keep out-organizing the other side, and we have to keep out-fundraising the other side, and if we keep doing this over the next few years, we're gonna start winning marriage ballot measures. And the other key lesson is, looking at the overwhelming victory in Kalamazoo, Washington, where they tried to overturn an anti-discrimination law and used fear tactics, and in Washington state, where we have domestic partnership, is the majority is clearly supporting equal rights. There's still a slightly smaller percentage that are ready to support marriage, but that gap is shrinking.

Can you describe how the campaign in Maine went? How many groups were involved?

I don't know how many groups were involved. Maine Equality is our counterpart, and I think they did a tremendous job. I think a lot of groups that really worked well together, you know Equal California sent 11 field staff to Maine to work on the campaign, and we organized phone banks out of our nine offices around the state, generating over 60,00 phone calls to Maine voters.

And the level of volunteer engagement and support we saw here in California was even stronger than we saw a year ago on Prop 8 here in California, so I think one of the things that came out of Prop 8 was a new level of activism, engagement, and people realizing that they needed to get involved in their own liberation, and they did, needed to get their friends and family involved, and if we continue to do that, and continue to reach out and continue to do the hard work, we'll continue to see progress.

Do you take any strategic lessons away from Maine, either on the organizing level or the messaging level, in terms of how you run your operation?

We haven't fully debriefed everyone, as they're in the process of flying back from Maine, but if you look at the early results it's clear that the "no" campaign did a really terrific job getting people to vote early, and that kind of work is critical. Despite having a very well-funded and well-organized campaign, the main lesson in what we need to do differently is we need to figure out how we best counter the right wing's lies. Because they will lie about what will happen in schools, they will lie about how this will impact children and lie about what domestic partnership does and doesn't do. And our main lesson from California, and I think it's the same for Maine, is you don't move people on an issue like marriage equality, which is more cultural than it is political, during the heat of an election, when both sides are flooding people with TV and different messages.

You move them in the years before the election, and when we've seen the greatest movement in California was in 2005 and 2007, not in 2008 before the election, and I think that was the same in Maine--that you see the movement before both sides are battling it out, and all [the public is] reading is differing opinions and views, and they're seeing the lies from the other side. So, to us, the most important lesson is we need to be doing the organizing and field work now, which we are, before we get back on the ballot, which we believe will be in 2012, because it's this year and next year and 2011 when we need to move people.

There are some people in California who want to do it in 2010, though, right?

There are.

But you think that that's...

You know, we appreciate the passion. We'd like to do it in 2010 too if we believed it was strategically the right choice, but if you look around the country where we've lost every one of these, it's the right wing picking the best election. They were gonna go on the ballot in 2006 in California, and what the polling showed them is they would be better off in 2008, when, if we won in court, and people were freaked out about the change and seeing the married couples, they picked the best strategic time. For the first time, our side gets to pick the most strategic time, and all the research shows that 2012 is significantly more advantageous than 2010 based on the demographics and who is likely to turn out to vote in a presidential race as compared to a governor's race.

What do you think the next California gay marriage campaign is going to look like? Are there gonna be changes mostly in fundraising, or ad campaigns--TV, direct mail--or canvassing? What do you need to work on and how is it gonna be different next time around?

You learn from every loss and every win, and I think we will have a vastly larger field campaign with a lot more volunteers. I don't think people will be complacent next time, and hopefully we'll be able to raise money earlier, because as people will understand that campaigns are most successful if they out-spend the other side and have the money early. I think the other difference is, because of all the engagement that now exists on this issue, poeple are involved in doing the work now. We're going door to door doing canvasses throughout the state. We've opened offices in Riverside and San Bernadino and San Diego and Orange County, and out in Coachella, an in Imperial to do this critical work. We have a storefront office in Fresno. Those are all changes to really be on the ground in each community where we need to educate and move the most voters.

Is the other side doing the same thing? Do you think that you're beating the other side to the punch right now?

I think we are, without question, doing a lot more work than the other side is right now. But what we have learned in every one of these campaigns and what we've learned in Maine is that they are able to activate their church network, and because their support is strongest among older voters who vote more often, we have to work harder to move voters in every age group and then turn out the voters that are most likely to vote for us.

Did Maine give you any window into what the other side might do in Califorina just in terms of tactics?... Anything in terms of ratio of advertising to ground organizing, etc.?

In Maine they did less advertising than our side, they had less of a field campaign than our side, but they focused on scaring people, and using the exact same ads that they used in California. So I think, for us, one of the things that's gonna be most critical is doing the work to educate Californians about why diversity education is a good thing. Children know that there are gay people, and teaching them to respect everyone is important, and that equality is a bedrock of our society, and to start doing that work ahead of time, so that when they use the scare tactics about schools it's not effective.

How do you like your chances next time around?

I think if we do the work we need to do and we can stay equal or out-raise the other side, I believe we will win in 2012.