Interview w/NGLTF Exec Dir. Rea Carey and Dir. of Organizing & Training Dan Hawes (part one)

by: Adam Bink

Fri Nov 20, 2009 at 10:00


Cross-posted at The Bilerico Project

I've been writing a lot on what happened in Maine (most recently this piece yesterday in a Los Angeles LGBT magazine), and where our movement should go from here. NGLTF had run much of the field program in Maine, as well as within the No On 8 campaign in California, so I sat down yesterday to do an interview with Rea Carey, the Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, to address some criticisms and her thoughts on the marriage equality movement. We were joined by Dan Hawes, Director of Organizing and Training, who heads up NGLTF's national field operations and ran the field program in Cumberland County, the most populous in the state.

This is part one related to the No On 1 campaign in Maine and the marriage equality movement in general. I'll be posting the second part, related to LGBT rights at the federal level and the performance of the Obama administration.

Among the highlights:

  • Dan commenting that the campaign "could have had a more direct message", "more lengthy conversations at the door with voters", and done more persuasion rather than "just trying to GOTV our supporters"
  • Rea commenting on marriage equality at the ballot box "we simply don't have enough people to win at the ballot box yet"
  • Rea and Dan declining to say whether re-run campaigns in California and Maine could have won, or definitively whether marriage equality is winnable in the short-term
  • Dan defending against criticisms made with respect to the field program in Maine, and praising various aspects of the campaign
  • Rea and Dan arguing that provided there is a plan and the time is right, despite the movement's recent losses and overall record at the ballot box, donors will "step up" to contribute the tens of millions necessary to win a Prop 8 repeal effort in California

Full transcript below the fold.

Q: What did you both think of the No On 1 campaign, the result, and where we go from here?

Dan: I think generally it was a well-run campaign with a disappointing result, where we were unable to build a solid majority who supported marriage equality. Our various polling within the campaign and outside the campaign showed we never started with 50% or more of Mainers who were on our side, but I felt like we could probably look piece-by-piece at the campaign, and there's always things we could do differently. But I felt like folks gave their best effort generally to work to win across the board.

Q: What could be done differently?

Dan: It's clear that we haven't yet built a majority of support for marriage, which is part of the problem- we go into these campaigns trying to build a majority rather than defend a majority at the ballot box which is very different. We need to figure out what message will be effective at moving voters to stand with us on marriage quality, which is a venture across the board on all these campaigns, which stands true in Maine as well.

Rea: I would just add to that, one of the things that's so striking having been in California and Maine and having many years under our belts with these things is this challenge in creating a majority vs. defending it. I was so struck, I went canvassing [Election Day] morning, and spoke with a number of voters including some Yes voters, and a gentleman who told me he had voted Yes, he was very nice, very kind about it, but he had voted Yes, and explained why and it was interesting because he said you know I have gay friends, he was a father of three, I have gay friends who were married in Massachusetts and I just feel I want them to have the protections, but I'm not there yet on voting for marriage.

I think there are unfortunately what we've seen in a number of states with trying different messaging and different tactics- and I agree with Dan that every campaign has some different and something that can be learned from and improved upon- we simply don't have enough people to win at the ballot box yet. I absolutely think we're going to get there. I think if you look at the trajectory over the last twenty years, even in a state like California where we used to be behind by twenty points, now we're behind by about four, the trajectory is moving in the right direction, we're just not there yet.

Q: You both have said that we don't have the number of votes, we're short, which is certainly an important point with regard to the electorate. My question originally, though, was what could be done differently? Or was it a flawless campaign, was it near-flawless?

Adam Bink :: Interview w/NGLTF Exec Dir. Rea Carey and Dir. of Organizing & Training Dan Hawes (part one)
Dan: Because we didn't win, we could have had a more direct message that made an even harder case on the merits about why same-sex couples deserve the right to marry and again, I don't think we know what that is because we haven't won any of these yet. And additionally, we may have been able to try, you know hindsight is 20/20 vision, but more lengthy conversations at the door with voters. What's happening with these campaigns is the margin is getting closer and closer, and we have this slice of the electorate that's consistently breaking against us on Election Day. So we may have been able to do lengthier conversations at the door to try to shore up that squishy section of the electorate, to firm up their votes, rather than just trying to GOTV our supporters, trying to change the hearts and minds of the voters.

Q: There wasn't enough persuasion?

Dan: Well, the campaign had made a choice that all of us had agreed with that we would work to out-organize the opposition by turning out more of our supporters than the other side. In some places that worked and but there were some voters who ended up voting who moved against us. Had we been able to have lengthier conversations about them with the issue we may have been able to shore up that support. All of this is my immediate reaction to the election, not based on a deep analysis.

Rea: We're looking forward to data coming out. It's not only lengthier conversations, its more conversations, how do we engage people. I mean, the volunteer effort in this campaign was extraordinary. I mean, you saw it on election night- it was just this outpouring of people. In my little canvassing group, it was a diverse group. Multiple conversations over time with people coming from different perspectives. I think what we don't know and we simply don't have the data and I'm aware there's some post-election analysis being done, is whether that gets us the points we need. Can we get one more point out of that? Still doesn't win us the election. So what are the different deeply emotional reasons people vote the way they vote? This is not a head thing, this is a heart thing. We talk about changing hearts and minds... the hearts come first, I think. And it's just- there's no magic bullet that is going to change any of these states.

Q: So you both have said that we start short. A lot of folks have said that until perhaps older, more conservative people become a smaller share of the electorate, we're hamstrung and won't win at the ballot box. Do you think something could have been done differently to win in California and Maine, or are we just short and we have some work to do and years to wait?

Dan: Pure speculation to say definitively whether we could have switched 32,000 votes before Election Day. There's been some work in California we've been a part of where they've been piloting persuasion conversations with former Yes on 8 voters, many of them the demographic you talk about, the older electorate that tend to skew against us, and having elaborate conversations at the door to unearth the reason they voted Yes. We've had some success at the door, changing the minds of voters who voted against us, either to move them to undecided or supportive of marriage equality. I don't think waiting for a section of the electorate to die off which is what that argument implies is ever a good strategy, because we need to be continuing the conversation now about why we deserve to get married.

Rea: It is also educating and partnering with young voters because I agree, I prefer not to wait for people to die off to win. It is the so-called attrition strategy. But we do know younger voters are already with us, need to make sure they stay with us, some people who grow older get more conservative, and some don't. But we need to make sure younger voters who are coming into their time to vote with their opinions are supportive, that's very clear.

Q: So these campaigns are winnable now, if we re-ran Prop 8, re-ran No On 1, they are winnable?

Dan: No, I don't think any of us can say that, I think what we can say is there's room to figure out what else we can do to move more voters to be with us. We know there's a body of things that haven't been working. What is holding voters back as the margin is narrowing and we have a smaller and smaller group of people we need to persuade, we just need to unearth what to do.

Rea: You asked can we win now?

Q: You said we don't need to wait-

Rea: Well, we don't need to wait for a generation of people to die, so no, we don't want to wait 20 years, and I don't think we have to.

Q: I'm just trying to clarify- because there's a serious debate over this. The argument goes that No On Prop 8 ran a poor campaign, No On 1 ran a great campaign, and neither was successful because the electorate isn't there, so are these winnable now? In 2010, can we win?

Rea: I think we need more analysis out of Maine. These will be winnable at some point. We believe we can win or in some states defend. But we're still learning, and know we don't have that majority. What's going to take to get them, I think we're getting more and more sophisticated in terms of what we need to ask, what types of pilots we need to run. The Task Force is part of a coalition of orgs that said we do NOT want a ballot measure in California in 2010.

Dan: When our community is attacked, we have to stand up and fight back. We've never had to put this on the ballot box, the opposition has been doing that for us. Now we have to go back to undo amendments in places like California, Oregon, elsewhere. Every time we fight, we're advancing marriage with the public through the conversations we're having with the electorate. In ME we talked with 135,000 voter contacts in the final month of the campaign, and we heard anecdote after anecdote about people's perspectives on marriage changing at the door, and we've seen incredible movement in the electorate and public polls nationally about how much rapid change there's been. Sometimes even when we lose, we lose forward, so we keep the momentum going.

Rea: One of the things I've seen, particularly since California, is that the volunteers, the people who want to have conversations, the people who want to give money, is increasing in the number of straight allies. In my canvassing group there were straight allies. I was in LA last weekend and there was a gathering of people, almost the entire party were straight allies. And these are people who went through the California experience, don't want to see discrimination. I think that's been very encouraging that so many straight allies have come out and said enough, we're going to put our time and money into this.

Q: Turning to NGLTF's work on the campaign, did NGLTF make any mistakes?

Dan: I feel like generally we feel really proud about the work we did, we raised close to $700,000 of the campaign budget, and in terms of implementing a campaign strategy that was decided by the leadership to be the strategy to win, we implemented the field plan to the best of our ability. People who had been doing consulting in Maine for decades told us that the GOTV operation we built was the largest that had ever been built in Maine, on any issue, including presidential years. So I think we could look back and look at the minutiae of what we did and critique some individual pieces of it, but I think in terms of the overall result, we feel really good about it.

Q: A number of sources in the campaign made two criticisms to me, one was that there was an emphasis on door knocks over voter contacts, the second that NGLTF refused to remove fundraising from the canvass script even as it made potential volunteers decline to participate and also may have hurt among voters at the door. Do you have any response to that?

Dan: There was internal debate within the field team about what the metrics should be for our success, we don't have any control over who's answering the door when we're doing GOTV. So the campaign had decided that the thing that was in our control is the rate at which our volunteers go door-to-door, so the way we're able to measure metrics is the number of houses that we knock on, because if people are home, of course our volunteers is going to talk to the voter and urge them to GOTV. So ultimately what we wanted to measure was how many voters we turn out the vote, but because we don't have control over who we talk to, the way that we generally measure how on track we were, was how many shifts we filled, how many doors we were able to knock on.

Rea: And we talked to a lot of voters.

Dan: In terms of the fundraising critique, while the campaign had sign outraised the other side, we never wanted to take anything for granted in terms of being able to say, okay, we're just going to stop fundraising at this stage, because we wanted flexibility in terms of what might emerge, having money is important for that. In the work we were doing to recruit volunteers and train them, we didn't find any significant drop-off in the number of people that were participating because there was a fundraising ask in the script. So from our perspective, that wasn't a big deterrent in terms of pulling together the team we needed to do well.

Q: In the field program, was there anything you would do different?

Dan: In retrospect, we would probably have dedicated more volunteers to doing persuasion at the door. We had made an assumption that despite the fact that we built this huge GOTV operation, it wasn't enough to win, so had we been able to change more hearts and minds, maybe that would have made a difference in the final result.

Q: On Organizing for America and the Obama administration's work, the Obama administration released a statement with regard to the ballot initiative without mentioning the words "Maine" "Question 1" or "No". OFA sent an e-mail to Maine members without asking for a No vote. OFA also sent an e-mail to Maine voters asking them to call New Jersey voters, which was later admitted by DNC Treasurer Andy Tobias to be insensitive. Should OFA have done something differently?

Rea: There definitely should have been more attention paid to getting people out to vote. Yes, we'd like to have seen more attention paid to getting people to vote on this issue. And yes, President Obama should have called for a No vote in Maine.

Q: Turning to California and 2010, earlier this week, Love Honor Cherish announced they are doing a signature drive to put a measure on the ballot to repeal Prop 8. Are you supportive of that move?

Rea: We're supportive of winning when we have enough voters to win. We were part of a coalition that has said that 2010 is NOT the right time to go to the ballot box.

Q: If it goes on the ballot, will NGLTF work on the campaign?

Dan: We're already working with Equality California and Vote for Equality doing public persuasion, so we would fully support continuing that work.

Rea: We would need to see the campaign structure. What we're committed to do is continuing that public education in California, when we lose by 22 points, coming back to losing a little over 4, that's progress that has been made in those years. We're committed to doing the door-to-door, grassroots, talking to the people that it will take to win marriage in California at some point.

Q: John Henning, executive director of Love Honor Cherish, said, "What happens in a state that is 3,000 miles away and 1/30 the size of California doesn't really affect what happens in California." Do you agree?

Dan: Ultimately California voters will decide what will happen with the fate of Prop 8. The group of people who make up the electorate that will decide this, I think that's true. Part of the reason the Task Force works on these measures, both in terms of the learning we gain from each and the result, will Maine directly impact our ability to win California? Probably not that much.

Rea: And there are similarities between states and campaigns and there are differences. What I do know is that state advocates are committed to learning from each other even if the state demographics are different. It's interesting in Maine they used the same or similar ads they used in California. The opposition thought there was something to be done in their strategy where they learned from California. We in the movement do is the same- what worked, what didn't work, what do we know about the voters and we apply it to the next campaign.

Q: Do you think it will affect donors? As you know, it takes tens of millions of dollars to win in California. Are you concerned there is a fatigue among donors, an unwillingness to fund another losing measure?

Dan: When people know that this is the only vehicle we have to reclaim marriage. People had said the same thing about Maine and yet they had raised four times as much money in Maine that they had ever raised for any LGBT-related initiative in Maine, and there's been a lot of them. Our experience has been that when people are called to step up, they'll give.

Rea: You've seen the polls coming out of LA, donors and voters saying we're not so sure we want to take this up quite yet. I do think for many people in these states, going through such an intense campaign, whether they work on it or not, is a very emotional experience. As we've seen this last year, Prop 8 was both galvanizing and very hard for people to go through, and we need the time to learn, we need the time to make the case that a campaign is going to be strong and move the ball forward in some capacity. And I do think people will step up again in California when they believe the time is right and when we have a plan to do that.

(Coming up: part two on the Obama administration and LGBT rights at the federal level)


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