by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Staff Writer
This week, Washington voters approved Referendum 71, upholding a state law that provides important legal protections and grants the same rights and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex and senior registered domestic partners as married couples.
On election night, Referendum 71 was touted as too close to call. As SGN goes to press, the Associated Press has declared victory for the Approve Referendum 71 Campaign, making Washington State the first state in the nation to support domestic partnership by popular vote.
Approve Referendum 71 Campaign Manager Josh Friedes, and Campaign Chair Anne Levinson both said that because Referendum 71 made the ballot, Washingtonians now have a greater understanding of the challenges faced by Gay and Lesbian families and the legal protections they lack.
"Were it not for the referendum, the law would have just quietly gone into effect in July," Levinson told a crowd of supporters gathered at the Approve Referendum 71 Campaign party on Capitol Hill on November 3. "By forcing the referendum, Protect Marriage Washington, the Family Policy Institute, and the National Organization for Marriage have likely done quite a lot to advance the cause of full equality for Lesbian and Gay families in Washington State."
Voters across the state, she said, listened to the personal stories of Gay and Lesbian families, and the challenges they face. "It was profoundly wrong for someone to try to eliminate the rights of others," she added.
"Based on returns so far, they are sending a resounding message: we want to see all families treated equally under the law," Levinson said. "We believe the end result of this election will be a win - not just for the couples and families, but for all Washingtonians who believe in values of fairness and equality."
Friedes couldn't agree more, telling SGN, "We are up 52-48, and the margin is increasing."
"We moved the ball down the court towards full equality during this campaign," said Friedes. "We maximized opportunities to empower people to tell their stories - to reach out to their friends, family, and co-workers. In building the broad coalition we did, we brought groups to the table that, we hope, will continue to work on a host of issues that are important to the LGBT community. Our bond with labor, faith, and communities of color are as strong as they have ever been because we built a very, very diverse coalition and invited them to participate in the campaign and engaged their membership to do the same."
THE ROAD TO VICTORY
The price tag to approve Referendum 71 was a hefty $2 million. In addition, countless hours, stretched out over a tremendously short six-week campaign, were devoted to visibility, making phone calls, knocking on doors, and waving signs. Efforts, Friedes says, made all the difference.
"As of Election Day 2009, we had already made 270,000 phone calls from phone banks organized throughout the state," he told SGN. "In the final two weekends leading up to November 3, we knocked on over 15,000 doors in Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane."
One of the most exciting and effective tools for the campaign, according to Friedes, was the usage of the social network Facebook, primarily managed by Joe Mirabella, who reports the membership of the campaign's page has exceeded 40,000 people.
Friedes said over 1,000 letters to the editor were written from the campaign's website "letter to the editor" tool.
"Thousands of people wrote to newspaper editors to tell their personal stories in order to ensure Referendum 71 would be approved," he said. "A newspaper in Tacoma said that for every one 'reject' letter, they would receive 10 letters from the 'approve' side."
In addition to electronic campaign material, Friedes says the Approve Referendum 71 Campaign was able to "get out well over 250,000 pieces of literature to voters."
"We saw amazing activism from churches and synagogues throughout the state during the final weeks of the campaign," he told SGN. "Together, the community built a broad coalition of over 280 non-profit allies, labor unions and associations, 150 members of clergy, and 50 congregations and faith organizations, small businesses and large employers such as Nike, Starbucks, Google, Microsoft, and Group Health, and newspapers across the state, such as the Seattle Gay News, that spoke eloquently in support of Referendum 71."
Perhaps the most significant, and certainly symbolic fact from the Approve Referendum 71 Campaign was that the median contribution from the more than 5,300 contributions was $71.
A STRONG LGBT DELEGATION
There's no question that Washington State is blessed with an incredibly strong LGBT legislative delegation which worked closely with the campaign responsible for advocating the approval of Referendum 71.
"Senator Ed Murray was a very, very strong fundraising force for our campaign," Friedes said. "In addition, Murray did a recorded call to remind voters to mail in their ballots."
Representative Jamie Pedersen, serving the 43rd District, "frequently rallied our base and participated in our initial Seattle organizing meeting," said Friedes.
"Representative Jim Moeller was on the campaign coordinating committee making sure we remained connected to Vancouver," he said. "Senator Joe McDermott made numerous speeches at fundraisers and other events. I should also mention Representative Dave Upthegrove, who worked on a few forums with us."
And Friedes added that without "their incredible leadership in the legislature, we wouldn't have had a law to defend to begin with."
The campaign manager said, "There are a lot of straight legislatures, in addition to our LGBT legislative delegation, that helped with this effort. We shouldn't forget we have a lot of straight allies. Many of them sent out e-mails to their e-mail lists and made sure that their local democratic organizations endorsed the campaign."
A VISIBLE CAMPAIGN
The Approve Referendum 71 Campaign seemed to have no shortage of volunteers. From LGBT and Capitol Hill pub crawls, sign waving, voter registration, tabling, and TV ads, the campaign had tremendous support from a community who wasn't about to sit by and watch important protections for LGBT couples and some seniors, be taken away.
The most recognizable and visible "face" for the campaign was Charlene Strong, who lost her partner, Kate Fleming, after a tragic flooding incident in Seattle in 2006. Strong was nearly barred from seeing Fleming in her last moments of life. Her heart-wrenching testimony about the hospital ordeal helped prompt Washington State to pass the domestic partnership protections.
Throughout the campaign, Strong agreed to numerous public speaking engagements and recorded the most-viewed TV advertisement for the Approve Referendum 71 Campaign.
"Charlene Strong has been a very powerful advocate through the passage of the entire domestic partnership system. She had so much exposure in the media that she has become sort of a household name - and a friend," Friedes told SGN. "Her TV ads were particularly powerful because people remembered her story and how she turned her tragedy into a vehicle for social good for all Washingtonians."
In fact, Strong's experience was so compelling, Friedes says, he learned of people who were opposed to the domestic partnership law who later became uncertain as to how they would vote after hearing her story.
"Charlene really got them to think about the issue," he said. "We may not have won them this election, but their minds are open to conversation. Through her willingness to tell her story, she's helped people realize the real harm that could happen if the law was rejected."
Another familiar face of the Approve Referendum 71 Campaign is Josh Castle, field coordinator for the effort. Castle said his euphoria is hard to describe with words.
"I'm absolutely thrilled! The team of volunteers and I put our lives on hold and worked tirelessly the last few months to register voters, sign up volunteers, fundraise, and remind people to vote. It's wonderful to see our efforts pay off big time, and we may soon be celebrating a historic victory!" Castle told SGN. "Our hard work ensured the protection of all Washington State families and brought significant relief to those who simply want the right to visit their sick partner is the hospital, or the security that comes with pension benefits."
Castle said the smiles and warmth the volunteers received wherever they went was amazing.
"In particular, I remember walking into the Crescent, a bar on Capitol Hill, during one of our bar crawls. The owner of the bar saw our 'Approve Ref. 71' buttons and the clipboards. He ran up to me and insisted on a speech," said Castle. "That gave me the opportunity to speak to a few hundred people about voting to approve the referendum. We asked for donations, and as soon as I pointed out the other volunteers, people rushed over to them in waves and graciously donated to the campaign."
He said that throughout all of the organizing and tabling efforts, he was surprised at the eagerness from youth.
"This campaign has motivated young people, many of whom voted for the first time November 3," he told SGN.
The Approve Referendum 71 Campaign has galvanized the LGBT community like never before, Castle said. People who previously had no interest in voting or being involved were calling the campaign and asking how they could help.
"We are a united community like I've never seen before," he said. "The volunteers showed up, did the hard work, and made things happen. This victory shows that if we work together and stand up united against bigoted forces, we will win!
This election, he said, has "made me very hopeful for the future of Washington State and the continued pursuit of equality for LGBT Washingtonians."
A WINNING CAMPAIGN
According to Josh Friedes, there isn't just one way to win a campaign. In fact, he says one of the things they did right was to run a transparent campaign.
"One of the biggest challenges for any political campaign is while you want to be transparent and you want your supporters and allies to know what you are doing, you don't want your opponents to know," Friedes said. "That is a major communication challenge."
Friedes acknowledges that during the signature gathering process by Protect Marriage Washington, many in the LGBT community were asking the question, "Where is our campaign?"
"During that signature gathering process, we built a massive coalition," he said. "But we were a very quiet coalition. Being quiet during that time is not an unusual strategy."
He said they didn't want to help the signature gatherers with any visibility. In a sense, if the campaign didn't talk about the process, then people wouldn't go out and look for petitions to sign.
"We did have a fair degree of success with that," he adds, "they turned in the smallest number of verified signatures to every qualify for the ballot."
Friedes said, looking back, one major bump in the road early on was "when the Boston-based organization Know Thy Neighbor said they would post the names of the people who signed petitions online."
"That created a very negative backlash and gave our opponents a boost," he said, " I think it's worth pondering the question of, had that not happened, would the measure have qualified at all?"
Despite the campaign's rocky start, nobody can argue that during the past six weeks, the LGBT community saw a winning campaign being waged from all corners of the state.
One of the things the campaign says they are most proud of is how they introduced many Washingtonians to the fact that Gay and Lesbian couples grow old together, which helped them to address issues that face all senior citizens in Washington State. Issues, Friedes says, that go far beyond domestic partnership and marriage.
"One of the things we are particularly pleased with is that technology has changed the way we do campaigning," explained Friedes. "The people that got our mail and phone calls were people [who] we believed needed to be reminded to vote, or needed a little more information about the domestic partnership law."
He said if the campaign believed people on their contact lists were perfect voters - meaning they voted in almost every election or they believed they would vote to approve Referendum 71 - the "only touches they were likely to get from us would be an e-mail asking them to volunteer."
Only in the final days of the campaign did they contact frequent voters, he said. "We were very strategic in the use of our resources."
Referendum 71 was approved and the protections of over 12,000 registered domestic partners are intact. Maine did not fare as well as Washington on November 3 - however, a major shift has taken place; Washingtonians proved that the LGBT community can win at the ballot box.
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