Montana tea party mired in attacks on gays

MATT GOURAS  |  Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. —Tea party leaders stung by turmoil over anti-gay rhetoric from their ranks acknowledge the publicity over the issue hurts the movement but hope the rancor will be short-lived.

The Big Sky Tea Party Association was splintered at the top when it canned its president after learning of his part in an online anti-gay discussion. Some backed the president, Tim Ravndal, forcing the board to revisit the sticky issue before deciding to stick with its decision to remove Ravndal from leadership while making it clear he remains a member of the group.

The episode marks the first public setback for a new movement that has attracted throngs of supporters angry over federal spending and other issues.

“I’m not sure that we know for sure what the impacts are going to be,” said Jim Walker, chairman of the Helena-area group. “I suspect there is going to be some negative impact within the tea party group here in Montana. I am not sure it will have adverse effects on the groups outside of Helena.”

Some members left the group after the decision, arguing it should back Ravndal, who was fired for comments he made in an online Facebook discussion that appeared to joke about the 1998 Wyoming beating death of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student. Ravndal claims he did not understand what his online friend was talking about.

The situation opened the group up to criticism that its leaders have intolerant, extremist views, especially given other online postings made recently by other Montana tea party activists.

Political observers said the tea party, a political movement still in its infancy and without much central organization, has to be careful delving into social issues. In Helena, the group is opposing a proposed sex education plan and other leaders have also said they oppose gay marriage.

“I think they are outside of the stated concerns of the tea party,” said political scientist Jim Lopach. “The tea party success has come from their ability to tap into some real concerns of the electorate, and those concerns do not deal with gay rights but they deal with the size of government and the function of government and the openness of government to citizen concerns.”

Lopach said the staunch opposition to gay rights does not mix well with the message of individual freedom that often resonates with Montana voters.

“It clouds the message. It raises ambivalence. It makes its message ambiguous, thereby it raises ambivalence in the public. They wonder ‘what are they really getting at?”’ Lopach said.

Democrats believe the Montana tea party is permanently damaged, and its leaders exposed as fringe elements not in the mainstream.

“The anti-gay, bigoted rhetoric coming from the tea party is a real turnoff to moderate, open-minded people,” said Montana Democratic Party spokesman Martin Kidston. “The tea party continues to show its true colors with each hate-filled rally and Facebook posting, and, as a result, the movement robbed itself long ago of any credibility.”

Ravndal’s comments aren’t the only high-profile gay bashing by those associated with the tea party.

Jason Priest, a Red Lodge Republican running for a state Senate seat, used Facebook to refer to an economist as a “a big homo,” among other vulgarities.

And gay rights issues play prominently for former Big Sky Tea Party Association secretary Kristi Allen-Gailushas, who resigned over the Ravndal issue. She used Facebook to declare: “The Gay community wants a war. They’ve got one!!”

But Lopach said the movement still has a strong core message that could be effective in motivating voters as an election nears. It’s unclear if the high-profile issues will hurt the movement.

—  John Wright

Reid sets DADT vote

Unless measure passes before November elections, Republican gains could mean an end to repeal possibilities for the time being

Lisa Keen  |  Keen News Service lisakeen@me.com

Pop star Lady Gaga attended the VMAs on Sunday night
MAKING A POINT | Pop star Lady Gaga attended the VMAs on Sunday night, Sept. 12, with three former servicemembers who were discharged under DADT and a former West Point cadet who resigned from the academy to protest the anti-gay policy. (Matt Sayles/Associated Press)

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said Monday, Sept. 13, that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would bring the defense spending bill with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal measure to the floor next week.

Reid himself confirmed the decision in a post on Twitter, in response to a call by pop star Lady Gaga following MTV’s Video Music Awards on Sunday night, Sept. 12.

Gaga attended the awards show with three LGBT former servicemembers who were discharged under DADT and a former West Point cadet who left the academy in protest over the policy.

The four were U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. David Hall, former U.S. Air Force Major Mike Almy, former U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Stacy Vasquez and former West Point cadet Katie Miller, all members of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

The pop star then spoke about the importance of repealing DADT during an interview with Ellen DeGeneres after the VMAs.

The following day, Gaga sent a Tweet to all her followers urging them to contact Reid and urge him to schedule a Senate vote on repeal. Reid responded with a Tweet saying the vote had been scheduled for this coming week.

The decision — if it sticks — is an important step forward for activists hoping to repeal the federal law that bans openly gay servicemembers from the military.

Many political observers are predicting that Republicans could take over the majority in the Senate and/or House at the mid-term elections. Such a development would almost certainly kill any chance of repeal for DADT during President Barack Obama’s first term.

The DADT repeal language was attached to the annual bill that authorizes Department of Defense spending. The language calls for repeal of the military’s ban on gay servicemembers to begin after the Secretary of Defense receives an “implementation report” he has asked for, due Dec. 1, and after the president, defense secretary and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff have signed a statement certifying that they have considered whatever recommendations are made in the report, prepared the necessary regulations to accompany repeal, and certified that repeal is “consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces.”

Fiscal year 2011 begins Oct. 1. With the congressional clock ticking down the last days of fiscal year 2010, the pressure is on to finish off remaining budget bills authorizing spending and appropriating FY 2011 monies.

If Congress fails to settle its budget bills by the end of FY 2010, it has the option of passing “continuing resolutions” — bills that simply set the next year’s fiscal budget at the same levels as the current year.

According to the New York Times, the Senate typically spends about two weeks on the defense spending bill. Last year’s defense authorization bill was passed by the Senate in July, but it took lawmakers more than two months to resolve differences between the Senate and House versions.

So, there is no certainty that DADT will, in fact, come up during the first week or that it will even get a vote before FY 2010 runs out.

Meanwhile, when the defense authorization bill does come to the floor and the Senate begins debate on the language seeking to repeal DADT, the debate is expected to be vigorous, at least from opponents.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other Republicans have made clear they are steadfastly against repeal. The question is whether Democrats believe support for repeal could lose them votes during the mid-term elections, and potentially control of Congress.

© 2010 Keen News Service

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

The parents were not all right: Why Prop 8 passed

Newly released study says ads claiming same-sex marriage would endanger children, run late in the campaign, swayed enough parents to pass California’s anti-gay marriage amendment

Lisa Keen  |  Keen News Service LisaKeen@aol.com

David Fleischer
BY THE NUMBERS | David Fleischer talks to volunteers about results of a poll of Boston voters on the issue of same-sex marriage in 2004. This week, Fleischer released a study he conducted on what swayed voters to pass Proposition 8 in California in 2008. (Stanley Hu/Associated Press)

Proposition 8 passed in November 2008 because parents with kids living at home were scared and the LGBT community did nothing to assuage that fear.

That’s the conclusion of an exhaustive, 448-page analysis of the vote on California’s Proposition 8, which passed by 52 percent-to-48 percent — or barely 600,000 votes — in an election in which 13.7 million votes were cast.

But 500,000 of those 600,000 votes were ready to side with the LGBT community against Proposition 8 up until the last six weeks of the campaign.

During those last six weeks, explained the report’s author, David Fleischer, the Yes on 8 campaign saturated the television airwaves with advertisements that borrowed from the 30-year-old Anita Bryant “Save the Children” campaign from 1977.

The advertisements — also used successfully in 2009 in Maine — told parents that the legalization of same-sex marriage would require public schools to teach children that same-sex marriage is a viable option for them. The No on 8 campaign failed to respond directly and quickly to that claim and, thus, lost the vote.

Fleischer’s analysis — “The Prop 8 Report: What Defeat in California Can Teach Us about Winning Future Ballot Measures on Same-sex Marriage,” — was released Aug. 3 and drives home the point that “anti-gay forces know how to exploit and stimulate anti-gay prejudice, and the LGBT community has difficulty facing and responding to the attack.”

“Recycling a lie as old as Anita Bryant’s ‘Save the Children’ campaign in 1977,” said Fleischer, “the anti-gay Yes on 8 campaign whipped up fears about kids to move voters to its side.”

Fleischer rejected analyses proffered by other political observers who suggested that African-American voters had been the deciding factor in the Proposition 8 vote. He also rejected a recent analysis by political scientist Patrick Egan, who said spending large amounts of money on ad campaigns has no impact because most voters’ minds on gay ballot measures are made up long before election day.

Instead, Fleischer lays the passage of Proposition 8 at the feet of “parents with children under 18 living at home,” saying that about 500,000 such voters switched from “no” to “yes” on 8 in the closing weeks. And he says the No on 8 ad campaign could have made a difference if it had responded quickly and directly to the fears parlayed by the Yes on 8 ads.

The most effective Yes on 8 ad, said Fleischer, was one showing a little girl coming home and telling her mother that she had just learned in school that a prince can marry a prince and that she could marry a princess.

The narrator then claimed that, “When Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, schools began teaching second-graders that boys can marry boys. … The courts ruled parents had no right to object.”

“The lesson of the ‘Yes on 8’ campaign,” said Fleischer, is that “when parents hear that their kids are in danger, even if it’s a lie, some of them believe it — particularly when the lie largely goes unanswered.”

“Those ads are fear-mongering directed at parents to make them think their children are in danger,” said Fleischer, during a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Aug. 3.

He noted that daily polling data showed that adults with no children at home did not show any change in their plans to vote against Proposition 8 once the so-called “Princes” ad started airing, but adults with children at home changed their plans — from voting against to voting for Proposition 8 — in dramatic numbers.

The “Princes” ad was on the air by Oct. 7, just a week after Yes on 8 had begun airing another TV ad in which San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was shown telling a crowd that gay marriage is “going to happen — whether you like it or not.”

Prior to those ads going up, said Fleischer, polling showed a virtual tie on the Proposition 8 question.

“Yes on 8’s fear-mongering about children was particularly effective because No on 8 waited 17 of the 30 days remaining until the election was over to directly respond,” said Fleischer.

“[W]hen an anti-LGBT campaign alleging indoctrination of kids unfolds on TV; and when that campaign is well-funded enough that the average voters see ads exploiting anti-gay prejudice five or more times each week for four to five weeks; then the ads generate, awaken, reawaken or reinforce a response among some voters that moves them to vote against the LGBT community,” wrote Fleischer in his report.

The report can be viewed in its entirety at Prop8Report.org.

Fleischer spent many years training openly gay candidates to run for elective office as a part of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and then the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. He notes, in the report, that he has participated in more than 100 campaigns to “preempt, stop, delay, and overcome anti-LGBT ballot measures.”

His analysis examined more than 10,000 pages of data and related documents and included more than 40 hours of interviews with No on 8 officials. Fleischer also analyzed the use and penetration of every television ad aired by both the pro- and anti-gay campaigns in Proposition 8.

Fleischer says data shows that the initiative, approved by a margin of about 600,000 votes, secured 687,000 votes in the last six weeks of the campaign. More than 500,000 of these crucial last-minute shifters were parents with children under 18 living at home.

Parents, noted Fleischer, comprised about 30 percent of the 13.7 million voters in California in November 2008. While Yes on 8 initially had only a two-point lead over No on 8 in this 4 million-strong demographic group, it had a 24-point lead on election day.

“Overall, parents with kids under 18 at home began the campaign evenly divided on same-sex marriage,” said Fleischer, “but ended up against us by a lopsided margin.”

But they weren’t the only groups to shift away from a pro-gay position.

“Other groups that moved significantly in favor of the ban on same-sex marriage included white Democrats (by 24 points), voters in the greater Bay Area (31 points), voters age 30-39 (29 points), and Independent voters (26 points).”

Fleischer criticized the No on 8 campaign for delegating “too much of the thinking and therefore too much of the de facto decision-making” to consultants. And he said its message to voters was “vague, inconsistent, and too often de-gayed, reducing its power to persuade.”

No on 8 took too long to respond to the “Princes” ad, said Fleischer, because its decision-makers “did not choose to directly respond to the attack.”

There had been a change in leadership in the No on 8 campaign just a week before “Princes” began airing, and the new decisions-makers also hired a new media firm to create their ads. But their failure to act quickly and directly was hardly anything new.

“The LGBT community has historically avoided responding directly to the issue of kids,” said Fleischer, “in part out of the belief that no response will defuse the issue, and in part out of a wish not to have to face this unfair, untrue defamation.”

But that failure to respond, said Fleischer, amounts to a “decision not to defend LGBT people as trustworthy.”

Ballot measures over gay civil rights issues have been taking place throughout the United States since 1974, but pro-gay ballot campaigns didn’t even use the word “gay” until 2002 and didn’t use an openly gay spokesperson until 2004.

Although acknowledging that he had not studied Maine as thoroughly as California, Fleischer also criticized the No on 1 campaign there that fought an initiative to repeal the state’s marriage equality law.

He said the  No on 1 campaign also avoided responding directly to the “kids are in danger” ads and even avoided using the word “gay” in all but one of their own ads.

Rather than respond to the Yes on 1’s claim that marriage equality would put the kids of voters in danger, noted Fleischer, No on 1 talked about the need to protect gay kids and children with gay parents.

Post-election data from Maine’s campaign — which repealed its marriage equality law in 2009 — suggested the parents’ concerns there were not that kids would experiment with being gay. Instead, said Fleischer, parents were concerned their kids would accept gay couples and that other kids would be raised by gay parents.

Fleischer strongly recommended that the LGBT community not return to the ballot box “until we are prepared to vitiate this [child-related fear-mongering] attack.”

He also urges future campaigns to adopt a more modern approach to campaigning — one that calls for quick, direct and forceful responses to attacks.

Fleischer’s analysis was not entirely critical of the No on 8 campaign. He credited the campaign with enlisting a “record-breaking” number of volunteers and dollars, and making “a series of smart choices that maximized the number of dollars raised and volunteers involved.”

Kate Kendell, one of the best known No on 8 leaders, said of Fleischer’s report, “I think we need to learn all we can about how to win these campaigns and we need to digest all the info we get to do that.”

Meanwhile, Equality California, which was a key component of the No on 8 campaign in 2008, issued a press release July 20 indicating it plans to organize for a ballot measure to repeal Proposition 8 in 2012.

© 2010 Keen News Service

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 6, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas