Washington is one of four states that will vote on same-sex marriage in just a few weeks. History is on the line, as one of these states could be the first to approve gay marriage by a vote of the people. The campaigns on both sides are intensifying efforts to connect with voters but there’s a stark contrast in their strategies.
Here, gay marriage opponents have set up their campaign headquarters in a quiet strip mall just off I-5 in Lynnwood. Their office is tucked in next to a hair salon, a dry cleaners and a chain pizza restaurant.
Chip White, communications director for Preserve Marriage Washington, describes it as nerve central for the entire state. His group gathered more than a quarter-million signatures to put Referendum 74 on the ballot. It asks voters to approve or reject the marriage equality law passed by the Legislature earlier this year.
White recently invited reporters to check out their base of operations. It looked pretty bare bones with just a few volunteers on hand to sort and stuff voter packets.
White was reluctant to allow any interviews with the volunteers, saying they were too busy. He asked them to say just their name, age and where they live.
Tacoma resident Kyler Phillips, 23, was packing up some books. When I asked why she decided to volunteer with the campaign, White jumped in.
“Well, I mean, they believe in supporting the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman,” White said. “But if you’d rather hear Kyler say that, you can go ahead and ask her.”
Phillips gave a similar explanation.
“Because I know that God designed for marriage to be between one man and woman,” she said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be and that’s the way God intended it for a reason. So – ”
“Thanks Kyler,” White said, cutting her off.
White politely escorted me along. We passed by the woman in charge of their social media. I asked for a quick interview but they both agreed she was too busy.
Instead, White described how they’re tapping the network of people who signed petitions to put R74 to a vote.
“So, those thousands of volunteers throughout the state, they can be on Facebook, they can be on Twitter communicating to their friends, their lists, their networks and using that kind of real personal touch,” White said.
He’s confident their base will come through.
On the other side of the issue, supporters of same-sex marriage are feverishly working to reach out to voters they don’t already know — to complete strangers.
The campaign, Washington United for Marriage, has several phone banks going around the state nearly every evening. At each one, groups of volunteers make call after call down an automated list of registered voters. A lot of calls end with an abrupt hang-up.
But regular volunteers, like Kyle Bain, say persistence eventually pays off. Bain recounts one of his best calls with an older woman in Eastern Washington who was leaning toward a "no" vote.
“We had a great chat,” Bain says. “Eventually her husband got on phone. We had a three-way conversation. We talked for probably over half an hour and it was really in-depth. I was crying by the end of it. We both shared a lot of personal stories; made a lot of headway.”
Bain says by the end of the call, the husband moved from "no" to undecided. The woman said she’d vote "yes." That’s known here as a “persuasion.” The campaign says it’s chalked up more than 4,000 calls like that so far.
If you compare the visibility of both campaigns, Washington United for Marriage has been much more in the public eye. Supporters started airing TV ads during the summer Olympics. They’ve gotten attention from the steady stream of endorsements from big companies like Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon. The campaign’s public events calendar is packed with daily events for phone banks, door-to-door canvassing and other voter outreach.
Campaign manager Zack Silk sees a clear difference in strategy between his side and the other.
“We’ve wanted to make this a very public conversation,” Silk says. “And they’ve, it seems, tried to make it a private conversation. We know that it’s happening, that they are doing a lot of organizing, but it’s very much under the surface.”
Chris Plante is the Campaign Manager for Preserve Marriage Washington. He says there’s a simple reason why some of their supporters and potential donors want to keep a lower profile.
“Because, quite frankly, the environment is such that when a corporation or a major donor comes forward on our side, they are harassed and they are deeply afraid of the protest and the backlash,” Plante says.
Boycotts have targeted businesses on both sides. Plante points to what happened with Chick-Fil-A this summer. When the restaurant chain president spoke out against same-sex marriage, a boycott and counter-protest erupted outside the doors of his business.
“So, that chilling effect — the intolerance of the other side for people who want to step out and say that — that is why we don’t see the big corporate donors,” Plante says. “We rely on the grass roots.”
Plante says that grass roots network is promoting this campaign in churches and neighborhoods across the state. They’ve steered away from the cold-call, phone-bank approach the other side is leaning on so heavily to change voters’ minds.
Another huge difference between the campaigns is money. As of October 17, Preserve Marriage Washington has raised less than $2 million. Washington United for Marriage has raised more than $10 million so far.
Chris Plante is on loan to the Washington campaign from the National Organization for Marriage. The group’s helped block same-sex marriage efforts around the country and it recently dumped some big bucks here in Washington. That helped the campaign air its first TV spot last week, somewhat late in the election cycle.
Zack Silk, with Washington United for Marriage, says they’ve braced for a big push from the other side during these final weeks.
“What we know from past experience is our opponents have a really powerful playbook,” Silk says. “They know how to come in big and late. They did that in California in 2008, and they did it in Maine in 2009, and we expect they’ll do the same thing here.”
Preserve Marriage Washington has more TV and radio ads in the works. Plante says they hope to buy $3 million worth of air time, but they’re on sort of a pay-as-you-go plan.
Several recent polls show majority approval for Referendum 74. Both campaigns are quick to point out polls in other states also indicated approval for same-sex marriage. Yet in the end, voters said no.
Six states allow gay marriage due to a court ruling or legislative act. All 32 times it’s gone to the ballot, voters have rejected it.
Here in Washington, both campaigns are pinning their hopes on the Northwest’s reputation as a “live and let live” kind of place. On the one hand, let people keep marriage the way it is. On the other, let people have the freedom to marry who they want.