Drama marks Equality Summit

by Peter DelVecchio

Windy City Times

Thursday January 29, 2009

Hundreds of LGBT activists from California and around the nation gathered for an "Equality Summit" at the Los Angeles Convention Center Jan. 24 to assess the unsuccessful campaign against Proposition 8, to vent frustration at their leaders' perceived blunders and to divine the way forward towards marriage equality.

"It's a great way to bring everyone together who are working on freedom to marry," Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, told Windy City Times before the summit began. Equality California was a major participant in the anti-Prop 8 campaign.

"It's time to regroup and see where we're going next and put our heads together, and I know we can get there," said San Francisco Treasurer Jos? Cisneros in a pre-summit interview.

After invocations and brief presentations by groups that opposed Prop 8, David Binder of David Binder Research presented his "Proposition 8 Post-Election California Voter Survey."

Binder broke the vote down by regions and demographic groups. In particular, the widely-reported polls that said 70 percent of African Americans supported Prop 8 were wrong, said Binder, whose survey put the Black "yes" vote at 58 percent, just 6 points higher than statewide. Binder's presentation, which also addresses voters' motivations and the effectiveness of each side's ads, is posted at http://ca-ripple-effect.blogspot.com.

Out state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, told Windy City Times he sees Prop 8 as a victory because it passed by only 4 percent, while Proposition 22 finished 23 points ahead in 2000. Prop 22 imposed the statutory same-sex marriage prohibition the California Supreme Court struck down last May; Prop 8 wrote that prohibition into the state Constitution.

There followed a question and answer session. Moderator Karen Ocamb, news editor for IN Los Angeles magazine, presented questions submitted beforehand by attendees to a panel of No on 8 leaders, including Kors and Lorri Jean, CEO of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.

The fireworks began when Ocamb asked, "Given what the Obama campaign was doing in terms of outreach on the Internet, why weren't we doing the same thing?"

Chris Malawit, a full-time No on 8 volunteer, answered that 5 weeks before the election, the campaign's Internet consultant, Black Rock Associates, had "about a staff of one and a half people managing the entire Web presence."

An audience member shouted, "Who oversaw the consulting agency that let this happen? Who's responsible?"

"The campaign did not wait until the last 5 weeks to do this," answered Jean, interrupted by cries of, "Yes you did!" from the audience. Jean went on to describe fundraising difficulties and the campaign's disappointment with Black Rock.

"We have got to find a completely different way than business as usual to do this," Jean declared to loud applause.

"Why wasn't there a professional gay person in the room consulting with the professional consultants?" Ocamb asked the panel. No on 8 leaders have been widely criticized for ceding control of the campaign to professional political consultants. In particular, many believe the decision not to release negative private polls when public polls were inaccurately showing Prop 8 losing by wide margins bred complacency in the LGBT community, and that by the time the internal numbers were released in late September, it was too late to make up lost ground. Panelists did not disagree, which seemed to placate the room for a while.

"We have got to find a completely different way than business as usual to do this," Jean declared to loud applause.

"The biggest mistake that we made is that we turned everything over to political experts ... and I would never, ever do that again," Kors said to more cheers and clapping.

Panelist Molly McKay of Marriage Equality also drew applause, identifying "a disconnect between the leadership and the grassroots," and saying, "We can do things for free by leveraging the passion and resources that are out there."

But the mood soured again as the Q&A session ended with many questions unanswered. An audience member's demand for "a commitment from them that they will address the questions and then post them in a public forum" was loudly seconded by others.

Attorney Jo Hoenninger of Marriage Equality USA made the commitment, then said, "The people who worked on the Prop 8 campaign, the leaders, they did the best they could!" About half the audience sprang up for a sustained standing ovation, the other half sat unmoved.

"There's frustration on the part of some people, and I hope this will be a safe place for them to express that and to get a reaction," California state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, told Windy City Times.

Regarding how the anti-Prop 8 campaign had fallen down, Ammiano said, "If you saw the movie Milk, you saw Harvey actually debating the proponents of Prop 6, and we seem to have been divorced from that kind of human interaction." Ammiano was also involved in the 1978 defeat of Prop 6, which would have fired all gay teachers.

Asked about the criticism after the raucous Q&A, Kors told Windy City Times, "Like with any losing campaign, you have to learn from it and get all the input you can and make sure you do things better next time, and I think this is a great opportunity to get that input."

"I don't mind it except when people make presumptions that are not factual," Jean said answering the same question. "But other than that . . . we need all the good minds and good thinking we can get."

Delivering the keynote address, renowned civil-rights attorney Eva Paterson of the Equal Justice Society brought the house down with her humor and restored some sense of common purpose. "I've been watching you all for two hours, and you all are rough," she joked, before turning serious and adding, "Everybody here in this room wanted Proposition 8 to lose. People made mistakes, but everybody here is your friend, and you need to remember this."

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