Winning Legislative Campaigns
For many years into our campaign, pundits (and even some movement colleagues) declared that a state legislature would never vote in favor of the freedom to marry – the politics were too risky, they insisted, and lawmakers wouldn’t put their seats on the line for the LGBT community, especially on something as controversial and edgy as marriage. Our strategy said we needed to build a critical mass of states and support, and that meant we had to learn to win in legislatures, particularly in states where the courts refused to affirm the freedom to marry. This document examines how our movement secured these legislative victories.
A marriage bill passed for the first time in California in 2005 (although the bill was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), and later, bills passed in Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Washington, Maryland, Maine, Delaware, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Hawaii, and Illinois, while anti-marriage measures were defeated in legislatures in Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Indiana.
The Unique Challenges of Legislative Campaigns
A truism for most lawmakers is that their top priority is continuing to be a lawmaker. As a result, if you are asking elected officials to cast a vote that they think will cost them their seat, you are likely to lose and even more likely to never have the question brought to a vote. For many years, the conventional wisdom was that a vote by a legislator for marriage equality was a career-threatening vote. This fear was compounded by the Vermont civil union debate in 2000 when 16 lawmakers who voted for civil union were defeated
We needed to demonstrate that supporting the freedom to marry was not a risky move, but rather one that would win respect and reelection.
The challenge, then, was that our work in legislative campaigns was two-fold: to convince a majority of lawmakers in each branch—along with legislative leadership and the governor—that supporting the freedom to marry was the right thing to do – and also the right thing to do politically. We needed to demonstrate that supporting the freedom to marry was not a risky move, but rather one that would win respect and reelection.
Overall Lessons Learned
- Conduct a rigorous assessment of the lay of the land in the state: Introducing a marriage bill as a means of generating discussion and providing something concrete around which to organize is usually a smart approach. However, before national organizations and key funders prioritize a state for passage of a bill in the short-term, it’s essential to conduct a rigorous analysis of prospects for victory. That requires talking confidentially to leaders you can trust in the state, and double- and triple-checking the assessment. Is legislative leadership onboard, or is there a pathway to get them onboard? What are the prospects of the governor signing a bill? What’s the present vote count and what are prospects for securing majorities in both branches? Wishful thinking, or simply trusting one source of information for prospects for a bill, will get you in trouble.
- Bring state and national partners together for a robust coalition: Beginning in 2011 with the New York marriage campaign, Freedom to Marry joined with key state and national partners in a tight joint campaign, with agreed-upon financial investments for each partner and a shared infrastructure and plan, in order to succeed in state legislatures. The coalition approach ensured that resources were maximized and work was coordinated, and that lawmakers could be targeted efficiently and effectively. These joint campaigns often hired a full-time campaign manager; we generally sought someone with experience in the state and in issue-focused advocacy campaigns. The joint campaign worked a plan that addressed each component—lobbying, field, media, digital, "grasstops" mobilization, outreach to electeds and allies— with accountability for each group’s contribution and an emphasis on coordination.
- Demonstrate electoral strength: Issue campaigns often have the reputation with state legislators of promising electoral support when an issue is hot and then not delivering. There should never be a quid pro quo of electoral support in exchange for a vote; however, establishing a track record of successful electoral engagement from one state to the next, and making key early investments in candidate campaigns or PACs, can be very helpful. In Massachusetts, our side reelected every incumbent who voted our way on marriage – 195 out of 195 in 2004 and 2006 – in spite of a concerted effort from Gov. Mitt Romney and social conservatives to defeat some of them. MassEquality and its backers recognized and met that challenge. In New York, the Fight Back New York effort in the 2010 State Senate elections was a definitive game-changer. After a gut-wrenching 2009 defeat of the marriage bill in the Senate, Fight Back New York – an independent entity led by Gill Action Fund donors and staff – took on both Democrats and Republicans who voted against the freedom to marry. The levels of funds invested ($800,000), the strategic approach used to identify targets and capitalize on their vulnerabilities, and the success in unseating three incumbents, demonstrated that our side would be relentless until we had a pro-marriage majority in the Senate that delivered a marriage bill. And in New Hampshire, Freedom to Marry led the creation of local joint campaign, while right-of-center colleagues launched a political action committee (PAC) called New Hampshire Republicans for Freedom and Equality. The PAC committed to raising and spending at least $100,000 to support Republican lawmakers who stood up for the freedom to marry, and announced the effort prior to the legislature voting on a marriage repeal effort. This countered the National Organization for Marriage’s promise to take out GOP lawmakers who refused to vote to repeal the marriage law. Attention to electoral work was an important part of our strategy’s success, and it took time and stumbles to get it right, thanks to leadership by gay philanthropist Tim Gill and dozens of other donors he and his Gill Outgiving network helped enlist, alongside other efforts. Similar leadership came from right-of-center donors such as Paul Singer’s American Unity Fund. We became known nationally as a movement that goes to the hilt to protect our friends and to make examples of electorally vulnerable opponents, working, where possible, across party lines.
- Be smart with lobbyists: Oftentimes in state capitols, the conventional wisdom is that if you just enlist superstar lobbyist x or y, you’ll be able to get your bill passed. On marriage legislation, however, we were disappointed far too often by top “hired guns” Here’s why: these insider lobbyists almost always depend on business clients for their income, and they need to maintain their relationships with legislative leaders in order to deliver for their corporate clients. As a result, they’ll rarely if ever push lawmakers, especially leadership, too hard in support of your cause. No doubt it can be helpful to enlist insider lobbyists to get solid, up-to-date information , and on occasion you will enlist someone who is very dedicated to the cause. But it’s important to understand that their primary relationship is with the key electeds and they’ll almost always protect those relationships rather than fall on their sword for the cause. From our experience, having someone who has relationships in a state house but who is working full-time on the cause’s behalf, is more effective, because they’re likely more willing to pull out the stops to put pressure on lawmakers. Ideally, you’ll have a mix of the two to ensure you’re on top of the most current information and also advocating most effectively.
Field Lessons Learned
- Start Organizing Early: All marriage victories secured in legislatures came about as a result of years of work and myriad conversations making the case for the freedom to marry. Introducing a marriage bill is a great way to provide a focal point for elevating the voices of same-sex couples in every part of the state, engaging clergy, enlisting organized labor and business leaders to speak up, and cultivating relationships with electeds at every level of government. It's that persistent, hard work that moves hearts and minds over time, and that always must take place before a bill moves.
- Quantity and quality of field contacts: Lawmakers want to know that their own constituents support a vote in favor of the legislation and they’ll listen most carefully to arguments made by constituents with whom they have some connection. Inspiring and mobilizing supporters -- and then enlisting them to make the case to undecided elected officials -- takes a robust organizing campaign. On challenging issues, too often advocates think they can win in a legislature with top-notch lobbyists or with good television ads. That's simply not the case. Lawmakers and citizens are most often persuaded because they hear from people locally -- from regular citizens, same-sex couples, and influential leaders living in their own communities. On marriage, it was especially crucial to show that we were talking about same-sex couples and families living locally who are active participants in their communities, not "those people out there in the big city." Significant investment in organizers was essential. By the final legislative vote in Massachusetts, for example, we had one organizer for every one to two legislative districts on which we were focusing.
- Quantity of contacts: It’s important to secure a large quantity of constituent contacts in priority legislative districts, and then utilize them to demonstrate the broad support for your cause. In Rhode Island, for example, the Rhode Islanders United for Marriage coalition mobilized thousands of voters to contact legislators – through online tools, postcard campaigns, and calls into lawmakers’ offices. New Yorkers United for Marriage helped to steer 125,000 New Yorkers toward their elected official. This was accomplished through boots-on-the-ground organizing, with close to 40 organizers spread out across the state, from Eastern Long Island to Buffalo and everywhere in between, collecting postcards, organizing phone banks and getting people to call their lawmakers from shopping centers, festivals and churches – wherever people congregated. Several lawmakers pointed directly to the quantity of constituent contacts as a primary reason for changing their vote.
- Quality of contacts: Marriage organizers learned quickly that one of the most significant factors in changing legislators’ mind is to ask them to meet in person with a same-sex couple and their extended family, often within the couple’s home. We prepped family members to ensure they were ready to share their own story with their lawmaker. These conversations, in most cases, had significant effects on lawmakers as they learned first-hand why marriage is so important to same-sex couples and their families, including those who live in their own communities. Couples were asked only to be experts on their own family and relationships. Often they would leave the legislators with a photo of their family or drawing from their child. “Thank you” notes and follow-up messages were key. In New Jersey, Garden State Equality advocates would go in with little videos on their ipads and show them to legislators. In addition to couples, we worked hard to figure out who would be influential to a lawmaker. Who did they listen to? Who were their close friends and political advisers? Who were influential people whose perspectives they had to take seriously, like business and labor leaders, other elected officials, key clergy, and the like. In Massachusetts, before the final vote in the legislature, Senator Ted Kennedy called undecided Democratic lawmakers to make the case that marriage was an issue on which Massachusetts needed to do the right thing. His powerful voice was very helpful in making the case to wavering Democrats. Former RNC chair Ken Mehlman made similar calls in other key states, at our request, to help move some key Republican votes.
- Enlisting unexpected voices: In addition to making the case to lawmakers, it was crucial to drive a narrative that the respective state was ready for the freedom to marry. To do that, enlisting voices that political leaders and the media wouldn’t expect to hear from was especially effective. New Yorkers United for Marriage made a special effort to demonstrate how mainstream supporting the freedom to marry had become by enlisting businesses including Xerox, Alcoa, and McGraw-Hill, and the heads of Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup, as well as an unprecedented number of pro athletes including NBA star Steve Nash, New York Rangers star Sean Avery, and New York Giants great Michael Strahan.
- Creating the communications drumbeat: Every marriage campaign needs to drive a narrative in the press that the campaign is moving forward, that support is strong, and that there are real harms to real people from the denial of marriage. For example, New Yorkers United for Marriage set a very high bar, to have an announcement every day of the campaign – a key endorsement, a new poll, success in the field work, a powerful story – that the campaign would roll out and seek to secure placements in newspapers and television stations across the state. In doing so, we built our own momentum over the course of several months. We also trained couples in key parts of the state to become media spokespeople so that we could generate human interest stories highlighting the importance of marriage to those couples. We amplified all of these stories through a robust new media campaign developed by our Digital Action Center.
- Executing a Republican strategy: Little shifts the narrative of a state legislative campaign than garnering the support of GOP lawmakers. It demonstrates that the cause is not a partisan one, helps push moderate and conservative Democrats your way, and offers up opportunities to use powerful message frames, especially the right to choose one’s spouse free from government influence. For example, in Rhode Island, our side was having a difficult time getting the Democratic Senate President to agree to a vote on marriage legislation. As a result of significant amounts of engagement, we were able to get all five Republican senators to announce their support and urge the Democratic leadership to hold a vote, which had a real impact on the Senate President. In New York, when the Republicans regained control of the Senate in the 2010 elections, the conventional wisdom was that the marriage bill stood no chance. However, LGBT advocates led by Gill Action had had in place a top-notch Republican advocacy team to make the case to moderate GOP lawmakers and to leadership for several years. That team, plus business and political leaders the campaign had enlisted including former Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman, financier Paul Singer, and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, allowed us to make the moral and political case for marriage to Republican senators in the most powerful way. That led to the GOP-controlled Senate allowing for a vote and just enough GOP lawmakers to vote for the bill to enable it to pass. This GOP work always requires deep engagement with people the lawmakers trust. The lawmakers need to know that their political needs are being taken very seriously and that the campaign isn’t going to simply use them. This almost always means engagement by Republican advocates. In the last couple of years of the marriage fight, the American Unity Fund played this role skillfully.
- Coordination: Crucially important for the success of a legislative campaign was for the campaign to be able to move nimbly and always be doing what’s most crucial at that moment. This requires the effort to have, at its hub, a campaign manager who is ensuring that field organizers are focusing on the most up-to-date targets, that lobbyists have information gleaned from the field, that social media organizers are focused on the most strategic tasks, and the like. In New York, during the final days of the campaign, we had coordination phone calls nearly every morning.