WAKE FOREST — Hundreds of students and visitors streamed into the red brick chapel beneath a 14-story white steeple at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary on Wednesday morning. They passed volunteers hurriedly stacking newly printed yard signs, bumper stickers and literature on tables shuddering in a strong spring wind.
With a little less than six weeks before the May 8 election, Wednesday’s forum signaled a quickening pace in the campaign for the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions. Public events are becoming increasingly visible around the state, organized by both sides, even as much of the campaigning has been waged on computer screens through mass emails, website postings and scattershot Twitter announcements.
For amendment supporter Vote for Marriage N.C., the Wake Forest event stepped up its game. Until recently the group has mostly focused on building networks in churches, in addition to hitching a ride on a “Values Bus” tour around the state sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council this month that produced pro-amendment videos.
But Wednesday was an opportunity to present several prominent Christian leaders calling on an army of seminary students and others in the community to mobilize on a grand scale.
“The proponents of same-sex marriage are organized, well-funded and relentless,” Kenyn Cureton, a vice president of the national Family Research Council, told the crowd inside. “They will not give up.”
Noting that 29 other states have constitutional amendments that ban gay marriage and that North Carolina is the only state in the South without one, Cureton exhorted the audience, “Don’t let us down, guys.”
Former state Sen. Jim Jacumin, once a member of the seminary board of trustees, said May 8 was “the most important election of anyone in this room.” He urged people to contribute money, “so we can confront the devils against us on the other side.”
After the forum, Vote for Marriage N.C. director Tami Fitzgerald said the group’s grassroots strategy has been playing out as planned. “We’re working with thousands of churches across the state – I mean thousands,” she said.
She dismissed this week’s announcement by opponents of the amendment that it has topped $1 million in fundraising, saying pro-amendment forces have always been outspent in other states where the battle has been fought.
“We’re focused on more than money – the hearts and minds of the people of North Carolina,” Fitzgerald said. “The money is inconsequential. We’ll raise what we need and spend what we need to get our message out.”
But the amendment’s foes say the money represents potential voters. More than 80 percent of the money has come from individual donors in this state, they say.
The fundraising – which accelerated this week with what organizers called a “money bomb” solicitation through the Internet that reached out to national bloggers – is on a pace to become the second-most expensive opposition campaign in the Southeast, only trailing Florida’s 2008 effort. This week’s effort raised more than $50,000 in 24 hours, and more than 700 donors in two days, organizers say.
Getting the message out
Jeremy Kennedy, campaign manager for Protect All N.C. Families, an anti-amendment group, said the fundraising means “we have a message that works with voters, especially those on the fence. We’ve seen a real movement. … In the last two weeks, especially, we’ve seen a widespread swath of support.”
The money is going for mailings and for TV advertising that will be aired later. The group has opened seven offices around the state, and says it has a field staff of 25 running volunteer activities like phone banks.
In the next few days, a new round of videos will be launched on the group’s website, where more than 50 have already been posted, Kennedy said.
North Carolina will be the first to vote among a half dozen states considering similar amendments. National organizations on both sides of the issue have been helping to raise money for state-level organizers, planting North Carolina firmly in the game.
On Wednesday, DVDs were distributed showing Tony Perkins, president of the national Family Research Council, “with an urgent message for pastors in North Carolina” asking them to help pass the amendment. This weekend Ted Olson, a Republican who was solicitor general under President George W. Bush who fought in court to overturn California’s ban on gay marriage, was scheduled to speak in Greensboro but his appearance was canceled.
Divisive memo in Maine
Part of the national strategy proved embarrassing for one pro-amendment group, the National Organization for Marriage, on Tuesday. An internal memo surfaced that outlined the group’s successful plan to defeat a law in Maine in 2009 that legalized gay marriage.
“The strategic goal of the project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks – two key Democratic constituencies,” the memo says. “Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage; develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots.”
On Wednesday, the National Organization for Marriage issued a statement by President Brian S. Brown saying the group “has worked extensively with supporters of traditional marriage from every color, creed and background.” Brown added, “NOM has worked diligently to build relationships with African-American leaders, especially within the black church, who share our concern about protecting marriage as one man and one woman.”
Kennedy said even though the strategy document is several years old, it was the same plan amendment proponents are using in North Carolina.
“It’s not a surprising strategy,” he said, “but it’s shameful, in my opinion. It’s something we thought all along that was the way they operated. It’s even more shocking to see it actually on paper.”
A video posted on the Vote 4 Marriage N.C. website on Friday showed a series of people speaking about why they think the amendment is needed – with the Values Bus in the background – and all but one of the speakers is African-American.