The constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions is making North Carolina a national battleground, the extent to which is now coming into focus with campaign finance reports showing the referendum buoyed by big out-of-state donors and interest groups.
The National Organization for Marriage contributed more than $300,000 to the group pushing the May 8 ballot initiative, according to reports filed this week, and the Human Rights Campaign countered with $250,000 from its national and state affiliates to defeat it. And the campaigns for and against the amendment are pulling heavily from the 2008 contest in California on Proposition 8 with top consultants, donors and organizations from each side of that fight helping to define the issue in North Carolina.
The two referendum committees raised a combined $3.2 million, likely making it the most expensive campaign in the state this primary season, more than doubling the cost of the Democratic governor’s race and many heated congressional primaries.
“The fight going on in North Carolina right now is critical to the larger LGBT community,” said Michael Cole-Schwartz with the D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign. “It’s important to note that North Carolina is the only state in the South not to have passed an amendment.”
Both the pro-amendment Vote for Marriage and the anti-amendment Coalition to Protect All N.C. Families received the bulk of their money from in-state donors with roughly 70 percent of contributions less than $100, a News & Observer analysis shows. Triangle-area donors represented more than half the money to both groups.
But the numbers mask the influence of major donors contributing huge sums to the referendum committees, which are not bound by donation limits.
The pro-amendment committee received about 75 percent of its $1.2 million from three contributors. The state’s Catholic dioceses added $100,000.
By contrast, the anti-amendment group’s top three donors gave about 30 percent of its $2.1 million.
The largest donor identified in the first-quarter reports, through April 20, is the Christian Action League, which gave $312,000 to help the amendment. Rev. Mark Creech, leader of the Raleigh-based group, said he considered marriage a “special institution created by God to protect children and families.”
The pro-amendment campaign also received a $250,000 boost from Franklin tax software developer Phil Drake, the largest contribution from an individual. Drake said he is a longtime supporter of Christian conservative causes. It’s about creating “ideal families” and producing children, he said.
The coalition opposing the amendment received $200,000 from Jon Stryker, a Michigan billionaire and philanthropist who gave more than a million dollars to fight the California amendment. And Raleigh’s Todd Stiefel, a well-known supporter of secular and atheist causes, contributed $100,000.
“I felt we could really make a difference and have a legit shot at winning,” Stiefel said. “I realized as I learned more ... the wording goes so far and attacks opposite-sex couples’ domestic partnerships.”
The campaign reports also show both sides spending heavily on television advertising – more than $1.5 million combined – and using firms that played a prominent role in Proposition 8.
The pro-amendment committee gave more than two-thirds of its money to California-based Frank Schubert, paying him $100,000 in consulting fees and $665,000 to buy television advertising in North Carolina. The opposition hired Armour Griffin Media Group, a Beverly Hills firm, to produce TV ads. Both worked on the California ballot initiative.
Both campaigns are continuing to raise money in the final days before the vote to amplify their TV campaign and coordinate get-out-the-vote efforts. The pro-amendment campaign issued an email fundraising solicitation about a week before the election asking for $50,000. The subject line: 172 hours remaining.