Left to Own Devices, NOM a Paper Tiger

It is an article of faith in the gay and lesbian community that the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and its leaders Brian Brown and Maggie Gallagher are insidious purveyors of lies and half-truths about same-sex marriage.

But NOM’s failures, including its campaign against gay marriage in New York and its efforts on behalf of political candidates here and across the country, suggest that the conservative group lacks political skills and broad support.

“NOM does not have significant numbers of real grassroots connections to a large number of people that they can turn out,” said Evan Wolfson, president and founder of Freedom to Marry, a leader in the fight for same-sex marriage rights nationwide. “What NOM is, more than anything else, is a shell for funneling money from a small set of secret donors into anti-gay attacks with a small propaganda machine on top of it.”

Gallagher and Brown get a good deal of mainstream press coverage. Their pronouncements are closely followed on queer blogs and in left-leaning publications.

Their record is not good.

From March through June of this year, NOM spent just over $832,000 to oppose gay marriage in New York. With marriage opponents spending roughly $924,000 altogether, NOM was the major funder. Its cash paid for robocalls and radio, television, and cable ads that targeted state senators.

Despite those efforts, a marriage bill easily passed the State Assembly –– for the fourth time –– on June 15, and cleared the Senate in a 33 to 29 vote on June 24. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed it the same day.

The five gay groups that led the marriage fight outspent opponents by at least three to one. In 2009, when a marriage bill failed in the State Senate in a 38 to 24 vote, “calls ran 10, 20, 30 to one against,” Brian Ellner, a senior strategist at the Human Rights Campaign, the gay lobby, said at an July 25 forum on the 2011 vote.

This year, proponents hired 35 fulltime canvassers, who generated 135,000 individual contacts.

“These were actual real contacts from within the districts,” Ellner said.

NOM, which did not respond to a call seeking comment, has struggled in other campaigns. It spent just over $200,000 to oppose Democrat Barbara Boxer and support Republican Carly Fiorina in a 2010 US Senate race in California. Boxer won.

The group supported conservative Doug Hoffman in a 2009 Republican primary in an upstate New York Congressional district. NOM made at least $112,000 in independent expenditures for Hoffman, who lost the primary. The seat was ultimately won by Bill Owens, a Democrat.

NOM spent at least $49,000 backing Republican Robert Turner against Democrat David Weprin in the race to fill the Congressional seat representing parts of Queens and Brooklyn vacated by Anthony Weiner. As Gay City News went to press on September 13, that race was undecided. (See page 1 for final results.)

NOM has been more successful in raising money for anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives run by others. The group raised nearly $1.9 million for Proposition 8, according to data disclosed to California’s Secretary of State, and nearly $2 million for the 2009 effort that overturned Maine’s marriage equality law, according to a NOM filing that year with the Internal Revenue Service.

The Maine and California campaigns were run by Schubert Flint Public Affairs, a California consulting firm. The Prop 8 campaign in California relied on tens of thousands of volunteers and donors.

NOM produced nothing close to that in New York.

NOM was also among five right-wing groups that spent nearly $1 million last year to remove three Iowa Supreme Court judges who voted in 2009 to strike down that state’s law banning same-sex marriage and require the issuance of licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

Even as it has funneled substantial funds to ballot initiative campaigns and made independent expenditures on behalf of conservative candidates, NOM has fought to keep its donors secret. The group has filed at least six challenges to state campaign finance disclosure laws in federal court. It has consistently lost those cases, but has avoided revealing the names of donors by appealing those losses.

“They’re not speaking for people,” Wolfson said. “They’re speaking for the money, for a small set of donors.”

What may be NOM’s oddest project is the group’s vow to spend $2 million to bring the New York marriage law to the ballot.

New York does not allow voters to directly place an initiative on the ballot. NOM would first have to defeat the Democrats and Republicans who supported marriage equality. The newly elected, presumably anti-gay marriage legislative majorities would then have to vote to place the marriage law on the ballot, get reelected, and then vote a second time for that ballot initiative. Only then would the question go to the voters.

At a July 24 rally to oppose gay marriage, Bronx Democratic State Senator Ruben Diaz, a Pentecostal minister and NOM ally, said the group’s plan would require divine intervention. It would be “very, very difficult, but nothing is impossible with God,” he said.