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Prop 8 Donors: A Closer Look [25 February, 2009]

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The passage of the anti-same-sex-marriage measure Proposition 8 in California created a furor in the LGBT community.  Across the country, both groups and individuals have rallied at large protests and actions to show their support for overturning the measure.  Anti-Prop 8 work has relied on the tools of Web-based technology and social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.  These tools don’t just allow quick and easy ways to mobilize large numbers of people at protests; they also make it easy to disseminate information about events and the supporters of Prop 8.

Such information includes the names of donors to the campaigns for and against Prop 8, the amounts they gave and even information about their employers.  The San Francisco Gate maintains a database that allows visitors to find donors by state and city.  Since its launch, several supporters of the proposition have alleged that they have been subject to harassment, intimidation and even death threats.  In January, a suit filed by attorneys for the measure claimed that such alleged harassment of Prop 8 supporters violated their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly.  A federal judge denied their suit on January  29.

The debate around disclosure has its impact in Chicago.  A mid-January rally against the Defense of Marriage Act ended with protesters marching past Holy Name Cathedral, 735 N.  State, to protest the U.S.  Conference of Catholic Bishops giving $200,000 toward Prop 8.  That event was preceded by a protest outside the Hyatt global headquarters building, 71 S.  Wacker.  This was part of a nationwide ongoing series of actions against the hotel chain after gays discovered that Doug Manchester, owner of the Manchester Hyatt in San Diego, had donated $125,000 to Prop 8.

A search for contributors to the pro-Prop 8 campaign turns up 10 donations.  Kermit King gave the largest amount, $25,000, while Mark Faase gave $100.  A search for opponents of the measure turns up 210 donations.

If even Chicagoans are willing to donate against the measure, it’s clear that the issue of Prop 8 resonates with LGBT people across the country.  For many LGBTs, protesting the donors who contributed is one way to indicate that they are ready to publicly call out people whose actions they construe as homophobic.  But the issue of public naming and shaming raises concerns about the ethics of the same.  Is this tactic simply an essential part of participatory democracy? Are there constitutional reasons why such information should not be made public?

Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union, told Windy City Times that such information should be kept public: “It would be better if we had a public financing system, but we don’t.  There is a compelling interest in the context of assuring that there is transparency and not corruption that is linked to campaign contributions, something we can all understand in Illinois.”  Yohnka said that people can act anonymously in a number of situations, such as when they pass out flyers at a public gathering, without revealing their identities or post comments on a newspaper Web site.

He discussed the central issues around the question of disclosure: “Donors have every right to participate in the political process by giving money.  But you don’t have an expectation of privacy when you donate to a campaign.”

Are there serious downsides to revealing names? A December op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by John R. Lott, Jr., and Bradley Smith pointed out that, in the 1950s, “Southern states sought to obtain membership lists of the NAACP in the name of the public’s ‘right to know’” and that “[s] uch disclosure would have destroyed the NAACP’s financial base in the South and opened its supporters to threats and violence.”  Yohnka’s response to this argument is that “ [i] t’s a good point, but not a good analogy.”  He added: “Those issues are issues of association.  There’s no danger that [association] will corrupt or change or alter an electoral process that’s fundamental to democracy, as opposed to contributing millions and millions of dollars to a particular campaign that could have an adverse effect.”

John D’Emilio, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, also believed that donor information should be kept public.  However, he was wary of the current backlash against donors: “I completely understand the desire of people who are angry and frustrated and annoyed at these right-wing campaigns against marriage.”  But he added that he was troubled by “the idea that to aim sanction at people who contribute really implies a political strategy based on the values of intimidation and winning instead of persuasion and winning over.  Not that you necessarily should be trying to win over the contributors to a campaign against you, but you should be trying to win over people to your side.  I understand the impulse on the one hand; on the other I don’t feel that it provides you anything more than short-term emotional satisfaction.  It doesn’t feel like a political strategy.”

D’Emilio, whose work has involved the analysis of gay movement-building, also saw broader issues.  Asked about the role of the tactics of disclosure in contemporary gay organizing, he pointed out that it was part of a context where “the marriage issue has been moved forward through court cases which don’t require political organizing.  It just requires a couple and lawyers.  And then all these other things have happened in response.  Lots of people don’t mobilize and organize around marriage.”

Indeed, seen in this light, the question of disclosure is not about whether or not it is ethical.  Calling the ethics of disclosure into question is more of a strategy of distraction used by those who would like to keep the information private.  However, it seems, the disclosure of names and the backlash against donors is part of the ways in which contemporary organizing around gay marriage is based on a reactive rather than a pro-active mode.

Still, for those Chicagoans who donated to defeat Prop 8, giving money was an attempt to correct what they saw as a homophobic measure.  Windy City Times attempted to speak to several of the Chicago donors to Prop 8, but none of them responded.  Not surprisingly, people who gave money to defeat the measure were more forthcoming.  Sanjiv Sarwate is an attorney who donated $300 to the effort to defeat Prop 8.  Why would an Illinois resident contribute to a cause in California? Sarwate said, “I recognized that California was potentially a major battleground, being the state of its size, and [I hoped] it could influence action in other states.”  Like the others, he was unsympathetic to those who claim threats of intimidation: “I can see how they might feel they are being harassed, but at the same time they did inject themselves into a political issue by giving a donation.”

In the coming weeks, there will be more articles on those who contributed for and against Prop 8. 

Originally published in Windy City Times, 25 February, 2009

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