Tobi Hill-Meyer

Election Politics: Winning to lose or losing to win?

Filed By Tobi Hill-Meyer | November 06, 2008 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, Politics
Tags: biphobia, election campaigns, marriage equality, prison expansion, prisons, sex work, transphobia

During any election it's hard to have a long term vision for success. Everything is focused on the upcoming election day. I've been on so many campaigns where the goal was to win at any cost and unfortunately the costs tend to be high even when we do win. I've also been on campaigns where we were told we were going to lose from the get-go, yet we were able to leverage our efforts for a future victory down the road.

After this election, with many things to celebrate and many things to mourn, I'd like to look over not just what we won or lost, but how we won or lost. There's a lot we can learn from that.

To begin with, let me leave the 2008 election and go back to the 2004 election, and a campaign that left a deep impression on me: Oregon's fight against Measure 36, one of those constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage.

It was a campaign that held great meaning to me, with both my parents marriage my own left in the balance. But at the first volunteer meeting, I was crushed and not even sure if I was willing to work for the campaign any more. Word came down from above that we were not allowed to use the words "bisexual" or "transgender," or even the term "same-sex marriage." The focus groups had shown that swing voters respond better to phrases like "gays and lesbians" and "gay marriage." And campaign officials said that we needed to get ourselves and others in the habit of that language by using it even when having discussions with our friends.

I see such exclusion as a clear biphobic and transphobic appeal to biphobic and transphobic voters. Yet the real problem for me wasn't even the concession to biphobic and transphobic voters, I simply couldn't bring myself to phone bank using biphobic and transphobic language, when the person on the other end of the phone, for all I knew, could have a bi or trans relative, or be bi or trans themselves. I wasn't the only one. Among my group of strong activist friends, only about 1/3 participated in the campaign. As I watched our efforts fail and the ban take effect, I wondered how much of a difference those extra volunteers could have made.

As huge as they were, I didn't feel that the potential short term gains were worth the long term implications of perpetuating biphobia and transphobia. Indeed, I saw concrete results of that strategy just a couple years later. We were preparing to get gender identity non-discrimination, but were aware of a well organized opposition. Calling out to our base - the no on 36 voters - we found a disappointingly small proportion were supportive of and aware of the issue. I can't help but see the connection between the decision not to mention trans people in previous LGBT campaigns, and the lack of awareness our electoral base had of trans people's mere existence.

In this election, there was another Oregon ballot measure (61) that made it even more clear to me that this "win at all costs" strategy is really just another way to lose. Right wing forces put together a measure to create more mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, put more people in jail, and without any additional funding source, it was estimated it would require building three new prisons to hold everyone.

Where our justice system has a well known racial bias, not to mention others, this would drastically hurt the most marginalized populations. We already have one of the highest incarceration rates around, and we know that prisons are not an adequate solution to treat addiction and poverty. Yet progressive organizations were told that there was no way they could win this one, so the decision was made to propose a "compromise" measure. Another measure (57), that does similar things but to a lesser extent, was added to the ballot, along with the clause that whichever of the two won by the highest margin would be the one to take effect.

We have serious problems with taking away judges' discretion and would normally vote no on both 57 and 61. But if Measure 57 passes and gets more votes, it will kill Measure 61 and avert a fiscal catastrophe. Since Measure 61 is seen as a sure-fire winner, a no on 57 would essentially be a yes on 61. We're forced to put pragmatism before principle and urge a yes vote on 57.
--Willamette Week Endorsement

It was a tricky political strategy, and at the time was considered the only way around a measure that was sure to win by a large margin. But it complicated the progressive message and left many voters confused. It takes a lot more time to explain why you need to vote for one prison measure and against the other - not to mention it's hard for many voters to remember which prison measure is the good one and which is the bad one. On top of it all, the messaging gets shifted to support prison expansion (as long as it's slow) as opposed to speaking out directly against prison expansion.

Now that the votes have been counted, however, 61, the bad prison measure failed, while 57, compromise prison measure, passed with a 22 percentage point lead. It seems like there would have been a decent chance that we could have still defeated the original measure in a direct no-prison-expansion campaign instead of a separate campaign for a compromise prison measure. Even if we fought a straight up no-prison-expansion fight and somehow lost, we would still have been building more of a base and educating the voters for next time.

Now we're stuck with a prison expansion law that is less bad than the original but still bad in and of itself. Any future attempts to repeal this law or reverse the tide of prison expansion will be hampered by the strong margin by which it passed, as well as the fact that every progressive organization around endorsed it. The base of volunteers and donors willing to fight prison expansion isn't much larger than it was before the election. Our measure passed and the right wing measure failed, so this is technically a win, but it looks like a loss to me.

In contrast with those two campaigns, I've been excitedly watching the results of Proposition K in San Francisco. Prop K would have deciminalized prostitution, prohibiting local authorities from investigating, arresting, or prosecuting anyone solely for selling sex. Passage would increase safety for sex workers and make it easier to report violence without fear of arrest.

Given the difficult chances of passing something like that anywhere, the Yes on Prop K campaign had a long term view in mind from the beginning. As a result, there has been a lot of media coverage, dialogue, and deeper analysis. Human rights advocates of all kinds have voiced their support for Prop K. When Mayor Gavin Newsom claimed that it would prevent law enforcement from addressing human trafficking, even NBC acknowledged supporters' argument that police can still enforce laws against assault, rape, kidnapping, and extortion.

In a crucial way we are winning, because we clearly demonstrate that sex workers are in the forefront of the political process. Our coalition has been very strong! --Yes On K statement

Getting 42.4% of the vote is technically a loss, but it's also significantly higher than a similar proposition that got 36% of the vote in Berkeley in 2004. Movement is happening and the safety of sex workers is finally being treated as a legitimate issue in the mainstream media. That's something that I wouldn't have thought possible ten years ago. The proposition lost, but I'll definitely call this campaign a win. If only all our campaigns could be structured in such a way.

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Ecxellent points, Tobi.

Perhaps the Atwater-Rove strategists have worked to win after all. They;ve gotten us to affirm their convoluted and pernicious strategies so we can out-canny them while slitting our own throats.

I dunno, 42.4% using honesty and compassion and our ideals or 71-39% for something we admit is bad, but we sell our souls to make happen and then cannot but lose face and stature if we don't back it?

That's interesting that they made you say gay marriage instead of "marriage equality," which is what I thought all these campaigns were working with. There needs to be more discussion of what worked and what didn't in each of these campaigns, and they need to be run like we want to see our worldview played out - inclusively.

That was four years ago, I believe more organizations were using that language back then. I remember a lot of folks around me just beginning to make the shift because of the concern that not all same-sex couples are gay.

But additionally, "marriage equality" serves a slightly different function in syntax. You can't really say "Prop 8 was written to ban marriage equality." I can't remember if we used the phrase marriage equality, but we also didn't spend too much time talking about what we were for. We were always talking about what we were against: the proposed ban on "gay marriage."

Also, as for the Oregon No on 36 campaign, there was definitely some learning going on, even before the campaign was over. The campaign allowed me and a few others to use bi and trans inclusive language and I went ahead and organized a phone bank or two using volunteers that had previously been alienated.

Also, the campaign learned a lot about the importance of race issues. The Yes folks were doing an excellent job of targeting communities of color, and there wasn't even a person of color in any of the first wave of ads. The queers of color were complaining from day one, but by the end of it our orgs had learned and have shifted to be a lot more representative of PoC. I had assumed that there was no way the CA folks were behind OR on race politics, so I was somewhat dismayed to see the same lack of emphasis placed on reaching out to communities of color by the No on 8 campaign.

Atwater confessed his failings before death; Rove hasn’t faced the certainty of a disease that causes death yet. Will he embrace the warmth of sunshine before walking into the light? Only time will tell. Nevertheless, we as gay folks seem to get bogged down in the “righteous” debate too often.

It seems to me that the debate on “righteousness” is one we cannot win very often. Consequently, shouldn’t we center our debate on “fairness?”

“I want my partner and me to have a family health insurance policy.” It is only the “big-bad-corporation-insurance-companies” (with their high CEO salaries) who want to prevent a simple gay from getting this benefit. Will you vote for me or the multimillion CEO?