AUGUSTA — When two conservative Christian groups got enough signatures to force a vote on the gay rights law passed last spring, they said that the hard part was over: They had raised money, mobilized volunteers, and gathered tens of thousands of signatures.
But it’s not easy yet. Of about $60,000 raised by the two political action committees formed by the Christian Coalition of Maine and the Christian Civic League of Maine, there was only about $2,000 left as of Jan. 5. Almost all of the money was spent during the summer and fall, when the two groups were getting signatures. And the goal of “Vote Yes for Equal Rights” to get $5 from everyone who signed a petition has not yet been reached.
Meanwhile, donations were pouring in to the offices of Maine Won’t Discriminate, the coalition that supports gay rights. With people from Maine and all over the country sending $100, $500 — or more than $20,000 in the case of one man from Washington, D.C. — they have raised more than $200,000 and have about $90,000 left.
There is less than a month until the Feb. 10 election, and both sides are worried about getting people to the polls and making sure there’s no confusion about what a yes or no vote means. The money makes it much easier for Maine Won’t Discriminate to make its voice heard.
Money isn’t everything — in 1995, Maine Won’t Discriminate raised more than $1 million and outspent the opposition by more than 10 to one, but its margin of victory in the referendum was 53 percent of the vote to 47 percent.
Paul Volle, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Maine, said of Vote Yes for Equal Rights, “It’s a good old-fashioned election, getting out the vote, with a lot of personal contact, whatever form that takes. I don’t anticipate any TV or radio ads; there were none in our original plan in May [when they launched the people’s veto effort]. Some of the pundits … say whoever spends the most money on TV or radio ads will win, but I think [they’re] wrong. I don’t think people in Maine are persuaded on issues like this in an air war.”
Douglas Hodgkin, a professor at Bates College, wasn’t downplaying the role of money and advertising on a campaign, but he said, “You can run a low-budget campaign. … You need lots of volunteers for this, but you buy the voter lists, when you find a person who’s favorable mark their name and then call them and remind them to go out to vote.” The fact that the group spent $1,000 to get voter lists, he said, “is a sign that that’s going to be the major focus of their campaign. It will be below the radar. They’re probably expecting a low turnout, and the key in a low turnout election is to mobilize the voters.”
But Hodgkin also said that the large disparity in donations indicates a lot more support for Maine Won’t Discriminate. Joe Cooper, a spokesman for that group, said that he thinks the Christian groups are not getting support because “they have said it’s OK to discriminate.”
He was talking about a fund-raising letter written by Michael Heath of the Christian Civic League in November. In part, it said, “The short answer is, yes, we believe that it IS appropriate to discriminate against people if they are wrong. We believe that is especially true for the small businessman and landlord. They should be afforded the freedom to make decisions for themselves, unless the cumulative effect of their decisions causes widespread social problems for people.”
Heath could not be reached Friday.
Cooper also pointed out that Maine Won’t Discriminate has been endorsed by many influential groups, like Maine AFL-CIO, the Maine Council of Churches, and the Maine Chamber and Business Alliance.