I know, I know: It seems like we just went through this.
But we haven't seen anything yet.
On September 19, Strategies 360 released a statewide poll that found Washington State voters think gay marriage should be legal by a 54–35 margin. Men, women, white people, racial minorities, Democrats, independents, and voters both over 55 and under 55 years old all showed majority support. Another poll, conducted by Alison Peters Consulting in July and sponsored by Equal Rights Washington, was "completely consistent" with the Strategies 360 findings, says Josh Friedes, ERW's marriage equality director. He couldn't release the exact numbers because it was conducted in concert with coalition partners, but he said, "For the first time in Washington State, marriage equality is winnable if it's on the ballot."
The last time this was a state issue, on Election Day in 2009, the dispute wasn't same-sex marriage but domestic-partnership rights. A bill passed in Olympia, despite religious protest, and then an organization that was trying to overturn those rights, Protect Marriage Washington, put a referendum on the ballot. That campaign was run by extreme fundie Gary Randall, the Faith and Freedom Network pastor, and cohort Larry Stickney, who together raised only about $460,000. Big-time religious players on the national stage sat it out, sending their money elsewhere.
For example, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM)—the financially bloated bigotry machine run by the bloated bigotry Pez dispenser named Maggie Gallagher—spent $7.4 million across the United States in 2009, according to tax filings with the IRS. But NOM spent only $10,000 in this state, according to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission. The largest chunk of that $7.4 million funded "a series of advertisements promoting traditional marriage" in Maine, including the now-infamous "Gathering Storm" commercial depicting boiling clouds, lightning bolts, and actors warning that gay couples "want to change the way I live." If you thought it sounded paranoid and delusional, you probably weren't the person they were trying to reach. But those ads, along with $1.6 million the group contributed to Stand for Marriage Maine, led to a successful repeal of same-sex marriage in the nation's upper-right state.
Likewise, the various archdioceses of the Roman Catholic Church that plopped down over half a million dollars in Maine ignored the battle in Washington State, as did the Mormon Church, which dropped an estimated $20 million in California the previous year to pass Proposition 8, banning gay marriage.
Now that marriage is at stake in Washington State, we're likely to be the bull's-eye for a multimillion-dollar torrent of local and national anti-gay advertising. After all, the amount NOM gave Protect Marriage Washington in 2009 was only 0.6 percent of its Maine budget.
"Our opponents are clearly wigging out over what is happening," says Friedes. "We are seeing an extraordinary number of alarming e-mails coming from them, particularly on raising money."
For years, the Washington State Legislature has considered, and ultimately pushed aside, a bill that would allow same-sex marriage. Part of the problem was that the bill introduced by state senator Ed Murray (D-43) would be difficult to pass in the moderate senate. But a bigger problem, as the Democratic LGBT caucus knew, was that even if lawmakers hustled for the votes, evangelicals would run a referendum to send whatever same-sex marriage legislation they'd passed to the ballot—where poll after poll said voters would reject it. No sense in passing a bill in Olympia, the thinking went, only to lose on Election Day.
This milestone of Washington voters now approving of same-sex marriage rights 54–35 fits within the trajectory of other polling. For instance, the Elway Poll found that support jumped from 37 to 43 percent from 2005 to 2009; the UW's Washington Poll showed combined support for marriage and domestic partnerships rights growing from 59 to 66 percent in the years 2006 to 2008.
"Like the public, legislators are moving our direction," says state representative Laurie Jinkins (D-27), speculating on her colleagues at the Capitol. State senator Murray says that 2012 is the right year for such a bill, and adds that the vote will be "very close" and will likely require moderate Republicans "who have indicated various level of support." He expects an added push from Governor Chris Gregoire.
"There is no reason this governor and this legislature can't get this done," says David Rolf, president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW, a powerful player and funder in state politics. He points to the New York legislature passing gay marriage despite anti-gay constituencies like the Catholic Church. If it passes, Rolf, Murray, and everyone else interviewed for this article agrees that evangelicals will put it on the ballot.
Owing to the exposure of Referendum 71, the domestic- partnership-rights battle from 2009, Murray says, "I don't think the issue is as radioactive as it once was, but I think the far, far right will throw everything they have at it."
Of course, there's no better year for a referendum on gay marriage than 2012. Presidential and gubernatorial elections draw more voters—younger, more diverse, more liberal—and a marijuana legalization initiative also looks poised for the ballot, another appeal to progressives.
"In this state, in this year, in this climate, I would see same-sex marriage as more of a motivator for progressive votes than for far right votes," says Rolf. Whereas in the recent past Republicans have used gay marriage as a wedge issue, most notably in 2004 for the Bush reelection campaign—an attempt to drive conservative turnout in swing states—now it could work against them. Gay marriage on the ballot energizes the left.
Rolf compares this issue to the rise of the Tea Party, which used a buzz of activism in 2009 to incubate a sweep of the House and the election of hard-liners like Rand Paul to the Senate in 2010. Gay-marriage advocates are in the same place now, he says. Repealing DADT, winning gay marriage in New York, and a federal lawsuit to restore same-sex marriage in California are signals for momentum for gay rights legislation in 2012. "Once you are at the tipping point, these things tend to happen really fast," he says. "People may face personal bigotry or discrimination in some parts of the country, but the legal facts will be increasingly uncontested."
Of course, this new constellation of political realities—the push for a bill in a Democratically ruled legislature, these latest polls, and a progressive electorate in a presidential election year—terrifies anti-gay pastor Randall. "If the bill should pass, we will take an appropriate initiative action to repeal it," Randall wrote on his evangelical blog on September 19 about a marriage bill. "Homosexual activists are demanding that you redefine marriage to accommodate their sexual behavior."
Even religious leaders who ignored the domestic-partnership fight in 2009 say marriage is a different ball game. Joe Fuiten, pastor of the Cedar Park Assembly of God in Bothell, says he would get involved because marriage is "a biblically defined idea."
Randall indicated that organizing has already begun: "Faith and Freedom is incurring expenses in preparation for the gathering storm. We are surveying citizens across the state at this time. We are working with others of like mind to not only stand but prevail in the coming assault on society's most fundamental cornerstone—marriage."
Randall's choice of words here—"the gathering storm"—implies exactly what gay-rights advocates fear most. The "Gathering Storm" ads exhibited NOM's ability to sweep into states and trigger irrational fears that gay marriage would rob Christians of their way of life. Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based group opposing gay rights, did not respond to requests for comment on this article, and NOM spokeswoman Monica Schleicher would only say, "We don't talk future spending plans."