A glossy mailer arrived at The Stranger offices with this message printed on one side: "Protect the innocence of Washington's kids. Vote to Reject Referendum 71." It says it's paid for by Focus on the Family Action, the Colorado-based conservative organization under the leadership of anti-gay James Dobson. The group has a educational nonprofit, but this is the PAC, which can donate to influence elections. Here's what the mailer says on the other side:
So what's an out-of-state organization doing campaigning—using disengenuous arguments, no less—on a measure in Washington? Focus on the Family Action hasn't registered to work on a specific ballot measure, according to the state's Public Disclosure Commission (PDC). Nor have any of the campaigns that are designated to advocate around R-71 reported a contribution from FOTFA. But, it turns out, state laws allow FOTFA to register as an independent expenditure campaign to spend money on any issue as it sees fit. The PDC records of the group—which I could only find by using an advanced search box and running a query for organizations located in "Colorado Springs"—show that between October 12 and October 20, the group spent $91,790 in Washington.
"If they already have money and they don’t have to go out and raise it and they want to spend it to share their message, there are no limits," says Lori Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission.
FOTF made it's largest expenditure in Washington on October 20—a total of $80,000 to buy radio ads (.pdf). That could make a difference in a campaign where only 50 percent of voters say they will vote to approve the measure, thereby voting to uphold the state's domestic partnership law.
Let's look at the dates: October 20 is one week after the deadline for campaigns in Washington to accept donations over $5,000. It's also one day after the Family PAC sued the state to accept donations over $5,000 and keep donation anonymous. And what is Family PAC? Its the campaigning wing of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, which is—wait for it—the Washington state affiliate of Focus on the Family.
But even though the Family PAC lawsuit was delayed yesterday, Focus on the Family Action doesn't need to wait to spend big money here. It also doesn't have to report how much money it has, where its money came from, or how much it plans to spend. "They get to spend as much as they want whenever they want. Their only requirement is that they report what they spend and report it within 24 hours," she says.
How much does the organization have? That's unclear. But to give you a sense, the annual report for Focus on the Family Action shows the group raised $10,544,226 last year.
And here's what the group believes. On the back of that mailer they sent us, the group writes that if Referendum 71 is passed, "public schools will be required to teach kids as young as kindergartners that domestic partnerships are the equivalent to marriage. ... Do you want your kids or grandkids to be taught about gay partnerships?"
So anti-gay campaigns in Washington don't need to accept large, out-of-state donations to push expensive propaganda campaigns that claim R-71 will change the curriculum of public schools. (For the record, R-71 doesn't say anything about curriculum, and even if it were rejected, two other domestic partnership bills would remain on the books, and those haven't changed curriculum.) Focus on the Family Action can spend as much as it wants from afar. It's already started. And that's perfectly legal.