The Magazine

The Marriage Juggernaut

Why Arizona flipped on gay nuptials.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By KEVIN VANCE
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Arizona voters last month approved an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as "only a union of one man and one woman"--just two years after they rejected a similar though broader amendment, making Arizona the first state in the Union to reject a ballot initiative aimed at preventing gay marriage. What happened between 2006, when Proposition 107 was narrowly rejected, and 2008, when Proposition 102 breezed through?

The Prop. 107 campaign unfolded against a backdrop of consistent success for ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage. In 2004, 11 states had passed such measures by large margins, and 7 more would pass them in 2006. Yet Prop. 107 had several strikes against it. Its proponents lost the money race, outraised almost two to one by the opposition. And in a terrible year for Republicans generally, Arizona was especially bad: Democrats picked up retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe's seat and defeated conservative star J.D. Hayworth.
At bottom, though, the content of Prop. 107 was probably decisive.

Cathi Herrod, president of the conservative Center for Arizona Policy, told me the length and complexity of the ballot initiative cost the "yes" campaign between 5 and 11 percent of the vote. In particular, the opposition was able to frame the debate around the amendment's most controversial provision, which read: "The State of Arizona and its cities, towns, counties or districts shall not create or recognize a legal status for unmarried persons that is similar to marriage." This would have eliminated the domestic partnership status that some Arizonans already enjoyed under local law in Tucson, the state's second largest city.

Opponents of Prop. 107 focused special attention on elderly cohabiting heterosexual couples who took advantage of Tuscon's domestic partnership provisions to secure benefits they would lose if they married. Some voters feared Prop. 107 would end Arizonans' access to the benefits their partners received under some companies' and state and local governments' health plans, though leaders of the "yes" campaign doubted the proposition would affect most benefits or the right to hospital visitation.

After Prop. 107 went down to defeat by a vote of 48-52 percent, supporters of same-sex marriage adopted a clear strategy: They would back new partnership benefits, then frame the public debate around protecting those benefits, all the while paving the way for same-sex marriage. But opponents of gay marriage also learned from their loss.
They decided to push for a simple, straightforward amendment that would enshrine the traditional definition of marriage without touching the domestic partnership issues raised in 2006, thus making it difficult for the opposition to obscure the central issue. "Just the simple definition of marriage was what we wanted to do," said Herrod. "Other issues related to that would be addressed at a different time."

In last month's vote, the proponents of Prop. 102 shed their financial disadvantage, receiving over $7 million in contributions and swamping the mere $600,000 raised by the opposition. And they ran what Herrod describes as a "first class campaign," with five television ads and even more radio spots.

The ads highlighted the simplicity of the ballot initiative and cast doubt on the opposition's argument that Arizona statutory law already defined marriage as between a man and a woman. With courts in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and neighboring California delivering gay marriage to their states by judicial fiat, proponents of traditional marriage in Arizona could see the need to enshrine the definition of marriage in the state constitution. California voters themselves saw the need, approving a ballot initiative last month that nullified the imposition of gay marriage by the state's supreme court in May.

Sam Holdren, public affairs director of Equality Arizona, which opposed Prop. 102, blamed California's ballot initiative for fundraising difficulties in Arizona. "We were only able to talk to a limited number of voters with a very narrow message," said Holdren, while the supporters "were able to inundate people's mailboxes and phones. They had a lot of money to run a really effective campaign."

Arizona's religious leaders played no small part in turning out their congregants to vote for Prop. 102. Herrod said she had heard of evangelical pastors who spoke in favor of the amendment from the pulpit. Catholic Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix taped a short message that explained why traditional marriage is a "nonnegotiable issue" for Catholics, an unprecedented move. The diocese believes the tape was played at every mass in its jurisdiction.