Saturday, February 14, 2009

ACLU Discusses Repressive Ballot Initiatives

Center Director, Planned Parenthood Spokesperson Address Prop.’s 4, 8


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Delores Jacobs, Vince Hall

The San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) turned over most of its annual membership meeting February 13 at the San Diego County Bar Association downtown to Delores Jacobs, executive director of the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center; and Vince Hall, vice-president of communications for the San Diego/Imperial Counties chapter of Planned Parenthood and former chief of staff to Congressmember Bob Filner and ex-Governor Gray Davis, for a program on repressive ballot measures and how they threaten community and civil rights. Along with Kevin Keenan, executive director of the San Diego ACLU, they talked about the radical religious Right’s success in putting “wedge issues” like the anti-choice Proposition 4 and the anti-Queer Proposition 8 on last November’s ballot — and noted that even when these measures fail, as Proposition 4 did, they suck up money and other resources progressive communities and service organizations could put to better use.

Indeed, according to Hall, that was exactly the purpose of Proposition 4’s principal sponsor, San Diego Reader publisher Jim Holman, in paying $2 million to get it on the ballot in the first place. Hall said that Proposition 4 and its predecessors, Proposition 73 on the 2004 ballot and Proposition 85 in 2006, “are specifically designed to drain the budget of Planned Parenthood. First, Jim Holman said so; second, why else would someone spend $2 million to put something on the ballot and then nothing to campaign for it? The first time we thought he didn’t know better. The second time we thought he still didn’t get it. The third time he was honest that it’s about abortion, not just parental notification.”

Holman’s three initiatives focused on what he and other anti-choice activists thought would be the weakest link in the pro-choice argument: what social policy should be towards girls who get pregnant when they’re below the legal age of sexual consent and want to end the pregnancies without their parents finding out. Advocates of parental notification laws say they’re essential to protect the rights of parents to look out for their children’s best interests. Opponents counter that if a girl hasn’t felt comfortable involving her parents in her decision to start sexual activity, she’ll probably be even more fearful of doing so once she’s become pregnant.

“I had the privilege of debating supporters of Proposition 4 and asking them, ‘So you think it’s O.K for a minor to have an abortion as long as their parents were notified?’” Hall said. “Of course, they said, ‘No, abortion is murder.’” Hall remembered an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s TV program. for which he made the mistake of telling O’Reilly’s producer that he has a 13-year-old daughter — which gave O’Reilly the opening to ask, “Mr. Hall! Mr. Hall! You have a daughter. Wouldn’t you want to know?”

“I paused for a moment,” Hall recalled, “and I said, ‘Bill, her mom and I work every day to build a strong bond of parent-teen communication. We want to be a part of that decision. We want to be in her life at that level. But if, for any reason, she couldn’t come to us, our responsibility as parents is to know that she could be safe; and if we don’t achieve that, we don’t build that communication, no law is going to fix it.’” Hall also savored the irony that conservatives, who generally question the government’s ability to do anything competently, nonetheless accept the idea that a heavy-handed government intervention like Proposition 4 is the way to build strong families and ensure that parents are part of the major decisions their children make.

Jacobs’ presentation focused on the sheer gall behind Proposition 8 and the ability of its sponsors to subject the civil rights and legal equality of an oppressed minority — and take away those rights with a simple majority vote of the people. “I appreciate the partnership and support of the ACLU and Planned Parenthood and the choice community,” she began. “Proposition 8 was simple in its wording and devastating in its consequences. I don’t have to tell this group what the fundamental concerns are about any attempt to deny basic rights to anyone. It’s an incredible way to deal with freedom and justice through a simple majority vote based on deceptive and lying TV ads.”

One point Jacobs took pains to stress was that the principal factor determining how people voted on Proposition 8 was religious, not racial. Early exit polls said that as many as 70 percent of African-American voters in California had supported Proposition 8 (though more recent estimates have lowered that to 57 percent), and Latinos also supported Proposition 8 by a higher margin than white voters. But Jacobs said those results merely reflected how many African-Americans and Latinos are regular churchgoers who take their religious beliefs seriously and use them to determine their votes on contentious social issues, and added that “less religious” Blacks and Latinos were just as likely to vote no on 8 as less religious whites.

“The yes voters were also less educated, had less income and were more likely to be Republican,” Jacobs said. (In San Diego County, Republican phone-bank callers had two priorities: to get people to vote for John McCain for president and to get them to vote yes on 8. Also, CNN’s exit polls did not reveal a correlation between income levels and the vote on Proposition 8.) “When they were asked why they voted yes, the most frequent reason was they did not want their children taught that their faith was a lie. That is not what allowing people equal rights does, but it’s a well-known litany of people against civil rights.” Jacobs said that many of the same arguments used for Proposition 8 — religious beliefs, family values, concern for traditions — were also cited by the bitter-enders in the South and elsewhere who fiercely resisted school integration for decades after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

“There are hidden issues with Proposition 8 and all civil rights movements in general,” Jacobs explained. “The question is why political movements create wedge issues, especially in California and other initiative states. These campaigns begin as money-makers for the groups that put them forward, and they drain the coffers of progressive individuals and organizations simply by making us fight the fight year after year. The total cost of the Proposition 8 campaign was over $80 million. [Actually, that represented the total spending on both sides of the issue; the Yes on 8 campaign spent $39.9 million and the No on 8 side actually slightly outspent the supporters, with $43.3 million.] It was necessary to raise that money and fight that fight, but I can’t help but think of how much service we could provide with that money, and if the California Supreme Court doesn’t see the wisdom of our position, we will have to raise that much money again.”

Jacobs also noted the effectiveness of the radical Right’s long-standing campaign against so-called “activist judges” and how they exploited that in the propaganda for Proposition 8. “One of the things accomplished by divisive issues is eroding faith in the judicial system and conditioning people to believe that judges are part of the political system and not a check and balance on it,” she said. “The answer is collaboration and not giving the impression that all I’m interested in is LGBT [Queer] issues. Whether the issue is immigrant rights, reproductive choice, environmental justice or LGBT issues, if we stand together, then issues like Proposition 8 either won’t make it to the ballot at all or will cost little to defeat.”

In answer to a two-part question from this reporter — whether it’s realistic to pursue an initiative to re-legalize same-sex marriage if the California Supreme Court doesn’t throw out Proposition 8, and how we should deal with the inevitable radical-Right campaign to recall the court’s justices if they do invalidate the measure — Jacobs said, “Is it realistic to believe that some day we can win? I hope so. Are their political consequences that have to be factored in? Yes. But the question of whether it is ‘realistic’ is important but not essential. Are we going to continue to educate the American public about the fundamental importance of our rights? Yes. We have to do better — especially in San Diego — but the best work on the ground is done in the absence of a campaign. No 30-second spot will erase generations of homophobia.”

“How can we not stand up for justices who stuck their necks out for equal rights?” asked local ACLU director Keenan in response to the question of what should be done if the California Supreme Court throws out Proposition 8 and the radical Right responds with a campaign to recall the justices who voted to do that. Another person in the audience noted that the last time the radical Right mounted a successful campaign against the California Supreme Court — the one that got voters to eject Rose Bird, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin from the court in 1986 — the ostensible issue, the death penalty, was really a cover for the efforts of the California Chamber of Commerce and the insurance industry to get rid of judges who were supportive of plaintiffs’ rights in tort cases. He said we would need to make similar connections and expose the real agenda of recall supporters if such a campaign happened.

Another audience member raised questions about reforming the initiative process, but Hall warned that such ideas could be a double-edged sword. A so-called “sore loser” provision that barred an initiative from reappearing on the ballot a certain number of years after a similar one was defeated would stop Jim Holman from repeatedly getting his parental notification attack on abortion rights onto every ballot and draining the coffers of Planned Parenthood — but it would also prevent the Queer community and its allies from qualifying an initiative to repeal Proposition 8, and Hall said he wasn’t about to support anything that would make it more difficult to get rid of the same-sex marriage ban.

Other proposals for initiative reform Jacobs and Hall mentioned included raising the number of signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot, requiring a certain number of signatures from each of California’s 58 counties (so initiative campaigns couldn’t just concentrate on a few large cities and get all the signatures they needed there), having the courts vet initiatives for constitutionality before they’re voted on, and raising both the signature requirement and the vote needed to pass an initiative that interfered with so-called “fundamental rights.” But, Hall warned, “there’s an absence of political leadership” on initiative reform “because Californians still love the initiative process.”

Another audience member asked if there were any insights into why a certain percentage of Californians voted no on 4 but yes on 8. “Reproductive freedom and choice has had a ground campaign for decades to educate people on privacy rights,” Jacobs answered, “and it targets voters amenable to persuasion about [the injustice of] taking away fundamental rights.” Hall added that many otherwise conservative women in rural parts of the state could envision themselves facing the issue of an abortion in the family, but couldn’t relate to someone wanting to marry another person of their own gender.

Hall also noted the irony that while younger voters tend to be more supportive of Queer rights than older ones, they’re also more inclined to support at least some limits on women’s reproductive freedoms. “We’re at the pivotal transition point where tolerance of homophobia is on the decline,” he said. “No one below 30 is advocating against this issue except for certain (church-based) groups. Choice has the opposite problem; younger voters are more likely to support restrictions on abortion rights to seem more ‘moderate’ and ‘even-handed.’ We’re losing the demographic that remembers what life was like before Roe v. Wade.”