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Equality NC's Jen Jones and the campaign against Amendment 1

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Jen Jones didn't come looking for a fight when she signed on a year ago as communications director at Equality North Carolina. That's strange, she admits, because since the day she started, she's never not been in an all-out battle against Amendment 1, the anti-gay proposition that goes before state voters in the May 8 primary.

Nor did Jones hatch the idea that became her personal "Race to the Ballot" campaign with Amendment 1 in mind. In fact, she pitched a plan to run from one end of North Carolina to the other, video cameras in tow, back when she worked at UNC-TV, the statewide public television network. She wanted to produce a "love letter" to her native state and its many-splendored communities—and plug the network's two travelogue shows.

Her plan went nowhere, and that's one reason Jones, a talented 36-year-old with an unused law degree in her drawer and a knack for online media, looked elsewhere for a job. She went to Equality NC because she's gay and its mission of advocacy for LGBT rights appealed to her. Also, with a staff of four, Equality NC is a small, non-bureaucratic place where her diverse skills and energy would be put to use.

Yes, they would.

Twelve months later, Jones is the most recognized face in a "Vote Against" campaign that, despite predictions that it stood no chance taking on the Christian Right in a Bible Belt state, is mounting an unprecedented, determined counterattack. Win or lose, the anti-amendment team has equality proponents hopeful about the future, while setting the gay-bashers back on their heels.

And speaking of unprecedented, Jones, never a runner, did complete her "Race," running 322 miles during four weeks, a journey that carried her and a small support team—and their cameras—from Boone to Wilmington. Her message about the damage Amendment 1 would do to North Carolina is online for all to see.

"It was," Jones says, "the fat-lady impossible goal meshed with the impossible campaign that could."

Now, it's the impossible campaign that must race to the finish.

Like most of North Carolina, when Jones went to work at Equality NC last March she expected the General Assembly to again shoot down the idea of amending the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages—just as it had for a decade.

True, in the 2010 elections the Republican Party seized control of both houses for the first time since the 19th century. And true, the constitutional amendment was a pet project of such GOP right-wingers as Paul Stam, the representative from Apex who all of a sudden was the House majority leader.

Still, House Republicans were four votes short of the three-fifths majority needed to put an amendment before the voters. And the Democratic Party was solidly against it.

Or was it?

Even as Jones was finding her desk at Equality NC, the Democratic ranks in the House were crumbling. Ultimately, 10 House Democrats—seven of whom, Jones says, had pledged to vote against the amendment—cut a deal to support it in return for the Republicans agreeing to put it to a referendum in the primary elections, not the general election in November. The Democrats, all conservatives, thought that if the amendment were on the November ballot, it might spike the Republican vote—and the vote against them—in their districts.

In the Senate, the Republicans did hold a three-fifths majority—barely. But one Republican senator opposed the amendment, and no Democrats supported it. If a second Republican voted no, the amendment would fail. For three months, Equality NC staffers toiled day and night, using every tactic from constituent calls to candlelight vigils, trying to stop it. They couldn't. In mid-September, the amendment cleared the Senate with no votes to spare.

For gay-rights advocates, it was a rude awakening. When the Democrats were in control in Raleigh, North Carolina remained the only Southern state that had not added an anti-gay marriage amendment to its constitution. But neither had the Democrats, under former Gov. Mike Easley or Gov. Bev Perdue, ever stepped up to the issue of protecting LGBT workers from anti-gay discrimination by private-sector employers. And Democrats never enacted same-sex partner benefits for state workers.

The tacit bargain with Equality NC and its allies: The gay-rights community wouldn't criticize the Democrats for failing to protect LGBT workers. In return, the Democrats wouldn't bow to pressure from the Republicans to let the voters decide about gay marriage.

This arrangement allowed Equality NC to make gains quietly, under the radar of public attention, on issues like strengthening HIV/AIDS prevention, getting an anti-bullying law enacted and persuading companies to voluntarily adopt nondiscrimination policies and same-sex partner benefits.

But suddenly, the gay-rights community needed to go very publicly on the offense—or was it defense?—against Amendment 1. And just as this was happening, Equality NC's highly respected executive director, Ian Palmquist, announced that he was leaving to begin a master's degree program at Harvard.

Worse, the amendment vote would be in May, just a few months off, when Republicans would presumably be turning out in big numbers for a hotly contested GOP presidential primary while Democrats, with President Obama and Gov. Perdue (apparently) running unopposed in the primaries, would stay home.

Only one thing seemed to favor the opposition campaign: The Republicans, in drafting the amendment, overreached. North Carolina already has a so-called Defense of Marriage Act—a DOMA statute—that defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. Republicans were howling that an "activist judge" could strike the law down as discriminatory against gays, or a Democratic Legislature might repeal it someday. That's why a constitutional amendment was needed, its sponsors said.

But instead of simply putting the statutory language into the amendment, Stam and his co-sponsors went further. Their proposed amendment, if the voters approve it, would stop a future Legislature from sanctioning not just gay marriage in North Carolina but also civil unions or any other "domestic legal union."

Just six states and the District of Columbia have approved same-sex marriage. But 11 others have legalized civil unions or domestic partnerships, which convey all or most of the legal benefits of marriage but—because the word marriage has so many religious connotations—call it something else.

Polls show that a majority of North Carolina voters are against gay marriage. But the one-third of voters who support it, plus another one-fourth who support civil unions as an alternative, equals a solid majority who favor one or the other—and Amendment 1 would prohibit both.

So the task, for Amendment 1's opponents, is to get the message to voters that what the other side calls the Marriage Amendment is actually an anti-marriage, anti-civil unions measure. In that regard, the opponents got a huge break when Perdue, in February, decided not to seek a second term. Now, there is a hard-fought Democratic primary for governor and (because Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton is seeking to move up) lieutenant governor. And all five of the major Democratic candidates for those two offices have come out strongly against Amendment 1 and in favor of civil unions.

And the ban against the state recognizing any possible form of "domestic legal union"? That just seemed to be piling on. Legal experts such as Maxine Eichner, a law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, says that term has never been used before in North Carolina and it's unclear how courts would construe it.

Eichner is among those arguing that, if taken literally, the term could lead to the state's domestic violence law being declared invalid in cases of unmarried partners, same-sex or not.

"Taken as a whole," Eichner said in a paper she published with three co-authors, "[the] language is sufficiently vague, and its scope significantly unclear, that it would enmesh our courts in years of litigation to untangle its appropriate meaning. ... It could, however, be interpreted to upend completely the very minimal legal rights, obligations, and protections now available to unmarried couples, whether same-sex or opposite-sex."

Stam dismisses this criticism, saying the term "legal union" is the textbook definition of marriage and the word "domestic" means merely that the amendment refers to household partnerships, not business partnerships.

Aside from the language issue, one other factor favored the opponents, Jones says. In a word, they were pissed at the way the Republicans bulldozed the amendment through both houses without a single hearing. Putting it to a vote in the primaries seemed to assure that fewer voters would have a say; and if it passed, then even majorities in both houses of the General Assembly would be unable to undo the damage.

Jones was irate and so was Alex Miller, a lobbyist who'd been hired to do Palmquist's job on an interim basis until a permanent replacement could be found. Miller helped set the wheels in motion for the campaign, which is run by a committee called the Coalition to Protect NC Families.

A campaign manager, Jeremy Kennedy, was hired, along with a new Equality NC leader, Stuart Campbell. The committee recently surpassed $1 million in fundraising, with an ambitious goal of bringing in $2 million more by May 8. The money would finance an extensive television and radio campaign. About 30 paid staffers have fanned out across the state, helping thousands of volunteers operate phone banks and door-to-door canvasses. The email, Twitter and video traffic to supporters is building at a breakneck pace, much of it coming with Jones' devilish image attached.

And Jones herself? "I vowed I was going to do anything in my power to stop the amendment," she says.

So, while others were planning for the campaign ahead, she plunged in.

The Race to the Ballot was packed with urgency. It was February. The campaign was in formation, but little was visible yet except Jen Jones in her bright yellow sweatshirt trotting into your town, carrying the message that, whatever you thought about gay marriage, Amendment 1 was a bad idea.

Jones' race took her to college campuses where her job was relatively straightforward. Young people, by large majorities, are opposed to anti-gay discrimination. Jones' arrival sounded an alert that the amendment, about which most students were only dimly informed, would be law soon unless they organized to stop it.

Elsewhere, however, Jones faced a much more formidable task. The iconic moment of her race came in the little town of Bakersville, in Mitchell County, about halfway between the liberal bastions of Boone and Asheville. In Bakersville, members of the Penland arts community had started a Gay Straight Alliance, a rare thing outside of a school setting. Their initial meetings were picketed by gay-marriage opponents carrying signs such as "This Ain't Asheville."

Into this combustible mix, Jones ran to the front of a town hall meeting on Amendment 1. Half the crowd was with her. The other half, reading from their Bibles, was against. Hellfire and damnation were predicted for her and her kind. At the end of a stormy meeting, though, Jones seemed to have made her point. The amendment's wording was so vague, it could harm children and unmarried straight couples as well as gays. A man who'd been quoting scripture all night to her finally conceded, "If our legislators are so damn stupid that they wrote all these harms in there, then we need to get new legislators."

At that, both sides applauded.

The argument that children might be harmed is rooted in the fact, conceded by Stam and other proponents, that if the amendment passes, local governments that now make employee benefits available to unmarried same-sex and/or opposite-sex partners will have to stop doing so. (Private employers would not be affected.) That group includes Orange County, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough, Durham and Durham County and three other municipal governments.

Child-custody and visitation rights could also be curtailed, and so-called second parent adoptions (by the partner of one of the biological parents) would be prohibited.

Stam says no one will lose rights they have now because state law already bars same-sex marriages and civil unions.

But Jones says people don't like to hear that the amendment would make civil unions impossible in the future as well as any other form of legal recognition for same-sex or opposite-sex couples who choose not to marry. "North Carolinians are pretty compassionate people. And even if they're a little bit bigoted, a little bit homophobic, if you say you're going to hurt children and families, they'll come down on the other side," she says.

Jones has completed the race, but she's still moving around the state leading workshops for volunteers on how to attack Amendment 1.

Naturally, she says, she wishes that people could make a simple argument in favor of equality for gays. "Either you're equal or you're not," she says. "That's what they taught us in law school."

But the polls are clear, she says: A straight-on argument for equal treatment of gays will fail on May 8. "We're not there yet," Jones says. So she counsels her side to emphasize instead the issue of civil unions and unintended harms to children, including children whose parents aren't gay but aren't married either.

Jones never wanted this fight about Amendment 1, but now that she's in it, she thinks, even if her side loses, they'll win. The reason: North Carolina is actively debating questions of gay rights for the first time, and that discussion, she predicts, will open the door to laws protecting gays in the workplace.

The Rev. Jimmy Creech, too, says the amendment debate, "as insidious as it is, is also a gift."

Creech, the former Methodist minister and one of the nation's earliest and most outspoken proponents of gay rights, thinks Amendment 1 will be defeated. If it is, he told a group at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, the Republicans will rue the day they forced a vote on it. "Because what will follow will be the process of providing marriage equality for all loving relationships in North Carolina."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Gathering force."

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