It's axiomatic that political consultants will do almost anything to win. So it was a little surprising to see that their professional association - the American Association of Political Consultants - has a significant and no doubt well-intentioned code of ethics.
Imagine if their members actually adhered to it. Better yet, imagine for a moment what political campaigns might have been like if that code of ethics included no bashing based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Would Karl Rove and his disciples have won as many elections?
Imagine if Rove's professional peers had called out his dirty tricks campaign against Texas Gov. Ann Richards -- saying she was a lesbian during her 1994 re-election bid. Would George W. Bush have won, giving him a launching pad for a presidential campaign?
These questions about ethics surfaced after AAPC held their annual "Pollie Awards" on March 29. They're considered that industry's Academy Awards, given in the categories of Campaigns, Public Affairs and Issues and Referenda.
This year, AAPC honored Yes on 8, No on 8, and Republicans Against 8 with "Pollie Awards" for their media and marketing campaigns during last year's intense and historically expensive battle over Proposition 8 in California. Voters passed Prop 8 by roughly 52% - 48%, thus changing the California Constitution to eliminate the fundamental right of same sex couples to marry.
No on 8 won several awards and the Republicans Against 8 campaign, sponsored by the Log Cabin Republicans (LCR) and marketed virally by Republicans Against 8 Campaign Manager Scott Schmidt and Creative Director Benjamin Redd, produced award-winning videos directed by Oscar-winning "Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.
Schmidt, President of RSC Partners, Inc., said:
"While I'd rather win an election than an award, it is an honor to be recognized by our peers in the political consulting and public affairs profession."
The Yes on Proposition 8 campaign won a slew of awards, including the "gold" for TV Radio Campaign (produced by Schubert/Flint Public Affairs), the "silver" for Best Fundraising, and "bronze" for the robocall using Barack Obama's voice saying,
"I believe that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. [applause] Now, for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God's in the mix."
Yes on 8 Campaign Manager and AAPC board member Frank Schubert accepted the gold award but was apparently not well-received.
Former LCR President Patrick Sammon, who attended the event, told me for an upcoming story in Frontiers IN LA:
"To say he got a cold reception would be an understatement. The woman who introduced him made it clear she supported marriage equality -- and there was strong applause. Following that some people sang Happy Birthday -- because I guess it was his birthday. But they couldn't make it through the song because no one was singing. He detected the chilly reception and acknowledged that many people disagreed with him. But then he said, 'However, I represent those who read the Bible and believe in God.' Some people found that incredibly offensive. At one point, some people were hissing."
Hissing, no doubt, because people of faith supported the No on Prop 8 campaign as well, including Episcopal bishops, over 250 rabbis here's one), and yes, even Mormons. Several religious leaders even recorded an online video urging a No vote.
But hissing? Really? The guy won -- by 600,000 votes -- even though almost the entire political and editorial establishment in California was against him. Could the nation's exhaustion with nasty political divisiveness be creeping into the political consulting business? Or could this be a way some members expressed adherence to the 40-year old non-partisan AAPC's own Code of Ethics? That Code says, in part:
"I will use no appeal to voters which is based on racism, sexism, religious intolerance or any form of unlawful discrimination and will condemn those who use such practices.
I will refrain from false or misleading attacks on an opponent or member of his or her family and will do everything in my power to prevent others from using such tactics....
I will not support any individual or organization which resorts to practices forbidden by this code."
Unless, of course, the political consultant believes in the cause, the issue, the campaign, which Schubert told the audience he did during a panel discussion on Prop 8. (Edward Headington of the Headington Media Group shot video of Frank Schubert and his partner Jeff Flint's presentation which is now posted serially on YouTube.)
The presentation is a good tutorial on how Schubert/Flint ran their remarkably effective winning campaign, including honest revelations about some of their "breaks" such as the "gift" of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose gravely voiced enthusiasm celebrating the marriage victory produced the now iconic phrase "whether you like it or not!"
Surveying the political landscape when they came on board in June, the Yes on 8 team knew that turnout would be key. Obama would turn out the youth vote -- which was bad for them, Schubert said, but not as bad as people think. Obama also turned out the African American vote, which was a "blessing for us," he said. And John McCain's VP pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, also energized the social conservatives.
Schubert told the AAPC audience: "Our objective is to win campaigns."
With the political establishment and all major newspapers and editorial boards essentially aligned against them, Schubert/Flint focused on "Grassroots 101" -- organizing "down to the zip code level" with 100,000 volunteers (they were turning people away by Election Day) - five people per precinct to walk door to door -- and over 3 million voter IDs for their huge GOTV efforts. They also spent almost $1 million on their "pastor campaign"-- organizing an army of 7,500 pastors with the expected ripple effect.
The ethic communities were "culturally with us," Schubert said. But to make sure, they handed out one million lawn signs and published information in 40 different languages. "We won overwhelmingly among African Americans and Latinos," Schubert said. "They almost assured the margin for us."
Additionally, the Yes campaign raised $7 ½ million online and seeking to be "in every media space possible," Flint said, they created a new use for Google ad buys, in addition to "old fashioned direct mail" and a "critical" use of radio, especially drive-time when they ran the "clarifying" Obama ad.
They created ads, Schubert said, to "fire up the base," get people to do things like volunteer, and most importantly, create the new idea that same sex marriages had unseen consequences that should matter to heterosexuals.
His extensive researched showed him that many Californians were "tolerant" of gay couples and "voters didn't want to throw gay couples under the bus without their rights." So, Schubert said, they needed to find a way to impact people to vote in their own self-interest, "raising a doubt and projecting a doubt forward."
That lead to a religious-based campaign designed around the unforeseen "consequences" of gay marriage impacting religious freedom and "personal freedom of expression, with respect to how this new so-called 'fundamental right' would be taught to children in public schools."
Schubert explained their repeated, disciplined message: "This is not about tolerance but about the forced acceptance of gay marriage."
Schubert said that the California Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling on May 15 not only said that the statue banning same sex marriage was unconstitutional -- they also made gays a "protected legal class," setting up conflicts "in everyday life between gay couples asserting their right to marry and the deeply held beliefs of people who do not support gay marriage."
And understanding the consequences of this conflict were "enormously important." Schubert said:
"The rights of the gay couple are going to prevail because of the way the courts reached their decision and that's why it's important to this underlying message: you have to accept gay marriage whether you like it or not."
To religious people for whom marriage is a "God-created institution," this was a very "big deal" and, Schubert said, religion became the "number one driver" of the campaign messaging as well as a prime pump for fundraising.
"We are very grateful to the Mormon Church.....We would not have won if not for the people of faith in California."
The campaign's shift to focus on education came when they screened an ad featuring the Massachusetts couple the Wirthlins whose second grader was allegedly "forced" to learn about same sex marriage. One African American focus group participant apparently shook his head, and when asked why, Schubert said the man said: "If that happened to me, I'd be pissed."
Schubert said: "We made it about something voters cared about and that's why we won."
But to some, the Yes on 8 ads, while extremely effective, will be remembered alongside ads such as the racist "Hands" ad that helped Jesse Helms beat Harvey Gant in North Carolina and California Gov. Pete Wilson's 1994 re-election grainy black and white "They just keep coming" anti-immigrant ad. Wilson later defended the ad to the San Diego Tribune:
"That ad was accurate," he said. "It would be pretty hard for anybody to deny that they [Mexican immigrants] did, and for that matter, do keep coming."
As to whether the tone of the ad created resentment among Latinos, Wilson said: "It may be that it did. But it was not inaccurate, nor was it unfair or false."
In his AAPC presentation, Schubert also said the ads were accurate:
"There was nothing we said in this campaign that we did not believe to be true or did happen."
They were especially lucky to have the San Francisco Chronicle -- video story of the schoolchildren going to surprise their lesbian teacher at her wedding in City Hall. That, Schubert said, "moved beyond theory" to be able to say, "It's already happening."
Schubert seemed incredulous that the City Hall event was allowed to happen during such a heated political campaign. But surely he knew that what the parents had envisioned as a lovely surprise for the beloved teacher was orchestrated into a political front page story by the Chronicle itself.
According to blogger Paul Hogarth in his dissection of the piece ("SF Chronicle Jeopardizes Marriage Equality"), Chronicle writer Jill Tucker said that
"the parents who organized the trip actively sought media coverage -- and the paper decided on its own that it was 'news' enough to deserve front-page treatment."
Apparently they wanted coverage of the legal wedding as a commemoration for the couple and had no idea their children would be "exploited" for political purposes. On Oct. 26, 2008 two aggrieved parents held a news conference demanding that the Yes on 8 campaign stop using the Chronicle video of their children attending a legal wedding and "stop lying about the opt-out" clause of every parental permission slip.
Might that have been an unethical breach of the AAPC's Code of Conduct?
Or how about using the Wirthlins as proof that one of the consequences of marriage equality would be that same sex marriage is taught to first and second graders?
On Oct. 23, 2008, an investigative piece by reporter Dan Aiello appeared in the Bay Area Reporter indicating that the Wirthlins were not the damaged couple the Yes on 8 campaign made them out to be:
"The Wirthlins story is simple as told by them. They were only trying to protect their son and felt wronged by the overwhelming opposition of their community and the First District Federal Court.
What the couple and the Yes on 8 campaign do not mention, however, was that the Wirthlins were members of a political organization pressing for an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that would ban same-sex marriage before the teacher read the book King and King to their son, according to a 2006 article by Michael Meade of 365Gay.com. The Wirthlins, it seems, were looking for a reason to sue in Massachusetts. Now they're looking for a fight here in California.....
According to the Web site http://www.davidparkerfund.org, the parents did not challenge the use of these books as part of a non-discrimination curriculum in the public schools, but challenged the school district's refusal to provide them with prior notice and to allow for exemption from such instruction. They asked for relief until their children were in seventh grade.
In the suit, the Wirthlins said the school was attempting to indoctrinate their children about an "immoral lifestyle." The suit complained that school officials bypassed their parental rights to raise their children how they wish, and in doing so, violated their civil rights.
The Wirthlins lost their legal battle -- the U.S. Supreme Court just declined to hear the case, letting the lower court ruling stand -- but they are far from losing the war. They are part of the out-of-state effort by the Mormon Church, whose members have contributed millions of dollars to the Yes on 8 war chest, to pass Prop 8.
Chip White, a spokesman for Yes on 8, confirmed that the Wirthlins are members of the Mormon Church.
The Wirthlins admit that their son already knew children of same-sex couples at Estabrook, even before the book was read to him, but claim that "kids don't pay attention to other kids' parents, they just do things like play on the playground." .... Prop 8's opponents said the Wirthlins are misinformed about the California initiative.
"So what they're angry about is that Massachusetts doesn't have the same opt-out educational code option that California has had for a very long time," said Christine Allen, a retired California public school employee who, with her wife Ann, raised five children.
"It simply isn't something that can happen here -- it doesn't make sense to me that they are genuinely concerned about this issue," Allen said.
Surely Schubert's extensive research would have lead him to this information -- which is at best misleading.
During the AAPC presentation, Schubert said he would have "fired" a volunteer who didn't stay on message. So what is one to make of the anonymously written, church-distributed "Six Consequences the Coalition Has Identified if Proposition 8 Fails?"
The brief treatise sums up the Yes on 8 campaign talking points -- which were knocked down at the Mormons for Marriage website by Morris A. Thurston, a lifelong Mormon who graduated from Brigham Young University and Harvard Law School and a retired senior partner at the LA-based global firm of Latham & Watkins, where he specialized in litigation and intellectual property law.
Here's Consequence Number 5 - which Thurston states, then refutes:
"Ministers who preach against same-sex marriages may be sued for hate speech and risk government fines. It already happened in Canada, a country that legalized gay marriage. A recent California court held that municipal employees my not say: "traditional marriage," or "family values" because, after the same-sex marriage case, it is "hate speech."
Response: Of course, anyone can be "sued" for anything, but no minister has been convicted of a crime in Canada or the United States for preaching against same‐sex marriages. The Owens case, on which this statement is based, was brought well before gay marriage was legal in Canada and did not involve a minister, but a private citizen. In that case, a man named Hugh Owens produced bumper stickers and took out an ad that depicted two stick figures holding hands, covered by a circle and a slash, along with a reference to a passage in Leviticus that says that a man engaging in homosexual activity "shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them." The lower court ruled that this amounted to hate speech, but the decision was overturned on review. The current Canadian law on hate propaganda excludes any speech if it is spoken during a private conversation or if the person uttering the speech "is attempting in good faith to establish by argument an opinion on a religious subject." Thus, even ministers who preach against same‐sex marriages in Canada have no risk of legal liability or government fines.
This would never be an issue in the United States because we have far more liberal freedom of speech and religion laws than does Canada. There have been no hate speech lawsuits in Massachusetts, which has been a gay marriage state for four years."
With such a tightly-controlled, top-down campaign, Schubert would have surely known that the "Six Consequences" treatise was being circulated, if the Yes on 8 campaign did not publish and distribute it themselves.
What is ethical about knowingly disseminating false and inaccurate information in order to win a campaign? Are the arguments at the core of the issue not strong enough to survive an open, head-to-head debate? And moreover, what is ethical about lying about what the California high court calls a protected minority - would the AAPC have ignored similar dis-information about African Americans or Jews?
And, by the way, the designation of lesbians and gays as a protected minority remains intact, regardless of how the California Supreme Court rules regarding the validation of Prop 8.
One might even argue that Schubert's selective use of religion as a weapon against a minority may itself be considered a violation of the AAPC Code of Ethic regarding religious intolerance.
The problem with Schubert or any other political consultant's use of gay people as an easy political target is that it has real life consequences, not just made up ones. In a current story for the Bay Area Reporter, Aiello writes about the correlation between increased hate crimes against LGBT people and the passage of Prop 8.
Scott Schmidt said it is time for AAPC to update their Code of Ethics:
"No one's sexual orientation should be an issue in any political campaign. Any negative portrayal of gays and lesbians in a political campaign risks causing irreparable harm to our community. We need to stand up and demand that the same standards for campaigning that apply to race, gender and religion apply to sexual orientation -- be it in a ballot measure or a city council race."
Imagine how political campaigns might change if the professional association to which most of them belonged decided to ban gay-bashing as a matter of ethics?
Schmidt has created a Facebook page to build support to change the policy. Your support and comments are welcome.