Thursday, October 14, 2004

Gay-rights sides target black vote

Comparison to civil rights divides prominent leaders

By Gregory Korte
Enquirer staff writer

Conservative activists fighting to keep Article XII of Cincinnati's charter - which prevents City Council from passing a gay-rights ordinance - are looking for support in an unexpected place: African-American voters.

Long silent while gay-rights activists have mounted a yearlong effort to repeal Article XII, the framers of the 1993 charter amendment have begun an ad campaign that pits gay rights as contrary to civil rights.

The star of the ad campaign is the legendary civil-rights leader, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. He's pictured in an anti-Issue 3 leaflet that asks, "Did Martin Luther King Jr. live and die so that sexual behavior could be called civil rights? No." Campaign strategists say an upcoming television ad will play on the same theme, and yard signs read, "Protect civil rights and marriage. No on Issue 3."

Leaders of the anti-Issue 3 campaign say they'll broaden their appeal before Election Day, but for now, black voters are at ground zero.

"They're up first, there's no question about it," said Phil Burress, a conservative from Loveland who led the 1993 campaign and is a key strategist in opposing its repeal.

"I think the election is going to be won or lost in the black community," said Councilman Sam Malone, a black Republican who is chairman of the Equal Rights Not Special Rights Campaign. "This campaign will give us an opportunity to recognize some civil-rights pioneers."

That has left the Campaign to Repeal Article XII - which claims support from key Baptist ministers and civil-rights leaders - making an effort to attract black voters.

"Clearly, there are strong opinions, and clearly the opposition, their message is that we're trying to hijack the civil-rights movement," said Laura Randall, a spokeswoman for the repeal campaign.

"We're very concerned about this notion that if we fight discrimination against any group at all, that we're taking something away from another group.

"Certainly, we've never suggested that what's happened to gay people is worse than what's happened over the course of this country's history to African-Americans."

Why are black voters so important? The answer can be found, in part, in election results from 1993.

Many of the same conservative activists, infuriated by City Council's passage of a 1992 human rights ordinance that included sexual orientation among its protected classes, put a charter amendment on the ballot to rescind the ordinance and take the issue out of City Council's hands forever.

That initiative, also known as Issue 3, won with 62 percent of the vote. Support was broad-based - 83 percent of the city's 414 precincts supported it. (Then, unlike now, a vote for Issue 3 was a vote against gay rights.)

The highest numbers - with some precincts nearing 90 percent approval - came from the heavily Catholic West Side, in neighborhoods such as Price Hill and Westwood.

African-American voters also supported Issue 3, but not as strongly. Ward 7, an African-American bellwether that includes Bond Hill and Roselawn, approved it with 61.3 percent. In the West End, that figure was 58.6 percent; Evanston, 55.9 percent; Over-the-Rhine, 55.1 percent.

Another factor: African-American voters are already subject to big get-out-the-vote efforts by the Democratic presidential campaign and its affiliated independent groups.

"I'd be reluctant to use the word 'swing voters,' because they're not swinging in the traditional sense. But it's certainly a key constituency in this election," said Gene Beaupre, a political scientist at Xavier University and long-time observer of Cincinnati politics.

"What they're feeling the need to do is remind those people that they voted with them in the past, and the reasons why, and most of all remind them that it's on the ballot," he said. "It's a very impressive strategy. Their base is solid. They don't have to worry about losing the West Side Catholics. It's exactly where I'd spend my money, too. It's a very smart move."

Pressure on other side

Beaupre said the move puts pressure on the Campaign to Repeal Article XII's efforts in black neighborhoods. The campaign would not make its African-American outreach chairman, Terry Payne, available for an interview.

That's not to say the campaign has been invisible. It counts among its supporters some of the city's most established civil rights leaders, including retired federal appeals court Judge Nathaniel R. Jones, former vice mayor Marian Spencer and her husband, real estate agent and education activist Don Spencer.

Last month, it brought the Rev. James Forbes, an internationally renowned pastor from New York, to preach in Cincinnati.

"Cincinnati is blessed to become a battleground regarding issues which reflect the struggle at the heart of creation," he told a congregation of 78 people. "If the forces of hatred, selfishness, greed, pride, political chicanery, exclusion on the basis of race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, social location - if these forces win, then you and I are observing the decline of the American dream."

A key part of the anti-Issue 3 campaign, therefore, is to divorce civil rights based on race from those based on other characteristics. Says Malone: "I can take you to white ghettos - Sedamsville, maybe some parts of Lower Price Hill. There are black ghettos - some would say Winton Place, Millvale, English Woods. I've never seen a homosexual ghetto."

The anti-Issue 3 campaign also plays on a perception by many African-Americans that the gay-rights movement has tried to piggyback on the hard work of civil-rights pioneers without doing any of the heavy lifting themselves.

"The thing that I disagree with is when gay people - or whatever you want to say - equate civil rights, what we did in the '50s and '60s, with special rights," Shuttlesworth said in an interview. "I think what they propose is special rights. Sexual rights is not the same as civil rights and human rights."

Uncomfortable supporters

Even some Issue 3 supporters don't feel completely at home in the gay-rights movement.

"Whenever they try to hijack the civil-rights movement, what King and them did, I tell them to get off it," said the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., pastor of the New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Carthage. "You're not going to make a mockery of what we went through. Here in this town, they did not come alongside us when times were tough. They come and make what we call cameo appearances, but as a group, they didn't hang. I cussed them out then, and I'll do it now."

But Lynch is among Issue 3's most prominent supporters.

"I'm not doing this for them because I have a love and affinity for them," he said. "I would never condone that kind of lifestyle because the Bible abhors it, and I stick straight to the book."

Still, he said: "This is not a biblical issue. It's about discrimination. And discrimination against anybody is wrong."

But "discrimination" - one of the most powerful words in the repeal campaign's arsenal - has lost some of its power after City Council, faced with a court challenge, removed it from the ballot language.

Issue 3 now reads: "Be it resolved by the people of Cincinnati that Article XII of the charter of the city be repealed. This amendment to the City Charter shall in all respects be self-executing. Article XII shall be null and void and of no force and effect. Shall Article XII be repealed?"

That leaves it to each side to frame the issue to voters.


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