Column by John Day
Rope-a-dope a tactic in Maine gay rights fight?
Rope-a-dope a tactic in Maine gay rights fight?
As boxing strategies go, Muhammad Ali's "rope-a-dope" tactic against George Foreman was an inspiration.
It worked this way.
Ali leaned against the ropes, feigning injury. Foreman charged in with both fists pounding. Exhausting himself in a wasted fit of fury, Big George was an easy target for Ali's eighth-round knockout blow in the 1974 Zaire heavyweight championship fight.
Mike Heath, the executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, knows a little about playing the rope-a-dope game. He snookered the Maine press corps into declaring a premature victory dance on the gay rights law.
When contacted by the Portland Press Herald last Aug. 21, Heath conceded that the coalition's petition drive had collected only 10,000 signatures. Anti-gay rights organizers needed more than 51,000 before Sept. 18 to force a "people's veto" referendum on the state's new law banning discrimination based on sexual preference.
As he expected, editorial writers and columnists on the pro-gay rights side from all over the state "wrote our obituary," Heath said.
No way those right-wing bigots were going to come up with another 41,000 valid signatures in just a month, they wrote. This was proof, they concluded, that Maine had entered a new era of enlightment.
The unintended result of August's burst of negative media coverage was to energize conservative Christians involved in Heath's petition drive. Many of those activists view the media as biased against conservatives in general, and more so against right-wing Christian activists. Heath, a philosophy major in college, was philosophical about that.
"In any kind of public discussion, we have to push the ball uphill ... Among the public there is an innate instinct that the church and politics should be separate," Heath said. Journalists also have a tendency, he said, to equate all Bible-quoting activists with television preachers Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, who fell from grace because their sermons about family values did not mesh with well-publicized personal "indiscretions."
It was a shock, therefore, on Sept. 18 when the Christian Civic League and Christian Coalition of Maine showed up in Augusta with 65,256 signatures - thousands more than needed to force a repeal vote on the state's new gay rights law.
When asked if the two groups were playing possum, Heath said, "The results clearly indicate that the press attacks did not hurt our cause."
The referendum could end up a much closer battle than people think, according to Chris Potholm of Bowdoin College, a consultant last year to Maine Won't Discriminate. That pro-gay rights organization raised and spent nearly 10 times as much money as its chief opposition, conservative organizer Carolyn Cosby. The pro-gay rights election spread was 53 to 47 percent. Maine Won't Discriminate carried all but five Maine counties. After losing last year and publicly feuding with Heath, Cosby moved out of the state.
Gov. Angus King, a gay rights advocate, will determine the date of the coming referendum. His aides reportedly have decided that earlier is better than later. The vote, therefore, could come as soon as December. Potholm worried that could be an advantage for Heath's coalition, which has its grass-roots organization in place, while many key operatives in the Maine Won't Discriminate organization may be unavailable for a second go-around.
One thing is certain.
The pro-gay rights side will raise more money, which is what is happening in the gay rights referendum initiative now before voters in the state of Washington. According to USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro, gay rights activists have raised more than $600,000 to date, compared to the opposition's $45,000. Even so, polls indicate the election will be close. Until now, no state has adopted a gay rights law via the referendum process.
Heath and Paul Volle, chairman of the Christian Coalition of Maine, held a press conference in Augusta Friday to announce a kickoff drive to raise $300,000 through individual $5 donations. This year's anti-gay rights coalition probably won't receive much financial help from national conservative groups, which largely ignored Cosby's referendum drive. A spokeswoman for the Washington-based Family Research Council said national right-wing groups are focusing on the battle in Congress over pending legislation that would expand federal civil rights laws to ban discrimination in housing and hiring based on sexual preference.
Heath continues to lower expectations and project the "David vs. Goliath" image. A December referendum, with no other issues on the ballot, likely means a low turnout.
That's the perfect scenario for an ideological election. Average voters, who are uneasy confronting the issue of homosexuality, could avoid the issue by staying home, leaving the playing field to the true believers.
Heath won't say it publicly, but the anti-gay rights coalition would welcome another round of media-bashing. The backlash among conservatives to last August's press attacks rescued Heath's petition drive from the doldrums of summer vacation lethargy.
The rope-a-dope worked once.
It could again in December if the pro-gay rights side doesn't smarten up.
John Day's e-mail address is email@example.com
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