Hiding the Money
Donors to the campaign against gay marriage are suing Maine.
- By: Colin Woodard
Maine’s off-year elections rarely attract national attention, especially ones like last November’s, when not a single federal office was up for grabs. But all eyes were on Maine on November 4 as returns came in on Question 1, which asked voters to repeal the new law allowing same sex marriage. They did so, by a 53 to 47 margin.
The measure raised passions on both sides, touching people far beyond Maine’s borders. Those supporting the repeal felt they were defending thousands of years of tradition from a perceived threat to one of society’s fundamental foundations. Opponents saw it as a fundamental human rights issue, a struggle for equal protection under the law with parallels to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Given the perceived stakes, whichever camp wound up on the losing side could be expected to have a few upset members.
The backlash after the vote was prompt, fierce, and extremely short-lived. Two prominent opponents of gay marriage received menacing phone messages in the days after the vote, but the threats stopped shortly thereafter. On the Web, some out-of-state same sex marriage supporters called for a boycott of Maine in general and L.L. Bean in particular, on account of board member Linda Bean’s past support of groups opposing gay rights. L.L. Bean released a statement from Ms. Bean denying any involvement in the ballot measure, while others pointed out that the Freeport-based retailer receives high marks as a gay-friendly place to work from the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, DC. (The board is not united in political matters: chairman and former Bean CEO Leon Gorman’s wife, Lisa, gave in support of gay marriage.) By the end of November, the boycott had fizzed out.
“It’s a very emotional issue and I think people were angry and looking for a direction to vent that anger,” remarks L.L. Bean spokesperson Carolyn Beem, who says the retailer often finds itself a stand-in for anyone angry at Maine officials or voters. “If Senator Snowe is out there on health care or Maine elects one presidential candidate or another we hear from one camp that they’re never going to shop with us and from the other that they can finally be our customers again.”
But one issue surrounding the ballot question has not died down: the single largest donor organization’s refusal to comply with Maine election law by revealing the source of its contributions, and its willingness to sue the state to avoid doing so.
In politics, it’s often revealing to follow the money. Tracking which organizations and individuals give to a particular candidate or ballot measure gives a pretty good idea whose interests are likely served if they prevail at the polls. That’s why Maine law requires campaigns to disclose where they got their money and how they spent it.
Only by reading these disclosures could the public learn that House Speaker Hannah Pingree was paid $5,176 as a consultant to the No on 1 campaign, whose largest single donor (five hundred thousand dollars) was hedge fund manager Donald Sussman, a close friend of (and major donor to) Hannah’s mother, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. (The younger Pingree’s chief of staff, Jesse Connolly, headed No on 1 but took a leave of absence to run the referendum campaign.)
The disclosures also reveal that most of the nearly $5 million that No on 1 raised came from individual donors — more than twenty thousand of them, spread across Maine and the United States, including local politicos, Hollywood actors, Farmington homemakers, Philadelphia artists, Waldoboro writers, and California attorneys. Read through the hundreds of pages of disclosures and a picture emerges of a broad-based, nationwide support base from many walks of life, buttressed by generous contributions from a few wealthy individuals and key gay rights organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the Denver-based Gill Foundation.
But try doing the same analysis for the opponents of same sex marriage and you’re out of luck. The majority of the money behind the effort remains cloaked in mystery because the organization that collected it refuses to fully comply with Maine law. They’ve even sued the state, asking a federal judge to rule it doesn’t have to reveal where its money comes from and that Maine’s disclosure requirements are unconstitutional.
Stand for Marriage Maine, the principal organization supporting the repeal of gay marriage, has filed the required paperwork, which shows a narrower base of support. Individual donors — some eight hundred of them from across Maine and the country — comprised only about 10 percent of the $3 million the group raised. The Roman Catholic Church and the Knights of Columbus account for six hundred thousand dollars of that total, or 20 percent. But the vast majority — $1.94 million, or 64 percent of all funding — came from the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), a New Jersey-based nonprofit that has refused to disclose where its money came from.
“They want to keep their donors’ names secret,” says Fred Karger of Californians Against Hate. Karger is the gay rights activist who first brought the issue to the attention of state officials. “They’re arrogant thinking they’re above the law, and it’s going to catch up to them.”
In early October, Maine’s Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices opened an investigation as to whether NOM was violating election rules by failing to register as a ballot question committee and disclose its donors. NOM responded by filing a suit at the U.S. District Court in Portland against the commissioners and a variety of other state officials, claiming the disclosure requirements are an undue burden on their First Amendment rights. They also asked the court to freeze the ethics investigation.
Their arguments appear to be on shaky legal ground. The week before Election Day, the court declined to stop the investigation because NOM “had not shown a likelihood of success on the merits as to any of their challenges” of Maine law. “Maine has a strong and compelling interest in . . . providing voters with information about where the money supporting a measure comes from,” wrote Judge D. Brock Hornby, noting that the state’s requirements — that any organization spending more than five thousand dollars on a ballot measure must report every contribution and expenditure over a hundred dollars — was not constitutionally burdensome. (The court is expected to make a final ruling later this winter.)
The group representing Maine’s nonprofits says the judge made the right call. “If you’re big enough to have five thousand dollars to spend on a ballot initiative, then it’s not going to be that onerous to fill out the paperwork,” says Brenda Peluso of the Maine Association of Nonprofits. “It doesn’t bode well for the character and reputation of the nonprofit sector if you have an organization out there saying they don’t want to tell you who is funding them while they spend more than a million on a ballot initiative.”
NOM’s attorney, James Bopp Jr., says the group is merely trying to protect small donors from harassment. “There is some level where disclosure of major donors could very well be justified,” says Bopp. “A hundred dollars is too low — what person in their right mind would decide their vote on a ballot measure based on whether a person gave one hundred dollars? Only if they’re psychotic, and we don’t make the law for the psychotic.”
Marc Mutty, chairman of Stand for Marriage Maine, says many donors were indeed afraid they would be targeted and harassed for opposing same-sex marriage, as happened to supporters of a similar measure in California the year before. “I suspect there were a number of donations from Maine made to NOM with the understanding that you cannot specify where it is spent because they did not want their names publicized,” says Mutty, who is also public affairs director for Portland’s Roman Catholic Diocese.
NOM also contends that it is not required to disclose contributions not specifically solicited for the Maine ballot measure, but court documents show the organization made dozens of appeals specifically referring to Maine. Court documents also show the group plans to run negative advertisements against state legislators who voted for same sex marriage in this year’s elections.
“If you feel like you are on the right side of an issue that you give money to, you do it proudly,” says Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine, who says she has no problem with Maine’s rules. “If you have to hide behind a veil because you’re worried about being harassed, then it’s time to think about your position on the issue.”
Mr. Karger of Californians Against Hate thinks NOM — which is also under investigation in Iowa — is really trying to protect major donors. On his Web site, mormongate.com, he presents a largely circumstantial case for the organization being a creation of the Mormon Church, an allegation the church denies. The Mormon Church “did not establish the National Organization for Marriage . . . did not provide NOM with funding,” spokesperson Kim Farah told Down East by e-mail.
Meanwhile the state ethics commission is in the midst of its own investigation to determine where the money did come from. “I expect it will take a few months,” says its executive director, Jonathan Wayne.
- By: Colin Woodard