Victoria Smith-Weiland isn’t sure how many hours she has been working at a phone bank calling Oregonians about gay marriage over the past two years. “Maybe 30, 40, or even 50” three-hour shifts, she said. “I’ve completely lost track.”
One of about 15 volunteers intermittently staffing the phone bank at Basic Rights Oregon’s small office in downtown Eugene, the 42-year-old believes that her personal story has helped her connect with the strangers on the other end of the line. Smith-Weiland has been in a relationship with her partner, Nicole, for 13 years. The couple, who have a daughter, are active in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. And, in February 2008, they were one of 85 local couples to officially declare their domestic partnership on the first day they legally could.
“People are used to taking political phone calls,” Smith-Weiland said. “But when they hear a real human being with a real story on the line, people seem more willing to talk.”
Oregonians statewide could be only a few weeks away from once again beginning a long conversation about same-sex marriage.
After a two-year “public education campaign” that has included three waves of network and cable television ad campaigns — one of which is just ending — a radio ad campaign on some of Oregon’s Spanish-speaking stations, and tens of thousands of direct mailers and phone calls targeted at moderate and undecided voters, Basic Rights Oregon’s board will soon make a decision on whether to put forward a ballot measure for the November 2012 election to overturn Oregon’s 2004 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
That year, almost 57 percent of Oregon voters approved Measure 36, a constitutional amendment defining marriage “as the union of one man and one woman.”
Although six states recognize gay marriage, including New York and Iowa where the change was made this year, no state has yet adopted it through a vote of the people.
Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, said the decision to go to the ballot will be based on a number of factors, including final polling numbers the organization collects, surveys of its supporter base, and an assessment of the anticipated political environment next November.
“Since 2009, we’ve engaged Oregonians in a discussion about the freedom to marry,” Frazzini said in a recent interview. “Whereas voters had previously only seen the two sides yelling in the middle of a political fight, we were more focused on having a calm discussion … and we’ve seen tremendous progress.”
However, Frazzini acknowledged that “there is no real science to understanding the dynamics of an election a year out” and added that the organization will only proceed if indicators give them a good chance of success.
“It’s a question of when, not if, we move forward,” she said. “But we understand that an emotionally and financially draining defeat is not the path to victory.”
The Oregon Family Council, the organization that spearheaded efforts to pass Measure 36 in 2004, has been monitoring Basic Rights’ campaign, spokeswoman Teresa Lucas said, and the group’s leaders are hoping Basic Rights does not put forward a measure.
“We’ve seen them spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on getting their message out, without opposition,” Lucas said. “But this is a bad time for this fight: We should be focusing on the economy … (A ballot measure) would cost millions of dollars and divide us as Oregonians.”
In 2004, supporters of Measure 36 spent nearly $2.5 million on their campaign while opponents spent almost $3 million. Both sides said they expect to spend “much more” if the issue goes to the ballot in 2012. Frazzini did not disclose how much Basic Rights Oregon has spent on its two-year education campaign.
Recent polls, nationally and in Oregon, have shown that acceptance of gay marriage is growing.
Earlier this year, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that, for the first time, a slim majority of Americans, 53 percent, believe gay marriage should be legal, up from 37 percent in 2003. Two recent surveys in Oregon found support to be at 48 and 45 percent, respectively.
“The public has undeniably become more accepting of (same-sex marriage), though that’s different from being proactively supportive of it,” said Tim Hibbits, a Portland-based independent pollster.
“More and more Americans are getting to know gay people. Those barriers are being broken down in the same way they were for other minorities over the last 40, 50 and 60 years.”
Lucas of the Oregon Family Council said that anytime one side of a debate presents its position with no response from the other side, “it’s going to shift the numbers.”
“I don’t know if that (polling) has emboldened (supporters) and if they know that we’re still here, but we will fight them on this just as hard as we did in 2004,” she said.
Lucas added that favorable polling hasn’t translated into success at the ballot box for supporters of same-sex marriage.
But Frazzini said she believes Oregon is “strongly placed” to be the first state to do so.
“We have a history of taking a stand on equality,” she said. “More people are realizing that having (a gay marriage ban) in our constitution is not in keeping with our identity.”
Independent pollster Hibbits said the eventual legalization of same-sex marriage in Oregon seems inevitable to him, given that polls show that younger voters are far more tolerant on the issue.
“It’s a reality of politics, not my opinion, that we’re headed to that legalization in the next five to 10 years,” he said. “Gay-marriage supporters are going to win this battle in the long- to mid-term.”
Given that changing voter dynamic, Hibbitts said supporters would be ill-advised to risk a defeat at the ballot now if their polling doesn’t give them a healthy lead.
“If it’s a 50-50 deal, I don’t know why you would risk defeat,” he said.
Smith-Weiland said she won’t be overly disappointed if Basic Rights Oregon decides against a ballot measure in 2012. “That’s for better minds than me to decide,” she said.
She added that she has always had faith that gay marriage would be recognized eventually, even after the passage of Measure 36 which, she said, “only felt like a temporary defeat.”
However, she said she would like the change to happen in her lifetime because “it’s important for me to show my daughter that our community has stood up for her two moms.”