Michael Dougan
The fight for gay and lesbian rights in Oregon has never been easy. But at least with Lon Mabon and the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) heading up the opposition, civil rights activists knew they could rely on the opposition tripping themselves up with their own hi-jinx, over-the-top bigotry, or outright illegal behavior.

In 1991, for example, during the height of the fight over the first Measure 9, OCA members attacked a gay rights activist, dragging her out of a meeting hall by her hair. That attack led to a lawsuit that helped bankrupt and discredit the OCA. When Mabon refused to pay the settlement--saying that all judges in Oregon were unconstitutional--he effectively excused himself from (sane) political dialogue in the state.

But now, with Mabon and the OCA all but gone and, in their place, the politically well-connected Defense of Marriage Coalition (DOMC) running the show, groups like Basic Rights Oregon have a much more difficult fight on their hands. In the aftermath of Measure 36's passage, civil rights activists are left questioning how such a powerful opposition formed. And, even more frightening, how to fight back.

Not that the '90s were a cakewalk for activists, but it's widely agreed (on both sides of the argument) that Mabon was his own worst enemy. Even at the height of its success, the goals and tactics of the OCA marginalized its base, which eventually abandoned Mabon completely.

"What they were trying to do and how they were trying to do it pushed people to the extremes," said Kelly Clark, a former state legislator and now attorney for the DOMC. He added, "the majority of people didn't share their view."

"I also don't know that the OCA had credibility with the heart of the conservative evangelical community," Clark said. "(With the DOMC), you saw some very large churches that don't normally get involved in politics."

While the OCA found sympathy and support from some churches, they did not explicitly organize churches into a political machine. But that is precisely what the DOMC has done.

Throughout the '80s and '90s, at the same time the OCA was publishing bogus and inflammatory literature about the amount of fecal matter that an average gay man ingests, a lesser-known group called the Oregon Family Council--founded in 1979 to register Christians to vote--was quietly publishing its Christian Voters' Guide. The guide is a frank brochure detailing candidates' positions on a limited number of "moral" issues--namely abortion and gay rights. Until this past year, even though it was headed by Multnomah County Republican chairman Tim Nashif, the group opted to remain "behind the scenes." Over two decades, they managed to quietly build up a strong and far-reaching network of politically sympathetic pastors and church congregations.

That machinery was unveiled this past March when Nashif and others--including business partner and OFC co-head Michael White and a collection of evangelical pastors--began putting together a statewide initiative that would prohibit the state from recognizing same-sex marriages. The resulting organization, Defense of Marriage Coalition, was an assumed business name of the OFC.

Almost immediately, the stark difference between the DOMC and the OCA was obvious. DOMC immediately held a massive conference of pastors at the New Hope Community Church in Clackamas, featuring a keynote address from fundamentalist Christian icon James Dobson.

"I don't think a startup coalition without the expertise of the Oregon Family Council would have been able to bring in the same numbers," Clark said.

By relying heavily on the churches represented at the conference, the DOMC collected 244,000 petition signatures--more than twice the required number--in record time, catching civil rights activists off guard. Although the DOMC--under the name of OFC--had been around for 25 years, they had flown under the radar.

Moreover, while the OCA could count on votes from many churchgoers, the DOMC took it one step further by turning congregations into armies of campaign volunteers and church services into campaign events where they played "Yes On 36" DVDs during sermons. This difference is especially daunting to civil rights activists: Even if the current leadership for DOMC abandons their cause, they have effectively politicized churches throughout the state and have formalized shared values into a political action organization. That network will outlast any leadership changes within the DOMC.

By way of contrast, when Mabon's hatred couldn't sustain the OCA, it collapsed. Many of Mabon's ballot attempts through the '90s fizzled when he couldn't secure the minimum number of signatures. In fact, he filed to run another version of his "Student Protection Act" this year, but never followed through with the petition process.

In the end, the DOMC was able to use its political clout and its credibility with large churches--inherited from the OFC--to raise about 10 times more money than the OCA raised to fund Measure 9.

The question that remains is whether the OFC/DOMC will use its current momentum to push forward with other issues on its agenda. Nashif, who bristles at comparisons to Mabon and the OCA, says no. However, he added that if the state Supreme Court orders the legislature to craft a law for civil unions, the coalition would show up to solicit against aspects they might be "uncomfortable" with. Nashif wouldn't speculate about the specific nature of those aspects.

But Nashif did say that the issue of "minority status" (explicitly banning discrimination of gays and lesbians) could likely bring together the same coalition.

"If there was a move by Basic Rights Oregon to introduce an initiative that sexual orientation should be written into the constitution to include it in the list of minorities," Nashif warned, "we would speak up."

Even more troubling, Kathleen Sullivan, who ran the "No On 9" campaign in 2000, worries the DOMC could inspire other conservative factions into political action.

"I think the fear is that, because they're now so powerful, and they don't look like a marginalized group, like the OCA," explained Sullivan, "they're potentially more frightening." She added that the real threat may come from other groups, newly reenergized, seeking to capitalize on the success of DOMC.

"For example, you have Right To Life in Oregon, which always has tons of money but has never been able to create a lot of political power, and now you've got this new group that has demonstrated that it can create political power. Who knows what they're going to go after next?"

Her advice: "If you're a leader in the GLBT community or in the choice community, you've got to start running your campaign now."