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(Update: Correcting to show that the Freedom Ohio board, not Ian James, has offered board positions to Equality Ohio and Human Rights Campaign officials.)
By Bob Vitale
The campaign to put marriage equality on the Ohio ballot in 2013 has operated largely so far on small donations and free help.
According to campaign-finance disclosures filed with the state, Freedom Ohio raised less than $32,000 in its first nine months of operation. More than $620,000 was donated in services, supplies and equipment, though, from the group’s founder and other supporters.
Is that enough of a start for a statewide campaign that some estimate could cost $10 million or more?
“That’s the question: Is it?” asked Elyzabeth Holford, executive director of Equality Ohio, a statewide LGBT advocacy group that doesn’t want to put marriage equality up for a vote in 2013.
A 2009 amendment to approve casinos in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo cost the winning side $47 million. An unsuccessful effort last fall to change legislative redistricting in Ohio cost supporters $7 million.
But Ian James, a Columbus political strategist who started Freedom Ohio with his husband, said the marriage-equality campaign is further along than he thought it would be at this stage.
“The cynics are saying the same thing they said about Barack Obama in 2007 when he was 30 points behind,” James said, referring to the early stages of the Democrats’ 2008 presidential nomination fight when Hillary Clinton was leading in polls and fundraising.
“But [Obama] had a grassroots movement of people who said, ‘You know what, we want change,’” James said.
If Freedom Ohio’s proposed ballot measure goes forward, Ohio voters would be asked to approve a state constitutional amendment that would guarantee civil-marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples but would let churches refuse to perform weddings for couples of the same gender. The measure would overturn an amendment approved by voters in 2004 that limited marriage rights to Ohioans in heterosexual relationships.
Freedom Ohio is working to collect the 385,000-plus signatures needed to get a marriage-equality amendment on the statewide ballot this year. It has been gathering endorsements as well from political and business leaders around the state.
Although their contributions are relatively small, Freedom Ohio’s donor rolls include more than 700 supporters. The group began its effort in March 2012.
Just 19 people gave more than $100. The biggest single cash contributor was the group’s other co-founder, Stephen Letourneau, James’ husband and president of the couple’s business, the Strategy Network. He gave a total of $5,025 last year.
The Strategy Network donated $275,000 in consulting work, data, equipment and supplies in 2012, according to campaign-finance reports filed with the Ohio secretary of state’s office. The most recent report, covering the second half of the year, was filed Thursday.
James said the cost of that work and those materials won’t be reimbursed to his company. Other businesses and people donated IT services, communications and public-relations expertise, and other work.
James hasn’t ruled out the possibility, though, that his company might eventually be hired by the campaign that he and Letourneau founded. That’s something critics point to as a reason they’ve not embraced this particular marriage-equality effort.
James said hiring decisions will be made by a nine-member Freedom Ohio board. The board has offered spots to Equality Ohio and Human Rights Campaign officials, but they have declined them.
Equality Ohio, though, isn’t backing a 2013 ballot initiative, Holford said. Although two polls last fall showed at least a plurality of Ohioans in favor of marriage equality, she and others say they’re not convinced the issue can win at the ballot box just yet.
Wealthy LGBT Ohioans who would be counted to write big checks for a marriage-equality campaign have been sitting out as well.
James said the campaign hasn’t reached the point where it’s calling on big donors. He likened potential big-money donors to investors who want to see that they’re betting on a likely winner.
That grassroots 2008 campaign for Obama was built initially on a large number of smaller contributors who sent in $10, $20, $25 at a time, he said. Freedom Ohio is doing the same thing.
“This is all about building a foundation,” James said. “Now we’re in the growth phase.”