Since the 1950s, legislative strategists for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights have triedto squeeze their message into an “accomodationist” framework, suiting up in ties and pearls to tell the public, “We’re not scary or threatening. We’re just like you. So could you please give us our equal rights?” Over and over, this polite approach has failed to win us full equality under the law.
A group of gay and lesbian leaders in New York State realized that they had reached a strategic turning point after they suffered a shocking loss on a statewide marriage equality bill. Passing the bill was a leading LGBT legislative objective in New York, and activists had spent years building political relationships and poured millions of dollars into advocacy and lobbying. They were infuriated this past December when the state Senate voted the bill down, 38 to 24.
By early 2010, many donors and activists who had worked for the marriage equality bill decided to stop asking politely for equal treatment under the law. Emboldened both by their anger over the Senate vote and by new evidence that New Yorkers overwhelmingly supported full and equal rights for everyone, they drew support from Tim Gill of the national gay rights powerhouse Gill Action Fund and allies to pursue a more aggressive strategy. The result: Fight Back New York PAC was established to undertake an innovative—albeit risky and not so polite—new mission: reshape the state’s marriage equality battle by defeating Senators on Election Day who voted against the 2009 marriage bill.
FBNY would not simply urge opponents of marriage equality to reconsider their votes. Instead, it would run “take-no-prisoners” campaigns across the state to show anti-equality senators that electoral defeat was now the consequence for their actions. Opportunity knocked early. In mid-February of this year, one of the senators who voted “no,” Democrat Hiram Monserrate, was expelled from the state Senate for a domestic violence conviction, and a 30-day special election was called to fill his seat. Monserrate declared confidently that he would win back the seat from which he was booted by his colleagues. His would-be opponent, Jose Peralta, was an Assembly member who had voted three times in favor of marriage equality.
FBNY recognized that it could use this race to send a shot across the bow. If senators believed they could vote against the basic human rights of the LGBT community with impunity, this election would show them otherwise—even if the circumstances of this election would not be exactly replicable in other districts. FBNY moved swiftly. Within a week, they established their PAC, started raising money online through a dynamic website, and used a social media campaign to quickly grow the donor base from dozens to hundreds. My firm, BerlinRosen, was brought on at this initial stage to provide strategic consulting and produce direct mail for the campaign. We worked with FBNY to develop a plan for reclaiming the first of eight Senate votes needed to win New York’s battle for marriage equality.
Monserrate had been elected in the state Senate’s 13th District, located in the heart of Queens. It is a racially and ethnically diverse district. Forty-one percent of voters are Hispanic, and this bloc is divided among distinct Dominican-American, Puerto Rican, Mexican-American, Ecuadoran and Colombian communities. South Asian and Southeast Asian voters are also represented in the electorate.
Assuming Peralta’s campaign would broadcast its own positive messaging, FBNY decided to drive home to every potential voter Monserrate’s abundant liabilities. Our target offered no shortage of negative issues for us to leverage. He was charged with slashing his girlfriend’s face with a broken glass and was caught on video dragging her through her building’s lobby after the incident. He was sentenced to community service but wasn’t showing up for it. He had also been investigated for spending hundreds of thousands of tax dollars on a phony charity.
Despite all this, Monserrate had been very popular in his district. He presented himself as a populist and had a large, organized base of supporters who helped him win elections despite opposition from political institutions. After his Senate expulsion, Monserrate publicly compared himself to slain civil rights leaders and to Jesus Christ, accusing the Senate of disenfranchising voters.
Because Monserrate’s closest ally was New York State’s most outspoken anti-marriage legislator, Rev. Ruben Diaz, FBNY anticipated that Monserrate might counter our efforts by decrying the “influence of gay money” to try to arouse anti-gay sentiment among voters. While our messaging to voters would emphasize Monserrate’s considerable personal and professional shortcomings—and not marriage equality—we needed to understand the impact of a potential anti-gay backlash.
If Monserrate and his supporters claimed that they were being targeted by gay activists, would it sway this district’s voters? Even if it didn’t shift votes, could FBNY’s adversaries use the issue—and the usual fear-mongering and hateful language that comes with it—to mobilize voters to defeat the FBNY-backed candidate?
Donna Victoria, FBNY’s pollster, conducted a survey of 400 voters to answer these questions. As the poll was being drafted, FBNY’s opponents were already tarring Peralta as “the candidate of the gays,” allowing us to test language directly from the field.
So in addition to evaluating the most persuasive anti-Monserrate messages, the poll also asked:
If you knew that Hiram Monserrate was being targeted by wealthy homosexual activists for his vote against gay marriage, and that they are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat him, would that make you more likely to vote for him, make no difference, or make you less likely to vote for him?
The results were very encouraging: A mere 7 percent said the “gay campaign” against Monserrate would make them more likely to vote for him. Sixty-two percent said it would make no difference, and 26 percent said it would actually make them less likely to vote for him. Voters were then asked:
Reverend Ruben Diaz, another state Senator from Queens, is campaigning for Hiram Monserrate and says that Monserrate should be returned to the state Senate despite his assault conviction because he stood up to the gay community and voted against gay marriage. Does this make you feel more likely to vote for him, make no difference, or make you less likely to vote for him?
The results, again, were very encouraging. While 8 percent of respondents were moved by an anti-gay message delivered by Rev. Diaz, 53 percent of respondents said it would make no difference for their decision and more than a third—35 percent—said it would make them less likely to vote for him.
We drew three conclusions from the poll. First, regardless of voters’ personal positions on gay marriage, they don’t approve of politicians using that issue to manipulate voters for their own electoral gain. Second, we saw that any anti-gay rhetoric used by Rev. Diaz and his cohorts would backfire. Lastly, the incumbents of the New York Senate are going to have to defend their records on legislative votes, Albany dysfunction and in some cases their own personal, moral and legal shortcomings. Voters are tired of the Albany fiasco and are not taking the easy bait offered when those who are part of that mess choose to change the subject by bashing gays and lesbians.
The poll results were liberating: because few voters cared enough about gay marriage to let it determine their vote, FBNY could communicate with them on issues they did appreciate, such as the character of their representatives and wasteful government spending. We could also widely promote FBNY’s efforts though earned media without electoral repercussions.
Our mail for this campaign did not mince words or images. We used stills from the video of Monserrate dragging his injured girlfriend through her building. We overlayed an image of broken glass with the words “He shattered our trust” to remind voters that prosecutors had tried Monserrate for slashing his girlfriend. We also created a mock criminal file to emphasize Monserrate’s conviction and expulsion from the Senate, and we sent voters a photo of money burning to highlight his misuse of taxpayers’ funds.
In order to efficiently reach the broadest range of voters in this diverse district, most FBNY mailers included copy in Spanish and English. Mail and online contacts were reinforced with phone calls to drive home the message, to ID voters and later to remind them to vote. We launched two websites, one highlighting FBNY’s statewide strategy and another on Monserrate specifically. We made the Monserrate site bilingual to ensure all voters had access to information. We didn’t let up. FBNY’s aggressive stance gained supporters, spurred donors and galvanized allies. People wanted to fight back.
As predicted, Monserrate and his ally Rev. Ruben Diaz responded with an anti-gay message. They held a press event with dozens of clergymen from the district imploring voters to ignore Monserrate’s domestic abuse because he had been a steadfast soldier in the fight against gay marriage. They partnered with a right wing religious organization, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedom, to create a campaign they called, without irony, “Punch Back.” Other Monserrate supporters distributed flyers through churches calling Peralta “the Gay Caballero.”
Voters were not persuaded by Monserrate’s message. In fact, they moved away from him, as we hoped and planned that they would. The district voters whose photos we took for our literature were thrilled to appear under the tagline, “We voted for Monserrate before, but we can never vote for him again.”
The election wasn’t even close: Jose Peralta beat Hiram Monserrate by a margin of more than two to one. This is not Fight Back New York’s victory alone; no victory ever belongs to one entity. But it could not have felt more just to anyone than it did to supporters of marriage equality. Other state Senate races in New York this year may not be so lopsided, and the FBNY-backed candidate will not win all the time. Monserrate was admittedly low-hanging fruit, so to speak. As the reelection rate for incumbents in the New York State legislature is 98 percent, we have a tremendous uphill battle before us. But we will be strategic and methodical, and we won’t back down.
Gay activists in the 1950s thought they could achieve their legislative objectives by donning suits to avoid antagonizing their representatives or the public. We may still wear suits, but we have new tools in our pockets—and we are willing to use them.
Valerie Berlin is a principal at BerlinRosen and heads up the firm’s grassroots campaign management and public affairs practice.