A group that helped to outlaw gay marriage in California is turning its focus to Iowa, hoping to begin the long process of overturning a state Supreme Court decision earlier this year that legalized same-sex marriage.
The National Organization for Marriage has launched the Reclaim Iowa Project, targeting legislative races in the state in an effort to elect candidates who support putting the issue of gay marriage before voters.
"Iowa is important because the Supreme Court decision was so against the will of the people of Iowa and the Legislature and Gov. (Chet) Culver showed absolutely no backbone in giving the people the right to have their voices heard," said Brian Brown, the organization's executive director.
The group's effort is beginning with a Sept. 1 special election in southeastern Iowa's House District 90, where Republican Stephen Burgmeier is running against Democrat Curt Hanson for the seat vacated when Democratic Rep. John Whitaker resigned to take a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The organization has endorsed Burgmeier and spent $90,000 on television and radio ads supporting him, Brown said. The ads began airing Monday.
Burgmeier said he has never talked to anyone from the National Organization for Marriage.
"They may have heard about me and what I stand for and they've taken advantage of that to get their message out," he said. "They seem to have the same core value I have ... but I had no knowledge of them being interested in this race."
A telephone message left Wednesday for Hanson was not immediately returned.
Brown's group was the main supporter of California's Proposition 8, which overturned a state Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage. The organization also has been active with similar campaigns in Maine, New York, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Camilla Taylor, an attorney for Lambda Legal, the national group that represented several same-sex couples in a lawsuit that led to April's Iowa Supreme Court decision, said the latest campaign doesn't come us a surprise.
"They specialize in fear-mongering and scare tactics and it's also clear in many cases their ads are fundraising ploys more than anything else," Taylor said. "We're very confident that Iowans ... have no desire to write discrimination into their constitution."
Brad Clark, campaign director for One Iowa, a local affiliate of Lambda Legal, said his group launched an online petition Wednesday asking the National Organization for Marriage to release a list of its contributors. NOM and other groups that sponsored Proposition 8 had sought to block their campaign finance records from public view, saying previous reports led to the harassment of donors.
Clark singled out the Mormon church, which has been criticized by gay rights activists for urging its members to donate to California's "Yes on 8" campaign, a move that pulled in tens of millions of dollars.
"They (NOM) and the Mormon church (have) invested millions of dollars and now they have their sights set on Iowa," he said. "They have been funneling money from the Mormon church into these activities and we're encouraging our friends and supporters to call on NOM to release a list of those donors."
'One thing that bonds us'
Brown said his group would not disclose its list of donors, citing its status as a nonprofit organization.
He rejected the idea that the anti-gay marriage campaign was directly tied to the Mormon church.
"We are an interreligious organization and we have plenty of members without any faith at all, and the one thing that bonds us together is our belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman," Brown said.
Issue for debate?
Clark is confident that the campaign will fail.
"At our core, Iowa has been a welcoming place for all people and I believe Iowa voters will reject these attempts from outsiders to divide us," he said.
Even if the National Organization for Marriage is successful in the Iowa House race, the state's political landscape will make it years before Iowa's gay marriage law could be changed.
Iowa law requires that successive general assemblies approve measures before they can be sent to voters. So lawmakers elected in 2010 would need to pass a measure, which would then need to be approved by legislators elected in 2012 before the measure would go before voters in a general election.
That means that the earliest a gay marriage ban could make the ballot would be 2014.
Not to mention that legislative leaders and the governor, all Democrats, have said they oppose amending the constitution to allow a ban.
"It is incredibly unlikely that issue will be debated next session," said Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, who sets the debate agenda.
Even some Republicans who oppose gay marriage said it would be a mistake for the GOP to put too much emphasis on the issue.
State Rep. Christopher Rants, a Republican who is running for governor, said the economy trumps gay marriage for many Iowa residents.
"It's jobs, jobs and jobs," Rants said. "For some people, it's a hot issue; for others, it's just not on their list of priorities."
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