Why Iowa?

iowaWhen the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that marriage should be redefined to include same-sex couples, many media reports quoted people saying Iowa seemed an unlikely candidate for such a radical change to marriage law. Certainly Iowans never would have voted in support of such a change to their laws. But even though the decision is weeks old, media outlets have been strikingly incurious as to how gay rights activists managed this tremendous coup. One might imagine that if social conservatives had managed to, say, outlaw abortion on demand, the media might have been a tad more interested in how that political battle had been won.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see that the the Washington Post took an interest in the behind-the-scenes machinations. It briefly touches on religion but nothing substantive. But what reporter Keith Richburg does well is profile Camilla Taylor, a Chicago lawyer for Lambda Legal:

Activists such as Taylor work mostly out of the spotlight — she traveled regularly to Iowa from Chicago for years, doing research and laying the groundwork for her landmark case.

Their techniques differ, though, depending on whether they are pursuing same-sex marriage through the courts, as in Iowa, or through a state legislature, as in Vermont, which legalized gay marriage April 7. . . .

When taking the court route, the activists identify same-sex couples to bring test cases, typically after meeting and spending time with scores of couples. They prepare the selected couples for what is likely to be intense, sometimes harsh media attention. They study the state’s constitution and review past court rulings, waiting to move until they feel the political and legal climate is favorable.

When taking the legislative route, the activists first get to know the political dynamics to identify friendly and potentially friendly lawmakers. They find residents to call lawmakers to express support for same-sex marriage. They start phone banks and petition drives. And, as with court action, they wait until they think their chances are good.

Lambda and other gay rights groups worked Iowa for seven years. The story isn’t terribly balanced — you get one quote from a Focus on the Family spokeswoman noting that opponents of same-sex marriage work courts and legislators because public opinion isn’t on their side. But that’s it. The story is also puffy beyond belief, with a emotional kicker that’s become a required element for all stories about gay marriage. Still, it’s nice to see the interest and Taylor’s tireless efforts are very compelling.

So what’s missing? Well, I keep thinking about how the media might cover a socially conservative group that had just been successful. They would look at who funds the various groups, what past work the groups or individuals therein have done that’s controversial, etc. That would have certainly not hurt this story.

I also think that the big missing element is how gay activists outside of Iowa were so successful in financing campaigns against Iowa legislators that support defining marriage as a heterosexual union of two people. Joshua Green wrote about that effort for The Atlantic and it’s absolutely fascinating. Here’s how the story — written way back in 2007 — begins:

A tough loss can be hard to swallow, and plenty of defeated politicians have been known to grumble about sinister conspiracies. When they are rising stars like Danny Carroll, the Republican speaker pro tempore of Iowa’s House of Representatives, and the loss is unexpected, the urge to blame unseen forces can be even stronger–and in Carroll’s case, it would have the additional distinction of being justified. Carroll was among the dozens of targets of a group of rich gay philanthropists who quietly joined forces last year, under the leadership of a reclusive Colorado technology mogul, to counter the tide of antigay politics in America that has generated, among other things, a succession of state ballot initiatives banning gay marriage. Carroll had sponsored such a bill in Iowa and guided it to passage in the state House of Representatives, the first step toward getting it on the ballot.

Like many other state legislatures last year, Iowa’s was narrowly divided. So all it would take to break the momentum toward a constitutional marriage ban was to tip a few close races. If Democrats took control of the House and Senate, however narrowly, the initiative would die, and with it the likelihood of further legislation limiting civil rights for gays and lesbians. And, fortuitously, Carroll’s own reelection race looked to be one of the closest. He represented the liberal college town of Grinnell and had won the last time around by just a handful of votes.

Over the summer, Carroll’s opponent started receiving checks from across the country–significant sums for a statehouse race, though none so large as to arouse suspicion (the gifts topped out at $1,000). Because they came from individuals and not from organizations, nothing identified the money as being “gay,” or even coordinated. Only a very astute political operative would have spotted the unusual number of out-of-state donors and pondered their interest in an obscure midwestern race. And only someone truly versed in the world of gay causes would have noticed a $1,000 contribution from Denver, Colorado, and been aware that its source, Tim Gill, is the country’s biggest gay donor, and the nexus of an aggressive new force in national politics.

Gill had quietly spearheaded an effort to fund challenges to 70 anti-gay marriage state politicians in the 2006 election cycle. Fifty of them went down to defeat. In Iowa, Democrats took over both houses of Congress, including Carroll’s seat and most of the others targeted by the gay activists. But nobody in the media noticed. Nobody connected any dots. When Green suggests to Carroll that he was targeted by a nationwide network of wealthy gay activists, Carroll is skeptical. Green shows him the $1,000 donations coming from Denver, Dallas, Los Angeles, Malibu, New York, etc. and Carroll finally catches on. (Here’s a more recent update on Carroll, if you’re interested.)

It’s some great magazine writing, particularly since the article is really about billionaire Gill, my fellow Coloradoan and the founder of Quark. A recent New York Times article shows some of the fruit of that effort, though it doesn’t mention the back story.

So that’s what I think we’ve seen for investigative reporting on Iowa: a really compelling anecdote in a 2007 magazine article and an incomplete article in this week’s Washington Post. No wonder the mainstream media were so surprised by what happened in Iowa — for the most part, reporters hadn’t been paying attention.

Anyway, these two highlighted pieces are certainly better than nothing. But considering how hot of a topic this is, a bit more leg work might be in order. It’s paid off for some interesting stories in California. There are so many interesting personalities, groups, and, most importantly, political strategies at play — more coverage is needed.

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  • John K.

    Wow, for a blog that purports to call out spin in media coverage, your first sentence, which included the phrase, “the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that marriage should be REDEFINED to include same-sex couples,” [emphasis mine] certainly uses the rhetoric of the anti-gay marriage folks. “The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that marriage should include same-sex couples,” would have been a more neutral and appropriate phrasing.

  • John D

    And what persists in media coverage of gay rights issues, including same-sex marriage is that sexuality is a religious issue the same way that pork is. Or wine. Or coffee.

    So let me ask: should every article about pork farming have the views of Orthodox Jews, Moslems, and Seventh Day Adventists included?

    Wine: Latter Day Saints, Moslems?

    Coffee: Latter Day Saints.

    Do they have to interview the local LDS Bishop when a new Starbucks opens?

    If not, how is homosexuality different from pork, wine, and coffee?

    Is there really a religious issue here, or is there an issue in some religions? Should the press favor certain religious viewpoints over others?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    John K.,

    I use both terms. I think people can agree or disagree with whether marriage should be redefined to include same-sex couples (or polyamorous or polygamous couples, etc.) but there’s no reason to pretend that it’s not a redefinition.

    Otherwise the courts wouldn’t be involved.

    John D.,

    Gay issues can definitely be religious issues. They aren’t always and I didn’t criticize these articles for failing to include more religious angles. But the overall topic of coverage is something we’ve analyzed a great deal. And sometimes we look at it on a micro level (e.g. “this story really messed up on what evangelicals believe about same-sex marriage) and sometimes we look at it on a macro level (e.g. “The NYT Ombudsman says that his paper is cheerleading for gay marriage.”).

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Dear Mollie,

    Great blogpost. And as far as my meager knowledge can ascertain, there was nothing illegal or unethical done by pro-GLBT activists and by wealthy pro-GLBT donors.

    If so, then my question would be: “If conservative Christian groups were to be “wise as serpents” in adopting similar focused tactics in support of traditional marriage and life-at-conception, would the Liberal Left and the liberal meanstream media object? And if they did object, would they admit to their gross hypocrisy?”

  • Julia

    As a retired lawyer, I’d like to ask if including same-sex couples under the marriage laws of a state will affect the grounds for dissolution down the line?

    I’ve not seen this in any reporting on this issue, but it has got to be relevent in states that still have fault provisions in their dissolution statutes.

    One of the commenters in the Rod Dreher piece noted a suggestion that “monogamy without fidelity” should be the standard. After all, the ancient reason against adultery is making sure all progeny of either partner are conceived within the marital bond and that would not be a concern for same-sex couples.

  • Julia

    By the way, in the US, marriage is a matter of changing legal status; it isn’t a contract as was erroneously mentioned in, I think, the Dreher article. All rights and liabilities under US law derive from the legal status of being married. We inherited this from our common law English colonizers. Continental Europe and probably the rest of the world (excepting probably British Canada, Oz & NZ) treat marriage as a contract.

    One of the consequences: if the laws have changed since you got married, a dissolution is governed by the new laws – too bad if you were counting on the protection of the laws on the books at the time of the wedding. Quite a few middle-aged, long-married stay-at-home moms found this out to their dismay in the 80s when no-fault came into vogue along with throwing out alimony in most cases.

    Any personal contracts between the married people are governed by what is allowable under the law of the individual states. Some provisions might not be enforceable under the couple’s state law or a state to which they have moved.

  • Martha

    John K., if for the greater period of Western history, marriage was understood as a permanent union between two persons of opposite genders, and it is now proposed that this should be extended to include unions between two persons of the same gender, I think that counts as “re-defining”.

    I think it applies particularly since such initiatives as civil unions and domestic partnerships are being decried as inferior, lacking, and inadequate substitutions for marriage when offered to gay-rights groups.

    If you do not think this counts as re-defining, why not? Please don’t bother saying this is simply extending the right to marry – it goes beyond that. Permitting sixteen year olds to get married would be extending the right to marriage; permitting six year olds would be a different kettle of fish.

  • http://www.tragic-christian.org Tragic Christian

    this is very interesting in the light of the post-Prop 8 tantrum in California, where the gay rights activists were decrying all the out-of-state money that was coming in support the proposition. “OK for us, not OK for you.”

  • Matt


    People who used their rights to organize, campaign and give money to anti-Prop 8 measures in California have been relentlessly harrassed by the gay rights lobby, to the point of being threatened and forced out of their jobs.

    I would certainly hope that wealth pro-gay donors are not harrassed in this way by the right.

  • Matt

    The problem with the “gay out of state money conspiracy” angle is that it tends to minimize the role of actual, you know, Iowans and how we vote. The state has been turning blue for a number of years now -witness Obama winning the general election here by a healthy margin.

    Out of state money may have had some role in defeating Danny Carroll, but so did the Iowans who did the voting.

  • dalea

    If this is typical of the research,

    For most of the country, the unanimous decision this month by the Iowa Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage was an unexpected and seemingly random victory for a movement that has long drawn its deepest support from major cities in liberal coastal states.


    then there is reason to suspect the rest of the story. Some of the earliest GLBT victories were in the Midwest. Minneapolis was the first major city with Gay Rights laws, years before NYC, SF and LA. Iowa has had a vibrant and active GLBT community since the 60′s. The Gay Pagan journal RFD began in Iowa over 35 years ago. This seems to show an ignorance of the history and demographics of the group being discussed.

  • dalea

    Why does the role Tim Gill and company play surprize people? Years ago I heard him speak about this plan at a public meeting. The gay press has covered the subject for a long time. I actually get emails on the effort frequently. DKos has diaries up supporting candidates running against religious right types all the time. FireDogLake, MyDD, LeanLeft, the left websites, GLBT sites and Feminist sites do this all the time. They ask for money, calls and feet on the ground. And get them. Some postings ask people to call friends in certain counties and campaign. Responses run about how ‘my aunt and uncle are on board now’. ‘My college roommate signed up for GOTV’. It is all done out in the open.

    It amazes me that the articles linked to and the commentary do not directly reference any LG sources. There is a large and active LGBT press, much of it online, which also covers these stories. Admittedly, much of the left journalism is online, not on dead trees. But it is there.

  • Judy Harrow

    Actually, the New York Times ran an article here about the tactics involved in preparing the Iowa case nearly a month ago.

  • http://lucascountyan.blogspot.com Frank D. Myers

    As dalea almost suggests, perhaps a blog entitled GetGLBT is needed, too. Even out here in Iowa those of us who are gay and lesbian manage to stay up to date on what’s going on, how and why, courtesy of wide-ranging GLBT journalism, most of it practiced online. That cuts down on surprises and keeps us I’d guess better informed than, say, mainstream media that seem overly dependent on the few GLBT sources their reporters are accusomed to talking to — and their assumptions. It’s also useful to keep in mind that Iowa has a record of doing innovative stuff called progressive or scandalous at the time, depending on outlook, that later becomes mainstream. But we don’t tell too many outsiders that. You’ve got to know the territory in order to figure it out.

  • Mollie

    I completely agree with dalea. The gay press has — in general — covered this story fairly and in an engaging and in-depth manner.

    It’s kind of surprising, too, that the gay press tend to be more fair and thoughtful than half the mainstream media.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    After reading this story I now understand what the leader of the Gay Marriage Movement in Mass. meant when she was quoted in the Boston Globe as brazenly saying of the vote in the legislature of Mass. to not allow the people of Mass. to vote on the issue:: “Our biggest problem was getting those (legislators) we bought to stay bought.”
    One should not be surprised, I suppose, since Christ Himself warned that wealth and immorality are frequently partners riding the same camel.

  • dalea

    Mollie says;

    It’s kind of surprising, too, that the gay press tend to be more fair and thoughtful than half the mainstream media.

    This should not be surprising when you consider the demographics. Gay men and Lesbians tend to have much higher educational levels than the general population, comparable to Jews and Unitarians. I once saw a study that concluded that Gay pornography was written at a college graduate reading level, while straight porn is at a junior high school reading level.

  • dalea

    The Atlantic says:

    a group of rich gay philanthropists who quietly joined forces last year, under the leadership of a reclusive Colorado technology mogul,

    Tim Gill appears at and speaks at GL political events all the time. His thoughts and ideas appear all the time in the GL press. How is he ‘reclusive’?

    Rather than being run by a Cabal of ‘rich gay philanthropists’, there are a large number of GL political online organizations that work in concert to elect proGL legislators. And they do so in the open. Any reasonably competant reporter could have figured this out. There is no small group funding all this. Instead, there is a movement that can afford only small contributions. But, a 1,000 people each giving $100 adds up quickly.

    Here is how it works; something the reporter did not bother to investigate. Some Gay folks in and around Grinnel get ticked off at Rep Carroll. They send out a press release to the GL press. A story appears about him all over the world. The story then moves into the main line left webs.

    At this point some ambitious Democrat gets wind of it. He offers or tells some other Democrat about an opportunity. The Democrat approaches the GL’s who sent out the initial press release. Tells them he is saddened but not surpised by all this and is thinking about running against Carroll. The GL’s tentatively promise to support him. He goes also to the local NARAL, NOW, ACLU and other left groups and does the same thing.

    Now the whole thing becomes very public. Blog postings about the up and coming Democrat appear at the major left blogs. And the minor ones. He is proposed for ActBlue and other funding slots. The emails begin to go out asking for money, and detailing the faults of the wingnut opponent. People send in small amounts. They begin calling friends and relatives in the district. We are part of a mobilization to defeat Carroll.

    This is such an open and public process, it should have been presented as such. Not with ‘reclusive billionaires’ and Cabals. The reporter wants Wuthering Heights when all we have are potluck calling party.

  • http://www.ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=3689 Stephen


    Here is California, the Mormon Church was able to go under the radar with their strong support of Proposition 8 until relatively close to the election day–although the Mormon Church, of course, finally received substantial press on this issue before (and definitely after) the election.

    However, in prior elections (such as Proposition 22 in California) and other gay rights efforts in states such as Hawaii, the Mormon Church provided strong final opposition to gay and lesbian rights efforts without receiving much public scrutiny. (See http://www.ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=3689.)

    It is healthy that the media (mainstream or otherwise) is covering the involvement of religious groups and other groups (such as gay and lesbian groups) in elections.

  • ALB

    I kept expecting, in reading the WaPo article, that there might be an entirely different explanation of, “Why Iowa?”

    To quote the decision itself (some internal citations removed):

    “In the first reported case of the Supreme Court of the Territory of Iowa, In re Ralph, 1 Morris 1 (Iowa 1839), we refused to treat a human being as property to enforce a contract for slavery and held our laws must extend equal protection to persons of all races and conditions. 1 Morris at 9. This decision was seventeen years before the United States Supreme Court infamously decided Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856), which upheld the rights of a slave owner to treat a person as property. Similarly, in Clark v. Board of Directors, 24 Iowa 266 (1868), and Coger v. North West. Union Packet Co., 37 Iowa 145 (1873), we struck blows to the concept of segregation long before the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Iowa was also the first state in the nation to admit a woman to the practice of law, doing so in 1869. Admission of Women to the Bar, 1 Chicago Law Times 76, 76 (1887). Her admission occurred three years before the United States Supreme Court affirmed the State of Illinois’ decision to deny women admission to the practice of law, see Bradwell v. llinois, 83 U.S. 130, 139 (1873), and twenty-five years before the United States Supreme Court affirmed the refusal of the Commonwealth of Virginia to admit women into the practice of law, see Ex parte Lockwood, 154 U.S. 116, 118 (1894). In each of those instances, our state approached a fork in the road toward fulfillment of our constitution’s ideals and reaffirmed the “absolute equality of all” persons before the law as “the very foundation principle of our government.”4 See Coger, 37 Iowa at 153.”

  • Dave

    I think the problem, dalea, is that the MSM don’t respect the special-interest, on-line media enough to check it out periodically. Or perhaps don’t have the time. Anyway, they clearly got blindsided by ignoring information out there for the whole world to see.

  • dalea


    You point to a major failing of the dead trees press. The newscorpse ignores the new media. Then wonders why they are in bankruptcy. Joshua Green looks at something extensively covered in the new media and concludes that it was a secret process hidden from public view. How does he remain employed as a reporter?

    Ariana and Kos write on this all the time. And point out that they have more readers than most newspapers.

    Wait until he discovers phonebanking. Which seems to be part of his a group of rich gay philanthropists . People sign up to make calls for progressive causes. They go to a place with a dish to pass and their holiday card list. In front of a speaker phone enabled computer, they enter zip codes which bring up favored candidates in that area. They then can call and urge their cousin etc to vote for those candidates. No conspiracy here, but the reporter just does not get it.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    On a maybe related story, my following of last weekend’s Amazon deranking flap showed it to be pretty much driven by GLBT and authorial outrage. If one believes Amazon (but also some other blog activity) a lot of other books were affected; but the main media articles ignored that, apparently because they didn’t listen to or seek other sources.

  • John K.

    Mollie (#3): “Redefining” marriage is the decided rhetoric of those in opposition, and the use of that language is almost universally indicative of an article opposing gay marriage. This is just like “homosexual marriage” or “special rights.” Now, I and many other people would dispute that allowing gays to marry is a “redefinition.” The simple fact that this is in dispute makes this choice of language biased. As I said, simply saying “allowing gay couples to marry” is neutral, and the only reason to use the phrase “redefine marriage” is to indicate an opposition to the idea.

    Martha (#7): Did Loving v. Virginia “redefine” marriage? If you say that it did, then I will agree with you. Otherwise, you’ve failed to convince me. I’m sorry I can’t honor your request that I not say that it is simply extending marriage to gay couples, because that is all it is doing, just like Loving simply extended marriage to interracial couples. Again, you can disagree with me, but my point was that using the word “redefine” takes a side in the debate because I and people like me, who number a large percentage of those involved in this debate, disagree that this is a redefinition.

    And what in the world does this have to do with six-year-olds? Why is allowing six-year-olds to get married a “redefinition”? I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, but I’m just curious. Is it because six-year-olds can’t have children? If that’s what you are getting at, then there is no re-definition at all because we allow infertile people and old people well beyond child-bearing age to get married. If you’re saying allowing six-year-olds to get married would be a redefinition because six-year-olds cannot consent to entering into such contractual relationships, well, then I fully agree with you, but your point would then be irrelevant because the consent problem is not there with adult gay couples seeking to get married, and allowing gay people to get married does nothing to the consent requirements of marriage (I would add, however, that we’ve already redefined marriage to include the relatively new consent requirements, as fathers used to be able to marry their daughters off to whoever the father wanted to whether the daughter consented or not).

  • John D

    This question of sources and how they are attributed often comes up in coverage of LGBT issues. I have frequently read and heard major sources nothing “according to a report in a national gay and lesbian news magazine,” or words to that effect.

    My response is always, “oh, they’re reading The Advocate, which used to have a line like “The National Gay and Lesbian News Magazine” on the front cover.

    Newspapers or tv news programs that would have no qualms about saying “the New York Times reported…” get all evasive when their source is The Advocate.

    Now why is that?

  • dalea

    A diary at DKos looks into the media coverage of same sex marriage, using a Pew study that compares traditional media to online media.


    Pew’s conclusion:

    More than a quarter of the links (26%) by blogs and social media sites from April 6-10 focused on the gay-marriage issue, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That differed dramatically from the traditional press, which devoted only 1% of last week’s newshole to gay marriage, making it the No. 15 story in the mainstream media agenda.

    The diarists conclusion:

    When the MSM is unable to properly report on the issues that really affect the lives of real everyday people, they will continue to diminish in importance. The North Korean failed rocket tests were stupid and way too played out. Our media has stopped being news, and reports on “politics and geopolitical” ramifications of the news. Which means, most of our MSM just may as well be an op-ed as its mostly opinion.