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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy