How did Sacramento get in Maine marriage fight?

Filmmaker Joseph Fox discusses the battle over same-sex marriage in his film Question One.

Question One screens on Wednesday, February 1, at 6:30 p.m. (sold out) and 8:30 p.m. at the Crest Theatre, 1013 K Street;

Maine was the second state in the union in which voters opted to remove marriage equality from the state almost exactly a year after California voters had done the same by approving Proposition 8. Filmmaker Joseph Fox spent the campaign season in Maine filming the opposing sides in the battle for same-sex marriage with unprecedented access to the inner workings of both campaigns.

In advance of a February 1 screening of his film, Question One, at the Crest Theater, Fox spoke with SN&R about the movie, the conflicts he observed, and the deep involvement of a Sacramento public affairs firm in steering the campaign to stop marriage equality.

SN&R: The first—and obvious—question is: How did you get that kind of access to the campaigns?

Joseph Fox: I asked. There was no big mystery. I just asked. I approached both sides of the campaign and laid out what I wanted to do – an honest, nuanced look at how campaigns of this nature are run. I was running for the entire three months of the campaign. I moved up to Maine from New York and rented a house.

Had you ever been involved with a political campaign before?

As a journalist and as a filmmaker, this was our first topic and it was the first campaign we had covered. I don’t live in a convent, though; I know a lot of people. I had never been involved in a campaign before, but I had expectations and a sense of what to expect. I’d seen a documentary called The War Room, [] which inspired us to do this piece.

In terms of what surprised us? I went in expecting to hear the party lines from each side. The biggest surprise was that Mark Mutty, the co-chair of the Yes on 1 campaign—he was the co-chair with Bob Emmerich, this evangelical pastor. And Mutty was on loan from the archdiocese of Portland. The archbishop took it upon himself to stop this law from going into effect, and he loaned out Mutty to the campaign to be the local face of the campaign.

We soon discovered that there was a very big disconnect between what Mutty was saying publicly and what he really thought. He was very conflicted about the issue, and about the role he was taking, and he was very conflicted about the ads that were being run. These were the same ads that ran for Prop. 8, which was that same-sex marriage would be taught in the public schools.

That leads to the second issue. We, along with everyone else in Maine, were under the impression that this was a local, homegrown campaign. It turned out that that wasn’t true; it turned out that the campaign was run on remote control from a Sacramento-based P.R. firm called Schubert Flint [Schubert Flint Public Affairs].

That revealed itself slowly.

The leaders of the campaign were not involved in the strategic direction of the campaign at all—only knowing about strategic decision at the last minute. As it tdrew closer to November 3, it was interesting to watch this local campaign sort of implode, because it became obvious that very little was being run locally, and most of it was being run from Sacramento.

Did you talk to anyone from Schubert Flint?

I tried four times to interview [Frank] Schubert and he turned me down on each occasion. He gave no reason the first three times. The reason that he finally did proffer was that he didn’t want his firm to be known as the same-sex marriage firm. He really took great pains to explain that to me in an email in which he indicated that he just didn’t want his clients to think of him or to be known as the firm that represented this issue.

It’s a little late for that around here.

It’s also a little late after you’ve been on the podium on election night proclaiming victory. There’s an editorial from the Portland Press-Herald about the involvement of Schubert Flint, and all of the pictures show him on the podium. And of course we filmed him speaking.

Would it have made a difference for Maine voters if they’d known the campaign was outsourced to California?

It’s hard to say, really. But I think that it would have led to more questions being asked.

What about the No on 1 campaign? Did they make the same sort of mistakes the No on 8 campaign did, in terms of not answering the education question directly and not getting gay faces out in front?

No on 1 had really studied Prop. 8 and what happened in California and took some of the lessons to heart. The ads really countered the whole school issue almost immediately. There was no challenge that went unmet. One of the focuses of the No on 1 campaign was families; that this was about Mainers and about making school safe for all children. They did not shrink away from countering, and that was one of the issues in California.

One could argue many different things about why it wasn’t enough, and maybe all of those reasons would be right. It was a seven point spread, and those seven points could be attributed to a number of things. I don’t think it was that they didn’t counter, but it could be that it was beautiful day and more “yes” voters came out. Maybe it was that the “no” side underperformed in some areas. It certainly wasn’t because of a lack of organization or a lack of a good field operation. The No on 1 campaign had a very good operation.

So it’s really hard to say why the No on 1 side lost.

Maybe people just weren’t ready at the time. Maybe it was because there was no effective counter to the “gays already have civil rights through all these other protections, so you’re not being discriminated against” argument.

States where the legislature rules—Maine has this quirky law on “the people’s veto”—and I’m not aware of that type of mechanism in play elsewhere.

The legislature in Maine enacted it into law, and “the people’s veto” can overturn.

I just think the whole notion of people being able to vote on this in a referendum is absurd. Being able to vote on people’s marriages is just weird.

Did you cover the involvement of the National Organization for Marriage, and the business about their refusal—even to the point of fighting the state in court—to reveal their funding sources?

No, we did not. Our lens was really—we were only able to capture what we could see, and our goal was seeing, we thought, what was in front of our faces, so that’s what was in front of our faces. So we honed in on the campaign being run by a man who didn’t really believe in what was happening and that it was a campaign that was being taken over by an outside organization. Our purpose in making this film was to create a War Room-style vérité look on this campaign and to look at the effect this campaign had on the people involved and what it meant to them.

This is a culture war that is going on in our country and I wanted to do it. I happen to be gay, but I wanted to tell a story that reflected the humanity of both sides—the pain on both sides, the dedication on both sides, what makes people tick, what makes them feel passionately about this issue.

That was a lot to cover.

This was a bear of a story to tell. If you’re a true story-teller, it’s never about “us versus them.” That’s never the way a journalist should approach it. The lens to use is that you’re a mirror, and you need to honestly represent what’s being shown to you. To take any other approach is to rob the story of what it is, and you end up with a didactic piece of baloney.

When will Question One be available on video?

I believe in the fall.