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On Jan. 9, a newly discovered clerical error dealt, the political action committee working to place a ban on gay marriage into the state constitution, a serious blow. In December, the group announced that it had gathered the 611,009 signatures it needed to put its proposed amendment on the November ballot. But then the Miami-Dade County elections office discovered that it had submitted duplicate signature reports – a foul-up that cost amendment backers 21,989 needed signatures, which the group is now scrambling to get by Feb. 1.

But the forces that amassed to fight the amendment aren’t letting their guard down. Joe Solmonese, the head of the national gay rights organization Human Rights Campaign and former CEO of the pro-choice group EMILY’s List, was in town Jan. 15 to launch a volunteer training campaign, the first of 10 statewide. His group has partnered with other amendment opponents, including the bipartisan Florida Red and Blue, to rally support against the powerful, evangelical-driven right-wing machine. We sat down with him in the lobby of the downtown Marriott hotel, where he explained the perils of taking anything for granted in these politically charged times.

Orlando Weekly: Well, `the signature glitch` is a strange twist. Should we be resting on our laurels?

Joe Solmonese: No. Look, I think that it’s completely unclear. I mean they’ve got two weeks and they need 22,000 signatures. They need to get more than that in order to get 22,000. This is the state of Florida – it’s a big state – there is a huge amount of opportunity for them to go out and do this in the next two weeks. … It remains to be seen what kind of infrastructure they have.

Is this going to redirect your training at all?

In an odd sort of way. I think what my message would be is, if this marriage fight goes away, all of the energy that this community has mustered – you’ve got Equality Florida, you’ve got Florida Red and Blue, you’ve got Fairness for All Families, we’re involved here – there is a lot of energy that is all directed at winning this fight. My logic would be that if this fight goes away, not one of these people that is fired up and enthusiastic about being an enthusiastic participant in these elections better take one step back. This training that we’re doing is really twofold. It’s to, yes, get people involved in the marriage campaign, but it’s also to just be much more visible and present in the election process, generally. And that’s really important for our community in Florida.

One of the concerns I’ve heard is that we had better not present this as a fight for gay marriage; that may be getting too far ahead of ourselves. Is it important to do these things incrementally?

Florida to me is like a small country. What do you have, 11 media markets here? This is not just a fight for marriage. Woven through everything that we’re doing is moving the people in Florida towards marriage equality for gay people, that’s true. But this cannot be simply characterized as a campaign about educating people about gay marriage. This isn’t a campaign about … confusing the electorate. This isn’t just a campaign about tourism dollars going away. It’s all of those. And in Florida we would do well to understand that it is different things in different parts of the state. That’s how you’re going to win this.

On one hand you have the argument that this is a threat to domestic partnerships, even for the elderly, and on the other you have the civil rights argument, as evidenced by the NAACP’s support of `amendment opponent` Fairness for All Families.

I think it’s a classic civil rights question for people in some parts of the state. I think it’s a live-and-let-live question for other people. And I think, for some people, I think it is, “I don’t really get this, but I don’t like it. I don’t know why we’re talking about it. We should be talking about something else,” whatever. There were a lot of people when we were fighting the federal marriage amendment last year who hated that Congress was debating the federal marriage amendment and made Congress pay a price … because they thought they should be debating other things. So if that’s what contributed to the defeat of one of those members that was trying to pass the federal marriage amendment, good for us.

The presidential candidates, they all seem a little flaky on the issue of gay marriage. Obviously, as much trouble as you have catering to the different motivations in Florida, it must be exponentially more difficult to convince a whole country. Does HRC see any hope in any of the candidates?

Through the debates that we had last summer, I felt like for us to go into that debate and argue those candidates in the direction of supporting marriage was going to be a missed opportunity to explore a greater realm of subject matter. If you look at Edwards, Clinton and Obama, none of them support marriage. They all have reasons for not supporting marriage, and I thought the reasons they have for not supporting marriage were problematic.

Edwards said he wasn’t “there yet.”

Well, “not being there yet” isn’t as dramatic to me as “it’s my religion.” And I said to him, and I thought he had the most healthy response, “You cite your religion as being the reason you’re against marriage, and that really sets us back because we spend so much time trying to say that there are two institutions of marriage: There’s the civil institution and the religious sacrament. And we are fighting for the civil institution. So when you say your religion keeps you from supporting the civil institution of marriage, you are putting undue burden on the side that’s supporting the civil institution of marriage.”

He said, “I was wrong. I shouldn’t use religion as the reason for not supporting marriage. It’s just I’m struggling.” He didn’t know where to go with it. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, they continually cite that it’s a states’ rights issue.

For Hillary I said, “Look, when you make this a states’ rights issue, you’re essentially saying that gun control should be a states’ rights issue, any civil rights issues – slavery, abolition, child labor – leave it to the states.” So Hillary surprised me, because she kind of had an interesting comeback. She said it was the one area – unlike gun laws, unlike any of the other issues you’re talking about – where the individual states are advancing faster than we are federally. So if Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont all lean in the direction of marriage, so be it. What she said, which I though was interesting, was that that’s why she’s committed to overturning Article 3 of `the Defense of Marriage Act`, which means that the federal government would then recognize marriage rights from states: “Too bad, you can’t get married in Florida, but if you can get married in Massachusetts, we will extend federal benefits to you.”

Back to Florida, how is a volunteer supposed to help? Is it just a word-of-mouth thing? What sort of training are you offering?

If Florida is the battleground state, then Orlando is the battleground within the battleground. As goes Orlando, so goes the state of Florida. So every single person who says, “I’ll go out there and I’ll spend an evening doing volunteer phone banking, trying to move people in our direction,” `or` “I’ll go out there and go door to door and say, ‘This really matters,’” … everybody who’s willing to say, “I’ll take 10 households and eight will close the door but two will listen to me,” well, you multiply that times the 1,000 people who are willing to do it, and we’ve got critical numbers. It doesn’t just move the agenda for our community. It makes people say, “Oh, there’s another powerful force in American politics doing what they need to get the job done.”

Is it a matter of knocking on someone’s door and saying, “I’m just like you, but I don’t have your rights”?

The entire process of elections, the whole exercise … is to say, this is not about me, this is about you. If somebody says, “I think it’s a terrible thing that they’re banning marriage for gay people,” or says, “I haven’t thought much about it,” or says, “I think all those gay people should burn in hell, let alone not be able to get married,” well, each of those people go into a column. If somebody says, “I think they should burn in hell,” well, they’re not going to go into the persuadable column. The discipline of electioneering … is hearing “What box should I put this person in?”

How strategic we are about understanding where people are on that issue, and then how we come back at them with our campaign, is going to have everything to do with our success.

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