Freedom to Marry’s Federal Program
A critical component of any robust national campaign is a presence in our nation's capital, to raise the profile of the cause and the campaign itself inside the beltway. Freedom to Marry established its D.C. office - and powerful federal program - in early 2011. And over four years, the federal program worked to build support for the freedom to marry and demonstrate momentum inside the beltway among key national organizations, members of the United States Congress, the White House, the D.C. media corp and political strategists and pundits as well as across the country through various federal programs to increase inside the beltway attention for the issue. Freedom to Marry met with lawmakers and decision-makers for strategies on dismantling the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which required federal discrimination against married same-sex couples.
Development of the Federal Program
The goal of Freedom to Marry’s federal program was to undertake work within the Beltway in synergy with Freedom to Marry’s work of winning states and growing public support – all to demonstrate to national opinion-leaders and decision-makers, including the United States Supreme Court, that all of America was ready for a national ruling. The federal program sought to amplify the harms of marriage discrimination, worked to end federal marriage discrimination, and built Freedom to Marry’s reach and clout in Washington, D.C.
In early 2011, Freedom to Marry opened its first office in Washington, D.C., and brought on Jo Deutsch, a veteran Capitol Hill lobbyist, as Federal Director and a few months later, Che Ruddell-Tabisola, an experienced field organizer, as Federal Associate.
The initial focus of the Federal Program was to build support for, and educate around, the Respect for Marriage Act, Freedom to Marry’s legislative vehicle to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996 by Congress to prohibit the federal government from respecting any marriages between same-sex couples. Freedom to Marry had worked closely with congressional leaders, including Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and their staffs, as well as movement colleagues, to shape the bill and develop the strategy, and also built a coalition called the Respect for Marriage Coalition, which Freedom to Marry chaired along with HRC.
The federal team’s lobbying work focused on building the number of cosponsors of the Respect for Marriage Act and keeping the bill in the Congressional and media spotlight.
In making the case for overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, key lobbying talking points emphasized that DOMA discriminatorily denied married same-sex couples the respect, protections, and responsibilities accorded other couples through marriage; that same-sex couples wanted to get married for the same reasons as non-gay couples; and that withholding respect for marriage was irrational in that marriage and federal respect were intended to give couples the tools and security to protect their families.
Expanding the Team with Insiders and Experts
Besides a quick mobilization to lobby for the Respect for Marriage Act, in the first weeks of the federal program, three consultants and firms were hired to round out the team. The first hired was the DCI Group to help with strategic counsel and campaign management, lobbying, and research. DCI was responsible for assisting in the implementation of the federal strategic plan, including mapping out the program for the federal work; helping to build outreach programs incubated by the federal team (like Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry and Mayors for the Freedom to Marry); introducing Freedom to Marry to right-of-center allies; and supporting coalition building and special projects. DCI also produced background research and did some basic communications through the end of 2012. With its consistent emphasis on adding value, Freedom to Marry wanted to bring to the movement a serious outreach to conservatives and Republicans that had been lacking.
Freedom to Marry also tapped Hattaway Communications for an engagement in 2012 to develop a federal communications and media strategy and to assist with the implementation of key tactics that would motivate and mobilize the federal program. This included assisting in the design of a federal strategic plan, especially its earned media components; using the cycle of federal activities to pitch and secure media; introducing staff to key journalists; drafting releases and statements; and producing a Congressional Toolkit.
The third hire was Kathryn Lehman, a well-known Republican lobbyist with strong ties to the Republican Party and experience working closely with Republican White Houses and administrations, House and Senate leadership and committees, political committees and other key members of government. Prior to entering private practice at Holland and Knight, Kathryn served as Chief of Staff for the House Republican Conference. Her career began as general counsel on the House Judiciary Committee Staff, including the period when the Committee wrote and passed the Defense of Marriage Act. She also worked for Henry J. Hyde (R−IL), Newt Gingrich (R−GA), Tom DeLay (R−TX), Dennis Hastert (R−IL) and Deborah Pryce (R-OH).
Having as its lobbyist, a woman who had helped write DOMA and who was now an out lesbian complemented Freedom to Marry Federal Director Jo Deutsch’s Democratic lobbyist background and contacts; together they were the “odd couple” of lobbying teams. With their bipartisan backgrounds, they had the opportunity to open many Congressional office doors through the course of the federal program’s work. Lehman and Deutsch lobbied Congressmembers and their staff in face-to-face meetings; through phone calls, emails, and letters; and through letter-writing campaigns urging constituents in key districts to write their elected officials and ask them to sign on as cosponsors of the Respect for Marriage Act.
Responsibilities and Activities of the Federal Program
- Lobby for the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act: Throughout the 112th through 114th Congresses, the federal program kept a constant drumbeat on the need to press forward with the Respect for Marriage Act. Through lobbying legislators, enlisting constituents to reach out to their elected officials, holding press events and informational sessions on the importance of ending federal marriage discrimination, and maintaining a steady stream of strong earned media placement, the federal team was always looking for new cosponsors for the bill. At the time of the Supreme Court victory in June 2015, the House bill had 151 cosponsors and the Senate bill had 44 cosponsors, which included all but one of the Democratic Senators.
- Monitor other bills seeking to end elements of federal marriage discrimination: Although Freedom to Marry did not actively lobby on bills that sought to correct pieces of federal marriage discrimination (preferring to focus solely on full repeal of DOMA through the Respect for Marriage Act), we closely monitored and consulted on these bills. These bills included legislation to address domestic partnership benefits, the Family and Medical Leave Act, loopholes in the Copyright Act, as well as problems with coverage of the Social Security Act and Veterans benefits.
- Monitor hostile legislation seeking to roll back marriage gains: As the successes of the marriage movement grew, so too did anti-marriage bills and amendments that often popped up in Congress. The Federal team monitored and lobbied against hostile bills and amendments, many of which were focused on the Obama Administration’s support of extending benefits to married same-sex couples and on so-called religious freedom.
- Develop and Lead the Respect for Marriage Coalition: Launched in February 2012 by Freedom to Marry with the Human Rights Campaign as co-chair, the Respect for Marriage Coalition was a partnership of over 100 national organizations working together to build support for the Respect for Marriage Act and to repeal the discriminatory DOMA. Freedom to Marry and HRC led this coalition to signal strong, broad support for the Respect for Marriage Act.
- Conceive and Lead Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry Program: The Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry program began in July 2012 as an effort to showcase and enhance conservative support for the freedom to marry. Launched with a group of nine distinguished individuals these Young Conservatives together showcased their support for the freedom to marry based on their belief in personal liberty, limited government, and upholding values such as commitment to others, stability, responsibility and, most importantly, family. These professed bedrock conservative American values all argued in favor of the freedom to marry. Read more about Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry here.
- Launch and Grow Mayors for the Freedom to Marry: Mayors for the Freedom to Marry was launched in January 2012 at the 80th Annual U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C. The program enlisted mayors from small to large communities and from cities where marriage was and was not a reality for same sex couples. The mayors who supported the program hailed from culturally, racially and geographically diverse cities – but they all shared one important value: a common commitment to fairness. By focusing on mayors, Freedom to Marry gave people in states that could not win at the state level an opportunity to organize and take action, recruiting powerful messengers who could speak meaningfully about their constituents, local businesses, the economy, and the case for marriage nationwide. During the course of the program, over 750 mayors supported Mayors for the Freedom to Marry.
- Pass a Freedom to Marry Plank in the Democratic National Platform: With strong participation by the federal team, Freedom to Marry’s “Democrats: Say I Do” campaign was hugely successful in encouraging Democratic leaders to support the adoption of an official plank in the Democratic Party platform supporting the freedom to marry. The call for a plank was helpful in paving a pathway, and adding pressure, for the President’s support of the freedom to marry, announced on May 9, 2012. As a result of Freedom to Marry’s call to action and campaign, the DNC added the plank to the platform and featured its embrace repeatedly in speeches at the Democratic Convention.
- Host Events and Messaging Sessions: Freedom to Marry hosted a series of salons throughout 2011 and 2012 to bring together powerful thinkers and voices inside the beltway to discuss the freedom to marry. These salons were informal gatherings over dinner to give participants the opportunity to meet key Freedom to Marry staff, hear first-hand what we were working on and then give participants the opportunity to ask questions, express concerns and find out how they could be helpful to the campaign. Guests included Jan van Lohuizen (President of Voter Consumer Research, former pollster of President George W. Bush), Joel Benenson (Benenson Strategy Group, President Barack Obama’s pollster), Nicole Neily, Margaret Hoover (author and Republican strategist), and Cornell Belcher (Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies). In addition, in March of 2013, Freedom to Marry coordinated a meta-analysis of national polling data and trends on the freedom to marry by Jan van Lohuizen and Joel Benenson. The two leading pollsters analyzed polling and exit polls from the 2012 election and the report showed that the well-documented majority support for the freedom to marry was broadening and diversifying while opposition continued to diminish and was isolated to a few narrow demographic groups. Freedom to Marry hosted a presentation at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, featuring Benenson, van Lohuizen, Wolfson, and federal Director Jo Deutsch.
Building congressional support and recruiting cosponsors for the Respect for Marriage Act from both parties alongside with our work with the Obama all served, as intended, to grow support within the Beltway. At the same time, this federal work and growing support synergized with our objective of winning more states. Newly recruited federal messengers and conversation reinforced the work in the states, which in turn gave us more ammo in building federal support. Just as we enlisted mayors to join our Mayors for the Freedom to Marry program and, for example, sign onto amicus briefs to the Supreme Court, so too we could ask Members of Congress to write op-eds to place in their local papers or make statements of support that helped spur momentum on the ground. As the Respect for Marriage Coalition members walked the halls of Congress together urging support of the Respect for Marriage Act, the organization’s members were on the ground in the districts and states meeting with Members of Congress at home – all sharing the same strategy and messaging. And, as Young Conservatives met with Republicans in Congress to talk about the freedom to marry, they also traveled around the country talking to Republican leaders and young activists to educate them on the need for change.
This federal-state synergy helped us win in targeted states, helped us build support both in the states and in the halls of Congress, helped us drive our national and local narratives, and helped us grow the national majority for marriage (which, in turn, created the climate for legal and political advances).
Key Lessons Learned
- Establish a non-partisan effort that’s serious about reaching across the aisle: It was crucial from the start that the work of Freedom to Marry was non-partisan and included the support of Democrats and Republicans. Beyond the fact that the federal program’s lobbyists were a dynamic duo that could speak to both Democratic and Republican interests, Freedom to Marry was also serious about articulating strong reasons for conservatives to support marriage for same-sex couples. The federal team produced a position paper specifically on Republicans and the Freedom to Marry, highlighting how conservative values of limited government and individual freedom, as well as promoting responsibility and community, all favored support for the freedom to marry. Together, Kathryn Lehman and Jo Deutsch met with moderate Republicans to talk about the freedom to marry and walk through the position paper, polling information, and background materials on the freedom to marry. Through this work, three Republican members cosponsored the bill by the end of the 112th Congress, with more moving closer to support of the freedom to marry, while others muted their opposition. The federal team also worked with Log Cabin Republicans and other right-of-center groups.
- Share best practices far and wide – and develop materials for other supporters to follow your lead: When you’re trying to raise the profile of your cause and cut through the many policy issues competing for legislators’ attention, you can never have too many constituents reaching out to their representative – so it’s critical that you expand your base of constituents tasked with delivering your message in a strategic way. As the lead organization lobbying on Capitol Hill for the freedom to marry, Freedom to Marry coordinated building the list of cosponsors for the Respect for Marriage Act. We shared our successful messaging to advocacy groups both inside the beltway and across the country through in-district calls, meetings and materials. We assembled a packet on how to lobby on the district level and provided activists with information to set up Respect for Marriage Act in-district calls. This included information on how to identify your Members of Congress; schedule your visit, conduct research and prepare for the meeting; deliver resonant messages in your visit; thank the Congressmember; then sending us a lobby visit form which provided valuable information for further lobbying of the Congressmember.
- Look for opportunities to highlight emotional stories: Lawmakers often make decisions based on political interests or constituent outreach – but emotional appeals can also successfully and movingly frame the reality of your issue in shared and deep values. Keep an eye out for these opportunities and use them to your advantage when they arise. For example, in July 2011, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on the Respect for Marriage Act, and Freedom to Marry worked closely with Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and his staff to build a strong list of witnesses for the Senate hearing. On the first panel, Ron Wallen told his heartbreaking story of the loss of his husband of 55 years. After Tom Carrollo died of cancer, Ron Wallen was unable to collect the Social Security survivor benefits which opposite sex spouses are entitled to receive, leaving him unable to make payments on their house. Freedom to Marry flew Ron Wallen to D.C. to testify and helped him draft his testimony for the hearing as well as prepare for the hearing. Freedom to Marry also reviewed the testimony of Susan Murray, the lead attorney in the Vermont marriage case, and supported the hearing with testimony from Freedom to Marry founder and president Evan Wolfson. Click to watch Evan Wolfson's testimony before the House Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution. Click to watch Ron Wallen's testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.
- Mobilize supporters to acknowledge and thank elected officials for supporting your cause: When lawmakers take what could be considered a risky step, make sure their support is solidified with gratitude from constituents. Freedom to Marry worked with Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s (R-FL) office to get her to sign onto the Respect for Marriage Act as an original cosponsor, and we were thrilled when she became the lead Republican sponsor. This was a huge step for her, and we wanted to make sure there was much support in her district for her leadership on the bill. Per a social media request by Freedom to Marry, dozens of supporters sent emails and letters to the Congresswoman thanking her for her cosponsorship of the bill.
- Expand outreach wherever possible – and build a diverse foundation of support: Working in Washington, D.C. is often about connecting with the right people – and asking them for their support. Freedom to Marry never left a door unopened in our quest to build support and coalitions for the Respect for Marriage Act on Capitol Hill. Outreach included working with the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the LGBT Equality Caucus. In addition, Evan Wolfson and Jo Deutsch spoke before the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee during its regular LGBT roundtables on numerous occasions.
- Create media moments with strategically commissioned studies: In 2011, Freedom to Marry commissioned Joel Benenson, Benenson Strategy Group (President Barack Obama’s pollster) and Jan van Lohuizen, Voter Consumer Research (former pollster for President George W. Bush) to analyze existing polling trends to assess public support for the freedom to marry. These two leading pollsters, one Democratic and one Republican, released a new analysis of polling data spanning more than a decade at the National Press Club in July 2011. The bipartisan polling analysis, titled The Rapid Increase in Support for Marriage Changes the Political Equation: Emerging Majority Supports the Freedom to Marry, showed a rapid increase of support for the freedom to marry, accelerating rates of support, support growing across the board (including among seniors, independents, and Republicans), and greater intensity among our supporters than our opponents (a turnaround). The study helped create Beltway – and national – buzz for the freedom to marry and further the narrative that the entire country is ready for marriage for same-sex couples.
- Build smart earned media campaigns with key partner organizations – and return to them when possible: Freedom to Marry, led by the federal team and digital team, developed a Capitol Hill campaign with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) called “Freedom to Serve, Freedom to Marry.” This campaign focused on veteran benefits denied married military couples – both members who are serving and those retired. The campaign highlighted stories of military families harmed by DOMA and launched with the release of an online video illustrating the real injury inflicted on gay and lesbian military families who, because of the federal government’s refusal to respect their marriages legally, were denied the support and protections that all other military families received. The video – as well as the dozen additional videos that premiered as part of the campaign – was shown during visits to Capitol Hill, as well as online. As a result of the meetings that featured the “Freedom to Serve, Freedom to Marry” videos, new cosponsors were added to the Respect for Marriage Act, and many more Congressmembers and their staffs, including staff focused on defense issues, were educated on the devastating impact DOMA had on military members and their families.
- Focus on primary legislation – but monitor others: Even if your campaign is working to enact change through one primary bill, that doesn’t change the fact that other bills addressing your issue will likely be introduced. Freedom to Marry’s goal on Capitol Hill was to build the case for overturning DOMA through advocating for the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act. We believed strongly that we had to focus on one bill, the Respect for Marriage Act, which would totally repeal DOMA and therefore cover all of the negative impact of the Defense of Marriage Act. And we knew that even if it were more likely that DOMA would be struck down in court, making the case for the legislation through hearings, lobbying, earned media and the like would educate key Beltway players on the harms of DOMA. In addition, throughout the years, many bills were introduced that would correct pieces of the problems – and while we did not actively lobby for or against these bills (most were introduced following the Windsor decision in June 2013), our federal lobbyists constantly monitored their progress. It was crucially important for our federal program to stay entirely focused on the freedom to marry and not to stray by working on other LGBT issues or on piecemeal legislation. This allowed us to stay on the freedom to marry messaging which was responsible in part to our success.