Countdown to North Carolina: How Santorum is helping

Less than three weeks before voters in North Carolina go to the polls to cast a vote on same-sex marriage early voting has begun, an embarrassing sex scandal involving the state Democratic Party has burst into the national media.

Jen Jones

Less than three weeks before voters in North Carolina go to the polls to cast a vote on same-sex marriage early voting has begun, an embarrassing sex scandal involving the state Democratic Party has burst into the national media, and groups supporting a ban on same-sex marriage are launching a series of television ads to rally support for the ban.

But The Coalition to Protect All N.C. Families, a coalition organizing opposition to the ban, Amendment One, is hopeful: The likelihood of a large Republican turnout has been diminished, a get-out-the-vote campaign on the state’s numerous college campuses is underway, and polls indicate that if voters understand the breadth of Amendment One, they’ll probably vote against it.

Starting Thursday, April 19, registered voters could obtain a ballot and submit it to state election offices around North Carolina. Also on the ballot is a spirited three-way race for the Democratic nomination for governor. And drawing considerably less attention is the Republican presidential primary, since challenger Rick Santorum dropped out April 10, essentially conceding the nomination to frontrunner Mitt Romney.

All these things could play into how the vote on Amendment One, a proposed state constitutional ban on legal recognition of any form of same-sex relationship, turns out.

The latest poll, released by Public Policy Polling (PPP) on April 13, indicated that 45 percent of 975 voters believe same-sex marriage will be legal in North Carolina within 20 years, compared to 41 percent who believe it will still be illegal and 14 percent who are not sure. (Margin of error is 3 points.) The question was asked after the State Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, a Tea Party Republican who supported the ban, said he thinks marriage will be legal in North Carolina in 20 years.

A poll in late March by Elon University showed that 67 percent of the 534 residents polled said they would support same-sex couples having either civil unions, domestic partnerships, or marriage rights. Only 29 percent were opposed to “any legal recognition for same-sex couples”—and that was down six percent from September. Asked if they would support or oppose an amendment to the state constitution that would “prevent any same sex marriages, domestic partnerships, or civil unions,” 61.2 percent said either “strongly oppose” or “oppose.”

“We’re as hopeful as we’ve been all along,” said Jen Jones, communications director for the Protect All N.C. Families, in a phone interview Thursday. Jones said the coalition has received some important endorsements from conservatives in the state, including Tea Party Republican U.S. Rep. Rene Ellmers.

Jones said the coalition has a get-out-the-vote campaign underway on college campuses to get student voters to vote and has also been helped by a strong statement in opposition to Amendment One from retiring Democratic Governor Bev Perdue.

“It was a pretty powerful statement from a southern governor,” said Jones. “It was incredibly important.”

In their final debate, Wednesday (April 18), the three Democratic candidates hoping to succeed Perdue did not indicate strong differences in their positions on the issue, and they did not stand strongly against Amendment One.

According to a report from the local NBC News affiliate, state Rep. Bill Faison said that, while he said he thinks the state should “take a look at” civil unions, “the legislature has spoken” on marriage and “people in this on the whole believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton expressed support for civil unions, too, and said he doesn’t think Amendment One should be on the ballot, but he stopped short of opposing the measure. And former U.S. Rep. Bill Etheridge dodged the question, saying the focus should be on the economy.

The spirited Democratic gubernatorial primary, said Jones, coupled with the decision of Republican presidential hopeful Santorum to drop out of the Republican primary, is another reason for hope.

“With the Republican primary pretty much settled,” said Jones, “we hope to see more progressive voters at the polls.”

As for the sex scandal, Jones says it’s of limited interest to most voters.

But it has gained national attention and the potential to embarrass the Democratic Party, scheduled to hold its national convention in North Carolina in August.

The scandal involves an accusation from a state Democratic Party employee against the party executive director. The staffer, Adriadn Ortega, sent a letter to North Carolina Democratic Party Executive Director Jay Parmley on December 8, saying he had been fired from his job on November 21 in retaliation for complaining about being sexually harassed by “the Executive Director.” The letter notes that on October 1, Ortega met with Parmley “to address the sexual harassment I was receiving in the office.” Awkwardly, the letter to Parmley details examples of sexual harassment Ortega experienced from “the Executive Director,” but does not name Parmley.

The News & Observer newspaper of the Raleigh-Durham area said Parmley denied harassing any employee but resigned Sunday, citing “political reasons.” Pressure began building immediately for the resignation, too, of the state party chairman, David Parker. Governor Perdue is among those pushing for Parker’s resignation, said the News & Observer, but MSNBC showed footage of Perdue refusing to discuss that with reporters.

A copy of the “Charge of Discrimination” form that Ortega submitted to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—made available to this reporter by the News & Observer— identified Parmley as a “Homosexual” and claimed Ortega was discriminated against based on sex and disability in violation of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Pam Spaulding, a lesbian political blogger based in North Carolina, said the state party needs to take the allegations seriously, but she said she doesn’t think it has the potential to affect the vote on Amendment One.

“This is a distraction that has nothing to do with the lack of merits of this constitutional amendment on the ballot or the hard work county party chairs are doing to get out the vote against the amendment,” said Spaulding, in an email response to this reporter. “The fact is that North Carolinians need to understand why adding discrimination to our constitution is not only wrong, but counterproductive to the growth of the state, [and] that leaders of every political persuasion have publicly come out against Amendment One—conservatives, libertarians, and progressives.”

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