Prop 22 Causes Ballot Box Deja Vu

By Patrick Runkle

The year was 1977, and ultraconservative state senator John Briggs of Orange County was seeing pink over what he considered a precipitous decline in morals sweeping the nation.

Soon, Proposition 6 - a call to fire gay teachers and remove those who ``promoted'' homosexuality in public schools - circulated through churches and qualified for the November 1978 ballot.

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Anti-gay ballot initiatives are political lightning bolts that have struck California voters five times in the last 21 years: once in 1978, once in 1986, and three times in 1988.

Proposition 22, the Limit on Marriages initiative, which will appear on the March 2000 ballot, is another such strike.

The issues may have been slightly different, and the key players slightly changed. But the fights waged through the years over anti-gay ballot propositions follow an all-too-familiar trajectory.

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Oklahoma and Arkansas enacted restrictive legislation denying homosexuals the right to teach in early 1978. The legislation wasn't overturned in court until 1985.

Briggs saw the value of such laws. "A coalition of homosexual teachers and their allies are trying to use the vast power of our school system to impose their own brand of non-morality on your children," Briggs argued.

Using the zeal that Californians had shown earlier that year against rising taxes, Briggs tried to work the state's voters into a similar frenzy about homosexuals. The Proposition 6 ballot argument called Proposition 13, the landmark property tax initiative passed six months earlier, "a model and inspiration for the rest of the nation," and urged voters that Prop 6 would send the same kind of message, this time against gays.

Just as Prop 22, also known as the Knight Initiative, has been funded by the Mormon and Catholic churches, the campaign for Proposition 6 was heavily funded by churches and also received $1 million from Carl Karcher, the founder of the Carl's Jr. fast-food chain. Karcher, who turned 83 this year, has consistently donated money to high-profile right-wing campaigns.

[Asked whether Karcher had contributed to Proposition 22, a secretary in his office responded with a question: "Are you gay?" Further pressing elicited another question: "Do you support the initiative?" Finally, Karcher's office declined to state whether he had given money to the campaign.]

The early stages of Briggs' attempt to win support for Proposition 6 looked promising, with the first polls showing 75 percent in favor of the measure. Just two months before the election, a Field Poll found that the public was behind the initiative 61 percent to 31 percent.

David Mixner, a Democratic political consultant, in 1993 became the first openly gay advisor to President Clinton. Mixner had recently come out of the closet, and headed the No on 6 campaign for southern California.

Facing an uphill battle, Mixner used his political skills to paint the initiative in the darkest light possible, as a McCarthy-like assault on civil rights. He was able to turn the public around by winning almost unanimous endorsements for the No on 6 campaign from the Hollywood community.

His biggest coup, by working closeted contacts in the Governor's office, was scoring Ronald Reagan's official opposition to Proposition 6.

The measure's 59-41 percent defeat, a margin of over a million votes, is remembered as a golden era gay political victory.

San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who headed the campaign in northern California, played a large part in energizing the community.

Milk and then San Francisco Mayor George Moscone delivered speeches from the steps of San Francisco City Hall upon the defeat of the measure: "To come out to all of your family, to come out to all of your relatives, to come out to all of your friends, the coming out of a nation, will smash these myths once and for all," Milk said.

Moscone said, "This is your night. No on 6 will be emblazoned upon the principles of San Francisco, liberty and freedom for all, forever."

Moscone and Milk were assassinated three weeks later.

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Seven years later, the AIDS epidemic was in full swing. The civil rights gains made by the homosexual community were being erased by a disease that seemed to have no limits.

Even as late as 1986, public health officials couldn't figure out how to contain the disease.

Political outsider and frequent presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche offered an answer. His supporters, calling themselves the Prevent AIDS Now Initiative Committee (PANIC) quickly gathered the signatures necessary to put an initiative on the November 1986 ballot.

Panic, indeed, proved to be a useful commodity during signature gathering. The idea of rampant AIDS spread by homosexuals was enough to incite the religious right of southern California to throw their support behind the measure. Gloom-and-doom predictions from the Centers for Disease Control of AIDS spreading through the heterosexual population didn't help much either.

LaRouche's plan, Proposition 64, was simple enough. It would have required doctors to report the names of any infected persons, or persons believed to be infected, to a central agency. People with AIDS would be immediately fired from any job in which they would come in contact with a large number of people -- jobs like teaching, food handling, or holding public office.

But the most controversial aspect of Proposition 64 was something LaRouche still has trouble shaking: It would have added AIDS to a short list of highly communicable diseases and allowed for quarantines of AIDS patients and suspected AIDS patients.

Proposition 64 got lots of support from southern California conservatives, like former U.S. Rep. William E. Dannemeyer from Fullerton and former state senator John Doolittle from Citrus Heights.

Bruce B. Decker, a California philanthropist and AIDS activist who died of the disease in 1995, headed the opposition against Proposition 64. A majority of politicians and health officials came out against the measure, including then governor George Deukmejian.

Early polls showed strong public support for Proposition 64. But once the opposition movement was able to re-characterize the debate as being about civil rights, public support dropped off significantly.

Just as the No on Knight campaign is making every attempt to tie Proposition 22 to sponsor state Sen. William J. "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale), the opposition to Prop 64 succeeded by associating the initiative with LaRouche, whom most voters viewed as an out-of-control extremist.

The No on 64 campaign spent nearly $2.7 million against the initiative, most of which was donated by gay rights organizations.

At the polls in November 1986, Proposition 64 was defeated by a 4-1 margin.

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Undaunted by the resounding defeat of Proposition 64, the LaRouche camp turned around and put Proposition 69, a duplicate measure, on the June 1988 primary ballot.

Because of its association with Proposition 64, Proposition 69 was behind 3-1 in early polls.

The No on 69 Committee spent only $500,000 to defeat the measure.

Lesbian activist Dana Van Gorder headed the No campaign. "We spent so much and did such a thorough job [on 64] saying we don't want Lyndon LaRouche forming health policy in California, we don't really believe we have to go to major lengths [to defeat 69]," Van Gorder said at the time.

Prop 69 was defeated by another 4-1 margin.

But LaRouche's supporters still defend his initiatives. "The gay community tried to make the debate about civil rights," said a LaRouche campaign worker who preferred to remain anonymous.

"When you have 50 percent of people in Africa infected, the majority of which aren't gay, you have to wonder if the debate is actually about homosexual rights."

In fact, the LaRouche supporter added, if the initiative had passed, "thousands of people would still be alive today."

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Six months later, Californians paid a little more attention to the AIDS crisis.

Proposition 96, on the November 1988 ballot, mandated AIDS testing for anyone convicted of a sex offense or a crime in which bodily fluids could have been transmitted. It also required prison officials to report any inmate suspected of carrying a communicable disease.

Large parts of Proposition 96 were already signed into law by Governor Deukmejian, but conservative sponsor and Los Angeles Sheriff Sherman Block didn't think the laws went far enough. Law enforcement and victims-rights groups were firmly behind the new measure.

Opponents, including the ACLU and gay groups, argued that Proposition 96 was an unlawful invasion of privacy. They said that the law was aimed not to stop the spread of AIDS but to accomplish a watered-down version of Proposition 64.

Since most areas of California have anti-sodomy laws on the books, gay men could be tested on the grounds that they were committing sex crimes, opponents said.

Even though it was strongly opposed to Prop 96, the gay community's resources were drained because of another initiative on the same ballot.

Proposition 102, which sought to abolish anonymous AIDS testing and require doctors and health care providers to report the names and personal information of all HIV-positive patients, was sponsored by Dannemeyer.

Stung by the opposition of both parties against Proposition 64 and its overwhelming defeat in the hands of California voters, its supporters felt Proposition 102 was a kinder, gentler AIDS control initiative, and this time they didn't have LaRouche lurking in the background.

Proposition 102's most controversial planks would have required health officials to trace the sexual histories of patients identified as HIV carriers, doctors would have been required to report an HIV-positive blood test within 48 hours, and patients would have had seven days to give health authorities a list of known sexual contacts.

Backers of Proposition 102 unearthed fiery anti-tax crusader Paul Gann, one of the authors of Proposition 13, to help them pass the measure.

Gann, who died in 1989, contracted HIV from a blood transfusion during heart surgery in 1982.

Testifying at a hearing on Proposition 102 in 1988, Gann said, "We report syphilis; we report gonorrhea. Who in God's name has a civil right to go out and give you a virus that will kill you? Who are we trying to protect here?"

Like the previous initiatives, Proposition 102 polled well in the months leading up to the election. An August 1988 poll found 58 percent support for the measure.

The No on 102 campaign hoped to prevail by turning the fight into a civil rights battle with the same major bipartisan support the No on 64 campaign had.

Most health officials criticized the initiative as useless and prohibitively costly. Most elected officials were on the record against Proposition 102 but there were some notable exceptions.

Deukmejian wouldn't come out against it, and several physicians' groups, most notably the ad hoc Physicians for a Logical AIDS Response, actively supported the measure.

Decker, who had headed the No on 64 campaign and also served as the chairman of Deukmejian's AIDS task force, resigned in protest over Deukmejian's refusal to go on record against the measure.

The Governor stood firm, and Decker took over the No on 102 campaign.

Despite fractures in the official response to Proposition 102, the opposition was able to raise large sums of money from the gay community and mount a large campaign against the measure based on civil rights and freedom.

As if they were taking a cue from history, the public's support for the initiative started to decline as the election drew near.

An L.A. Times poll in September found 51 percent in favor, but another poll in late October indicated that support had turned around, only 36 percent in favor and 51 percent opposed.

The opposition to Proposition 96 was not as lucky. The majority of the gay community's resources were committed to the fight over Proposition 102.

The public believed that something needed to be done about AIDS, Proposition 102 was seen as costly and intrusive, and Proposition 96 -- even though it dealt with a different aspect of the crisis -- emerged as a popular alternative.

Proposition 96 won with 61 percent of the vote, while Proposition 102 was defeated 66 to 34 percent. Numerous legal challenges by the ACLU against Propostion 96 proved unsuccessful, and the law remains in effect today.

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The opponents of Proposition 22 know these histories well.

Their campaign seeks to associate the measure with Sen. Knight and paint him as a right-wing extremist and an out-of-touch politician. Trying to skirt the unpopular notion of gay marriage, the campaign focuses squarely on civil rights.

Leslee Hamilton, a veteran lesbian political activist who ran Ron Gonzales' mayoral campaign in San Jose, said of Proposition 22: "The root issue is equality. The radical right keeps trying to put these issues on the ballot. This is the fourth issue to come down, and it won't be the last."