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The fight for same-sex marriage goes door to door

People queue to enter the Supreme Court in Washington on March 25, 2013.

At the newly opened field office of Oregon United for Marriage in Portland, college students Rebecca McKelvy (from Oberlin College) and James Jameson (from Goddard College) are working as canvassers to pass a state constitutional amendment permitting same-sex marriage next November.

When the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act back in June, the fight for same-sex marriage rights moved overnight to the 37 states that currently don’t allow same-sex marriage.

Nationally, the campaign is ramping up, with fundraising and lobbying in a handful of states most likely to pass same-sex marriage soon, says Thalia Zepatos, director of public engagement at the group Freedom to Marry, based in New York and Washington, D.C.

“The road to marriage is different in each state,” Zepatos says, pointing out that legislators in Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey could pass marriage equality this year. In New Jersey, they’d need a veto-proof majority to overcome opposition from governor Chris Christie.

The first state with a ballot measure before voters is Oregon. Next November, voters will decide whether to add same-sex marriage to the state constitution. An amendment banning gay marriage won at the ballot box back in 2004.

“Those ground games look much bigger in those states where every voter is a decision-maker,” says Zepatos. The effort needs to include an army of paid and volunteer petition-gatherers and phone-bankers, plus paid advertising as the vote approaches in fall 2014.

“The cost of these campaigns probably won’t top business-related measures, like what a casino will spend on a ballot measure,” says Zepatos. “But you’ll get up to the $6 million, $8 million, or potentially $10 million figure.”

Campaign funds are already flowing at Oregon United for Marriage’s new field office in Portland. The effort’s being helped by a $10,000 donation -- matched through a Facebook campaign -- from a wealthy local gay couple long involved in the same-sex marriage fight.

At the new field office, about a dozen young staffers head out every afternoon to get ballot signatures and ask for donations from supporters.

“My name’s Charlie, I’m with the campaign to win marriage for same-sex couples,” is how Charlie Dunkin begins his spiel one afternoon as he walks from house to house in an upper-middle-class tree-lined neighborhood near Reed College in Portland.

Dunkin, 25, has been doing this work ever since he graduated college with a psychology degree in the spring. He thinks it’ll keep him gainfully employed at least until next November.

Urban planning student Inna Levin, 33, says getting paid a few dollars above Oregon’s minimum wage of $8.95 per hour, to do something she believes in anyway, is a pretty good deal.

“I have volunteered in the past,” she says. “In this position I’m a paid canvasser. The freedom to marry is really important to me.”

The Oregon Family Council, which backed Oregon’s successful anti-gay-marriage amendment in 2004 and is expected to vigorously oppose the effort to overturn it next November, did not respond to an interview request.

Political analyst Bill Lunch, former chair of the political science department at Oregon State University in Corvallis, says opponents of same-sex marriage are unlikely to raise anything like the multi-millions of dollars that advocates of marriage equality can count on getting from committed donors -- both in- and out-of-state.

But, says Thalia Zepatos of Freedom to Marry, don’t count her opponents out.

“They do need a large campaign” to counteract the big effort (paid staff, volunteers, phone-banking, advertising) that marriage-equality advocates will mount, says Zepatos. “But I don’t think we should underestimate the power and the reach of those church networks that they do activate -- thousands upon thousands of congregants.”

Most of those folks will be volunteers, ready to get out the vote for their side all across the state next November.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

At the newly opened field office of Oregon United for Marriage in Portland, college students Rebecca McKelvy (from Oberlin College) and James Jameson (from Goddard College) are working as canvassers to pass a state constitutional amendment permitting same-sex marriage next November.

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