Memo links Mass. couple to Prop 22, Mormon strategy

Bay Area Reporter, California/November 27, 2008

The leak of a decade-old internal memo of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is providing insight into how deeply involved the church has been in the fight against same-sex marriage in California and causing some to question the assertions of a Mormon couple from Massachusetts who thrust themselves into the California marriage equality debate.

The March 4, 1997 memo from Loren C. Dunn to church Elder M. Russell Ballard, describes an insidious "go ahead" HLM (homosexual legalized marriage) strategy of the late Mormon Church president, Gordon B. Hinckley. The memo appears to be tangible proof that Mormon leaders had been working to prevent marriage equality in California and Hawaii at least for the last 11 years while actively working to recruit the support of local California Catholic bishops.

Parts of the memo were first published on the DailyKos Web site November 3. It was later reported on the Box Turtle Bulletin blog, which tracks anti-gay groups.

Box Turtle's Jim Burroway wrote that Ballard "has played a central role in the LDS's fight in Arizona and California. He appeared on several closed-circuit satellite broadcasts to Mormon churches with specific instructions on the California campaign for Prop 8. In one such broadcast in late October, he reminded the faithful that the central doctrine of Celestial Marriage was propelling the church's drive to impose its theology on state constitutions: "'We know that it is not without controversy, yet let me be clear that at the heart of this issue is the central doctrine of eternal marriage and its place in our Father's plan,' Ballard said."

In addition to revealing a long-standing Mormon strategy designed to recruit Catholic bishops to their cause three years before the state's first political fight, Proposition 22, the memo also lists one of the Mormon's key strategists as Richard "Dick" Wirthlin, a relative of Joseph Robb and Robin Wirthlin, the Massachusetts couple who were featured in Proposition 8 campaign ads this fall as the parents of a boy who was read a book about a same-sex couple in his second grade class.

Dick Wirthlin, a Republican pollster by profession whose father was the presiding bishop of the church from 1952 to 1961, had been appointed general authority of the church by Hinckley in 1996, and served as a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy church leadership until 2001. Dick Wirthlin worked for many conservative causes, including Ronald Reagan, and operated the Wirthlin Group. He worked with the Yes on Prop 22 campaign, also known as the Knight initiative, as both the Mormon representative on the campaign's committee and as its internal pollster.

Robb Wirthlin, Dick Wirthlin's nephew, along with his wife Robin, introduced themselves to California voters in a Yes on 8 ad as the unwitting parents of a boy who was read the gay-friendly book King and King in his Massachusetts classroom. The Wirthlins claimed in several interviews to be unintentional players in the debate. They became the embodiment of the traditional family for Yes on 8 and appeared in a $2 million ad campaign central to the proponent's argument that Prop 8 was needed to protect California schoolchildren from being taught about same-sex marriage, which the Wirthlins implied meant gay sex, in second grade.

But Prop 8 opponents did not recognize the Wirthlin name. Steve Smith, campaign manager for No on 8, told the Bay Area Reporter that the campaign learned of the Wirthlin's familial link to the church's strategy, "either very late in the campaign or just after November 4," leaving no time for the campaign to issue a news release or other materials that might have mitigated the Wirthlin's claims.

Robb and Robin Wirthlin, as reported by the Bay Area Reporter October 23, were no small part of the success of the Prop 8 campaign. Smith, while speaking to Stonewall Democrats two weeks ago, said the Wirthlin campaign was "effective," and the No on 8 coalition spent the last weeks of the campaign fighting the issue of children being taught about same-sex marriage in public elementary schools.

Holes in their story

Holes began to emerge in the Wirthlins story almost immediately after they were first introduced by the Yes on 8 campaign. Parents in the Lexington School District in Massachusetts disputed many of the Wirthlins claims to the B.A.R., pointing out that when the Wirthlins moved into the district they were already involved with two groups seeking to ban same-sex marriage. One of those groups, MassResistance, run by Brian Camenker, has been called an "anti-gay hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Lexington parents told the B.A.R. that they suspected the Wirthlins moved into the community following parent David Parker's very public fight with the district the year before, in order to become actively involved in the issue and to join Parker in filing a lawsuit to enforce parental rights to approve all materials used in the education of their son. In fact, the Wirthlins moved into the district just weeks before filing suit with Parker.

Paul Ash, Lexington School District superintendent, told the B.A.R. that the district had made several attempts to appease the Wirthlins and accommodate their religious convictions, but that he "came to the conclusion that they had no intent on settling. At the attempt to mediate prior to the case it was abundantly clear that the Wirthlins and Parkers had no intention of coming to a compromise, that they wanted a public fight. I only saw political campaigns and religious vigils. I never saw any evidence, not even a hint, that there was any intention on the part of these families to work out an agreement."

Frank Schubert, the Yes on 8 campaign manager, doesn't believe Dick Wirthlin's involvement in the LDS strategy against marriage equality should cast aspersions upon the credibility of his nephew's assertions.

"To suggest that somehow there was this 10- or 11-year conspiracy to get the Wirthlins to campaign for Prop 8 is just a preposterous idea," Schubert told the B.A.R. in a telephone interview last week.

But that is disputed by No on 8 officials.

"If it was just by chance, if it was just out of the blue, it's a pretty amazing coincidence," said Smith.

Joe Radota, with the consulting firm Forward Observer that worked for the No on 8 campaign, said in an e-mail to the B.A.R. on October 23 that he already was "aware" of the Wirthlins' activism in Massachusetts, but did not mention the Wirthlins' familial link to the LDS strategy and Prop 22. He did not elaborate.

Schubert claimed that it was his idea, and his alone, to use the Wirthlins in the Yes on 8 campaign.

"The [Mormon] church was not involved. [Robb and Robin Wirthlins'] case was well publicized and so I knew of them for a long time," he said.

Schubert said he "contacted them some time in September after a focus group in either San Diego or Long Beach," when he realized using the school kids was the hot button issue for the campaign.

"It was then that Robb told me he had an uncle involved in the issue," Schubert said.

Schubert called later to clarify Dick Wirthlin is a great uncle of Robb. Schubert denied the LDS church suggested or provided the Wirthlins for the campaign, although he admitted the church was an integral part of the campaign.

"They all had a chair on the committee," said Schubert, who said that "all" included the Mormons, the evangelicals, the Pentecostals, and the Catholics.

Whether the Wirthlins became involved in the marriage equality fight on their own, or as part of the church's now-documented, HLM strategy, is not yet clear.

What is known is the Wirthlins moved to the Lexington School District, and within the Estabrook Elementary service area, in 2005 after the school had been targeted by Parker and the anti-gay, anti-same-sex marriage organizations to which the Wirthlins belonged. The Wirthlins enrolled their son Joey in the school already aware of the Parker's complaint against the anti-bias curriculum. They immediately joined the Estabrook anti-bias committee, according to Meg Soens and Pam Hoffman. The women went on to start their own organization,, to counter the anti-gay marriage organizations Mass Resistance and the Massachusetts Family Institute that elicited sympathy and support for the Wirthlins with public vigils.

The B.A.R. also learned that the daughter of Brigham Young University Hawaii's president Eric Shumway, Angela Gal, moved to Lexington with her husband Jon in 2003 and immediately joined the anti-bias committee. Voter registration records provided by Lexington parent Jon Dreyer shows the Gals moved to the district in 2003. Gal was actively involved with MassResistance, according to the organization's Web site. The family later moved to Texas.

The Wirthlins did not return repeated phone calls and e-mail requests for comment.

According to Schubert, the couple was not compensated for their appearance in the Yes on 8 ad or for time they spent traveling the state on a bus tour that California blogger Mike Tidmus dubbed "Hitting the Road for Hate."

Schubert was asked if he could see how the Wirthlins' involvement with MassResistance and Massachusetts Family Institute, the Wirthlin family connection to the Mormon HLM strategy, and the Wirthlin family's prominence in the church under Hinckley, might cause some to question the credibility of the Wirthlins' claim that they were unwitting and unintentional players in the marriage debate in Massachusetts and California.

"I suppose if you were writing a novel you could find a way to connect the dots," Schubert said, but he dismissed the idea that the Wirthlins used their son for their own religious agenda.

Not everyone agreed.

A 2006 editorial in Bay Windows by Susan Ryan-Vollmar, "Robin Wirthlin is a bad mother," described the Wirthlins' appearances on local television as "ugly tirades" that forced same-sex parents to discuss with their children the discrimination made present in their lives by this couple, whose chief complaint was that their son's school teacher read a book about a legally married couple, at least in Massachusetts. The Wirthlins' intolerance for same-sex parent families was thinly-veiled and hypocritical, believed Ryan-Vollmar.

Given Dick Wirthlin's prominence as a California pollster and Prop 22 campaign official in 2000, it remains unclear as to why the No on 8 campaign didn't immediately recognize the name Wirthlin and attempt to mitigate the effectiveness of their claims.

Mike Marshall, campaign manager for No on 22, told the B.A.R. , "I had no role in the No on 8 campaign although I did some fundraising for Equality California in 2007."

EQCA was a lead member of the No on 8 campaign.

Marshall said that only one Prop 22 campaign staffer, Julie Davis, worked with No on 8. If that is the case, then it's possible that the insight gained during the No on 22 campaign was never included in the fight against Prop 8. Calls to No on 8 campaign official Geoff Kors and spokeswoman Ali Bay were not returned.

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