Thursday, March 03, 2005

WNTMWK II: Topeka Voters Reject Anti-Gay Measure

Time magazine said " thanks to the Phelps family, this small, gossipy city [Topeka] can perhaps lay claim to being the homophobia capital of the U.S." So it was quite significant that an anti-gay ballot measure failed on Tuesday.

Voters on Tuesday upheld an ordinance that prohibits discrimination against homosexuals in municipal hiring, turning back a repeal movement led by a minister known for picketing the funerals of AIDS victims.

One of the minister's granddaughters, meanwhile, fell far short in her efforts to unseat an openly gay member of the City Council.

The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. was seeking to remove from the books a city ordinance that prohibits discrimination against gays in municipal hiring. The repeal measure would also bar Topeka from reinstating such protections for 10 years.

In final, unofficial results, 53 percent opposed the repeal, with 14,285 voting "no," and 12,795 voting "yes."

The Topeka Capital Journal added

Topeka's voter turnout Tuesday was the highest for a city primary election since Richard M. Nixon was president.

Shawnee County Elections Commissioner Elizabeth Ensley said Wednesday that turnout for Tuesday's primary was about 36.6 percent -- the highest since 42 percent of local voters cast ballots in the 1971 city primary.

Ensley attributed Tuesday's high number of voters to the presence of a ballot question that would have banned the city from recognizing homosexuals as a protected class for at least 10 years. The question failed, with almost 53 percent of voters coming out against it.

The issue brought national media attention to Topeka. An article in Tuesday's New York Times told about incumbent Tiffany Muller, Topeka's first openly gay city council member, and her race in west Topeka's District 9 against challengers who included Jael Phelps.

Phelps -- a member of Westboro Baptist Church, which conducts anti-homosexual picketing -- earned about 5 percent of the vote while taking fourth in the four-person race. Topeka lawyer Richard Harmon and Muller finished first and second, respectively, and will face off in the April 5 general election.

Here's MSNBC's report and the New York Times.

Of course, it's unfair to tarnish an entire city as the "capital of homophobia" because of the presence of one camera hogging, hate spewing, Bible mis-quoting bigot.

I've encountered Fred Phelps and his family church of bigots several times when I've made trips from Wichita up to Topeka. I recall once for a state Democratic Party function and once for a concert by classical guitarist Chistopher Parkening. There was only a handful of protestors, most of them presumably related to Phelps. And, while there was important organizing done in Topeka over the years to counter Phelps, which no doubt laid the groundwork for Tuesdays' vctory, my impression is that in recent years most residents regarded him as a nut case.

And with good reason, what is probably not so well-known is that Rev. Phelps is also an anti-Semite or that he was friendly with Saddam Hussein. or he says Gods hates America and deserved 9/11. (No link because I won't link to a Phelps site).

Kansans will face a ballot measure in April on whether to amend the state constitution to prohibit gay marriage and civil unions. I wonder whether the most effective message that might be crafted against the amendment is one that featured the Rev. Phelps endorsing it.

I think that only a minority of Kansas voters are ready to accept gay marriage, but I think there is a larger group that would support civil unions or whatever. Can the issue be reframed from "do I approve of gays (marrying)" to "do I approve of discrimination" in the minds of enough voters to make a difference?

Probably not. I think it will be difficult to replicate Topeka's level of organization in the other big cities, not to mention reaching small town and rural voters.

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