Columns » Jay Barth

Some politics is still local

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In recent months, any number of commentators have noted, generally with nostalgic sadness, that Speaker Tip O'Neill's oft-quoted adage that "all politics is local" couldn't be more wrong in describing the hyperpartisan environment that is contemporary American politics. Partisanship (and a deeply ideological partisanship at that) now pilots politics at all levels. The 2014 election cycle in Arkansas — a place where "all politics is local" had reigned supreme since the state's creation — marked the end of a political provincialism that had aided Democrats in staving off Republican trends and serves as a case study of this nationalization. As early voting begins this week in Eureka Springs, however, a campaign that has been consciously localized seems well positioned to pull off an important victory for LGBT rights progress in an emphatically red state.

As David Koon recently overviewed in the Times, on May 12 the voters of the hamlet in Carroll County will decide whether to uphold or reject the most expansive antidiscrimination law in the state's history when they cast votes on Local Ordinance 2223. In the two-month campaign leading up to next Tuesday, the proponents of Ordinance 2223 have fended off assistance from outside groups that would be expected to engage in the campaign because of the measure's importance both substantively (its passage would likely ensure legal standing in future court challenges to the General Assembly's Act 137) and symbolically (its passage in one of the reddest of states would send strong signals regarding the inevitable expansion of full civil rights to LGBT citizens).

Several things have driven the localization strategy. First, a truly grassroots campaign is feasible because of the scale of the endeavor (fewer than 900 votes will likely be cast). Moreover, rather than convincing voters of the merits of the ordinance, the key in a town where President Obama garnered more than 60 percent of the vote in 2012 and Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor gained nearly two-thirds of the vote last year, is turnout; and it is in voter turnout where grassroots work truly pays off. Just as important, the community has a tradition of citizen activism; indeed, much of the network that came together in "Save the Ozarks" — a lengthy, successful effort focused on stopping the introduction of mammoth power lines in the region — has transferred its energies to the non-discrimination ordinance campaign. As a result of these organizing strategies, campaign workers and volunteers — operating out of an abandoned store on the town's main drag — should know the sentiments of almost all voters by the time of the election.

Second, important lessons were learned from a December campaign in nearby Fayetteville. There, the Human Rights Campaign fully engaged, contributing more than $250,000 in money and human labor. Opponents of the Fayetteville ordinance made the intrusion by outside groups in the local community in general, and the HRC in particular, an issue. The campaign finance reports for "Keep Eureka Fair" look dramatically different. It is composed almost entirely of small donations from locals and money raised from community fundraisers. While those urging repeal of the ordinance have tried to resurrect the argument from Fayetteville that outside groups are pushing Ordinance 2223, the charge has rung hollow in Eureka Springs because locals have been the face of the effort.

Finally, the localization strategy is driven by confidence that the community's ongoing interaction with LGBT friends and neighbors is the strongest weapon that the Keep Eureka Fair has. As we know well, personal contact with LGBT individuals is the most important force in reshaping attitudes; and, in Eureka Springs, because of the visibility of the LGBT community for decades, straight voters think of their neighbors, their favorite waitresses, and artists they have known for years when they consider the issue of LGBT rights. While there is nervousness that the opponents' argument that the ordinance will undermine "bathroom privacy" will gain traction, there is ultimate trust that those personal relationships with LGBT individuals who are part of their daily life will overwhelm such fear-based arguments.

Make no mistake, the results in Eureka Springs will have ramifications beyond the borders of the small Ozarks community. As the most full-throated challenge to Act 137, the Eureka Springs ordinance would become the most important test case of the constitutionality of the state law (although Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter's interesting legal opinion of recent weeks provides a potential roadmap for undermining the law's impact without reaching constitutional issues). But, if the ordinance survives to get its day in court, it will be because "local control" was not just a campaign talking point, but the way the campaign itself was operated.

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