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Scorched Earth: How the opposition to SB1062 caught fire

SB1062 protesters gather at the Arizona Capitol. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

SB1062 protesters gather at the Arizona Capitol. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Anyone who thought rushing SB1062 through the Legislature would leave opponents little time to organize was sorely mistaken.

Less than 24 hours after the Arizona House of Representatives approved the bill, massive protests sprang up at the Capitol, business organizations lobbied Gov. Jan Brewer for a veto, and Arizona took center stage in a national media frenzy. By the time Brewer struck down SB1062, a veto was considered a near certainty.

For foes of the controversial religious liberty bill, the protest movement was a textbook case of successful opposition. They laid the groundwork early and were able to move quickly on the bill, which had been fast-tracked through the Legislature.

Supporters of the bill described the protest movement as a misinformation campaign. They blamed opponents and the media of propagating falsehoods that spread like wildfire and urging an “SB1070-style” boycott against Arizona. They described the bill as a minor change to a preexisting law and denied allegations that the bill was anti-gay.

But even before Brewer brought out her veto stamp, it was clear which side had won.

It’s a new year

In 2013, the Legislature passed SB1178 with nary a peep from LGBT activists, and not a word from the business community. Brewer vetoed the bill, which was very similar to SB1062, after legislative leaders ignored her warnings not to send her more bills until they passed her Medicaid expansion plan.

Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, an influential Christian social conservative organization that lobbied hard for SB1062, said she believes the governor would have signed the 2013 bill had the Legislature not sent it to her desk during a bill moratorium.

“That bill reached her desk before Medicaid,” Herrod said. “She’s a woman of her word. She vetoed it. My understanding is that last year’s veto had nothing to do with the merits of the bill. I have no reason to believe she would have vetoed it last year.”

Less than a year later, a lot had changed. Unlike the 2013 bill, LGBT activist groups saw SB1062 coming from the early days of the legislative session, and were ready for it.

Lee Walters, co-chairman of the Phoenix chapter of Human and Equal Rights Organizers (HERO), which played a major role in organizing protests at the Capitol, said the organization started making phone calls as soon as the Senate approved the bill. The next day, after the House passed it, several dozen people gathered at the Capitol to voice their outrage.

By Feb. 20, hundreds of people were protesting.

“That evening we went down to the Capitol and we let people know through social media, friends, phone calls, texting that they could join us down there,” Walters said of the day the bill passed through the House.

Walters said HERO and numerous other organizations helped spread the word. Rebecca Wininger, president of the LGBT rights group Equality Arizona, said it was a broad coalition of people and organizations that helped organize the protests and get people to the Capitol.

“This is something that once it has gone out it just exploded on social media,” Wininger said.

Goodyear resident Linda Coy said social media brought her to the Capitol. She said she decided to come to a protest after the Secular Coalition for Arizona, which she follows on Facebook, sent her an email about it.

Jared Peral, a Phoenix resident, said he decided to reach out to protest organizers and seeing SB1062 on the news and reading about it online.

“It’s kind of hard to miss,” said Peral, who attended two protests against the bill.

The demonstrations created a stirring image for television cameras and news photographers. In the meantime, supporters of SB1062 were often invisible. No one demonstrated in favor of the bill, and many lawmakers who voted for the legislation did their best to avoid the cameras.

By the time Brewer vetoed the bill, her office had received more than 40,000 emails and phone calls from members of the public about SB1062, the majority of which were opposed to the bill. But a smaller, more influential group of people were writing letters that may have had a much greater impact.

Keeping the Arizona comeback on track

The morning after the Legislature passed SB1062, two business groups, the Arizona Technology Council and Greater Phoenix Economic Council, sent letters to Brewer urging her to veto. What followed was a barrage of pleas from the business community warning the governor that SB1062 could have dire consequences for Arizona’s recovering economy.

The Arizona and Greater Phoenix chambers of commerce weighed in against the bill over the weekend. Apple, whose planned manufacturing plant in Mesa is a crown jewel of Brewer’s “Arizona comeback,” called the Governor’s Office. Other major corporations such as AT&T and massive hotel chains such as Marriott urged a veto as well.

Hours before Brewer vetoed SB1062, the Hispanic National Bar Association announced that it was pulling its 2015 convention from Phoenix. Even more troubling were the concerns voiced by the National Football League, sparking worries that Arizona could lose the 2015 Super Bowl. Sports Illustrated reported that the NFL was exploring possibilities for moving the Super Bowl to a different state if Brewer signed the bill.

Though Brewer said little about the possible economic impact of signing the bill, many observers believe the business community’s emphatic opposition was the tipping point. Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the business community had a significant impact on Brewer’s decision to veto the bill.

“It was very clear that if this bill were to have become law it would have had a devastating economic impact. No one could have predicted that, say, a week ago, but it was very clear that as statements from different Fortune 500 companies were rolling in and stories about major sporting events being at risk, that that bill would have had very serious economic consequences,” Hamer said.

Angela Hughey, president of ONE Community, an LGBT advocacy group, said her organization had been reaching out to the business since long before SB1062 became an issue. Since June, ONE Community persuaded more than 850 Arizona businesses to sign its UNITY Pledge in support of equal treatment for the LGBT community, Hughey said.

She said ONE Community had been reaching out to the business community and laying the groundwork for several weeks before SB1062 passed.

“I think they were watching it. They were kind of sitting on the sidelines watching it, and when it progressed so quickly, folks were pretty educated on the content of the bill and the likely ramifications,” Hughey said. “We certainly were reaching out to business leaders across the Valley, letting them know that we had some pretty serious concerns.”

Prior to the veto, Herrod said the threat of boycotts was a concerning tactic by opponents of SB1062.

“I consider it a fairly new political tactic,” Herrod said. “During the legislative process, opponents voiced opposition to the bill. As the Senate and House were passing it, they started threatening a 1070-style boycott and started alleging things about the bill that we don’t consider to frankly be part of the bill.”

That public relations campaign, which SB1062 advocates alleged was a campaign of disinformation, became the focal point of the debate.

The public relations war

Opponents of SB1062 called the bill a license to discriminate, especially against the LGBT community, while supporters claimed it simply protected religious freedom. Supporters of the bill strenuously objected to the characterization of the bill as anti-gay.

The rhetoric over SB1062 was certainly heated, as opponents invoked Jim Crow laws and questioned whether it would be used to discriminate not only against same-sex couples but blacks, Latinos, unwed mothers or anyone else that a person could conceivably claim violated their religious beliefs.

Outside attorneys emphasized that both state and federal law bar discrimination over race, ethnicity, religion or gender, though neither bar discrimination over sexual orientation. Only in Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff, which has LGBT discrimination ordinances, is sexual orientation a legally protected class.

“I would say that the political campaign being waged about 1062 is 100 percent about politics. It has nothing to do with the merits of the bill,” Herrod said.

Supporters of the bill alleged that not only opponents but the media as well mischaracterized SB1062 and what it would do. Sen. Steve Yarbrough, the bill’s sponsor, said those mischaracterizations drove much of the opposition.

“It’s been blown out of proportion because of the people who don’t like the bill or have another agenda of wanting to get as much attention as humanly possible. They took what I think is inaccurate reporting… (and) misled the public into believing this bill did something that it did not. And once that genie is out of the bottle, you don’t put it back in, and it just gets bigger and bigger,” said Yarbrough, R-Chandler.

Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said opponents of SB1062 won the messaging battle because they “successfully demonized” the bill.

“My suspicion is that some folks wanted to turn this into a cause célèbre. The people who were proponents of the bill basically felt that, because the state opposition was muted a little bit, that everything was going to be fine,” Biggs said. “But I think once it passed… there were phone calls made to national organizations presenting their construction of the bill, what they thought it did and some demands were made that they get involved, and they got involved and they cut it loose.”

Opponents of the bill deny exaggerating its effects, and accuse proponents of deliberately underplaying the bill’s impacts. Though supporters often bristled at the notion that SB1062 was targeted at the LGBT community, the examples they most frequently cited were situations such as a photographer in New Mexico who was sued after refusing to photograph a gay couple’s commitment ceremony because it ran counter to Christian beliefs.

Unlike in Arizona, sexual orientation is a protected class under New Mexico law.

Robbie Sherwood, of the liberal advocacy group Progress Now Arizona, denied that SB1062 opponents exaggerated the potential impacts of the bill, and threw the accusation back at the bill’s supporters.

“I don’t think that the impacts, the hypothetical impacts were overblown in the least. I think that they were being deliberately underplayed (by supporters) in order to get the law on the books,” Sherwood said. “Arizona doesn’t have specific protections for LGBT communities. This opens the door for businesses and individuals to discriminate against that community in a really direct way.”

Jason Rose, a Valley public relations consultant, said the public relations battle was a “slaughter” for the pro-SB1062 side.

“The PR has been so bad in support of 1062 that it actually has boomeranged … and the public is much more sympathetic to a gay rights agenda than they were before the bill was passed,” Rose said. “Your effort was so bad that you’ve lost major ground.”

Rose said there were mischaracterizations on both sides. But hyperbole is part of any debate, he said, and the opponents of the bill were the ones who were able to define the terms of the debate.

“That happens in any bill, with any legislation. Rarely does Gore Vidal sit down with William Buckley and nail the precision of a debate. The special interests on both sides always take it too far. I don’t fault either side,” he said.

— Ben Giles contributed to this story.


SB1062 Timeline

Here is how the controversy over SB1062 unfolded over the past week:

 Thursday, Feb. 20:  On a largely party-line vote, the state House of Representatives gave final approval to legislation to give a legal shield to individuals and businesses who face claims of discrimination. In essence, it says that a “sincerely held religious belief” can immunize that person or firm against lawsuits. The Senate already has approved SB1062, which now goes to Gov. Jan Brewer.

Friday, Feb. 21:  Arizona business leaders voiced their strong opposition to the bill, and most of the candidates running to succeed Brewer in the November election also said they oppose SB1062.

In a letter to Brewer, Barry Broome, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, and James Lundy, chairman of the organization’s board of directors, said SB1062 would have “profound, negative effects on our business community for years to come.”

GPEC expressed concerns that Arizona could be subjected to boycotts during next year’s Super Bowl, which will be held in Glendale. They also said four companies that GPEC and the Arizona Commerce Authority have been working with have contacted them to say they will not locate in Arizona if Brewer signs the legislation.

Steve Zylstra, president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council, also urged Brewer to veto the bill. He said SB1062 is unnecessary because Arizona businesses already have the right to refuse service to anyone. He said the bill will harm Arizona’s ability to recruit businesses and attract top talent to the state.

“When the Legislature passes bills like this, it creates a reputation that Arizona is judgmental and unwelcoming. This will haunt our business community for decades to come,” Zylstra wrote.

Sunday, Feb. 23:  Prominent Republicans began to express their opposition to the bill.  Although he was one of 17 Republican senators who voted for the bill, Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, said he now thinks the legislation, billed as providing protections for those of faith, is a bad idea.

“I screwed up,” he said.  “I’m trying to make it right.”

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican, joined the fray in a posting on his Twitter page urging Brewer to veto the measure that passed both chambers of the Legislature with only Republican votes.

Monday, Feb. 24(1):  A trio of Arizona state senators, including a co-sponsor of SB1062, urged Brewer to veto the bill just days after all three cast votes in favor of it.  Sens. Adam Driggs, Pierce and Bob Worsley, a co-sponsor, sent a letter to the governor explaining their “sincere intent” in voting for the bill to shield Arizonans’ religious liberties, but saying a swell of opposition to SB1062 had already caused a disastrous effect on the state.

The senators wrote that “the bill has been mischaracterized by its opponents as a sword for religious intolerance.” And because of the “immeasurable harm” to the state caused by this confusion, the trio of senators is urging Brewer to veto the measure.

“As Arizona leaders we feel it is important to loudly proclaim that we strongly condemn religious discrimination in any form,” the senators wrote.

Worsley, R-Mesa, was more vociferous in his opposition of SB1062, and said some Republican lawmakers only voted for the bill for the good of the party.

“I was uncomfortable, so was Steve (Pierce),” Worsley said.  “And we just felt that it was important to keep the caucus together this early in the session. And it was a mistake. We’re going on record that we made a mistake.”

Monday, Feb. 24(2):  Corporate tech giant Apple asked Brewer to veto SB1062. The request came as Apple prepares to open a new sapphire glass manufacturing plant in Mesa. The plant, which Brewer and other political leaders have touted as economic development coup for Arizona, will employ about 700 full-time employees.

Shortly after Apple’s disclosure, 83 other companies, trade organizations and business groups signed onto a letter, originally sent on Feb. 21 by the Arizona Technology Council, urging the governor to veto the bill. The additional signees included several major hotel chains, tourism groups, corporate giants like AT&T and other technology companies.

Monday, Feb. 24(3):  The Arizona Cardinals and the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee joined business groups urging the governor to veto SB1062. The National Football League issued a statement acknowledging it was monitoring the situation.

“Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in the statement. “We are following the issue in Arizona and will continue to do so should the bill be signed into law, but will decline further comment at this time.”

The host committee followed with its own statement supporting the NFL’s policies, and urged Brewer to quash the bill for the sake of the state’s economy.

“We share the NFL’s core values, which embrace tolerance, diversity, inclusiveness and prohibit discrimination,” the committee said in statement.

Tuesday, Feb. 25:  A poll commissioned Monday by a Phoenix political consulting firm found that more than twice as many Republican voters in Arizona want Gov. Jan Brewer to veto SB1062 than want her to sign it.

In the automated poll of 802 Republicans by Coleman Dahm, a Republican political consulting firm, 57.1 percent of respondents who were asked about the bill said they would like Brewer to veto it. Only 27.6 percent said they want her to sign SB1062. The remaining 15.3 percent had no opinion. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 4 percentage points.

Bert Coleman, one of the firm’s partners, said that the poll was of “hard core” Republican voters who had voted in both of the last two primary elections. He said the results show that even conservative Republicans believe the bill is bad for the state’s image and will harm its economy.

Wednesday, Feb. 26:  After days of pressure from business groups and activists, Brewer vetoed SB1062, saying it could have unintended consequences and attempts to fix a problem that doesn’t exist in Arizona.

The governor said she has defended religious liberty and has the record to prove it, but that SB1062 is unnecessary.  “Religious liberty is a core American and Arizona value. So is non-discrimination. Going forward, let’s turn the ugliness of the debate over Senate Bill 1062 into a renewed search for greater respect and understanding among all Arizonans and Americans,’’ she said.

— Includes information from Arizona Capitol Times staffers Jeremy Duda, Ben Giles, Hank Stephenson and Jim Small, and Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services.

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