Behind the legislation that engulfed Arizona in a firestorm over the treatment of gays is an influential Evangelical-Christian lobby that is deep in the trenches of America’s culture wars.
Founded in 1995, many see the Center for Arizona Policy as the vanguard in the fight to preserve traditional values, which supporters see as under attack from a lifestyle that threatens the family and sanctity of marriage, and from a viewpoint that devalues the unborn in the name of women’s choice.
At the state Capitol, the center is widely regarded to be the state’s most influential lobby. Even its enemies agree with that view — and for a good reason.
In the past two decades, the center has successfully persuaded the state’s leaders to enact more than 120 measures — from restricting abortion to giving heterosexual couples adoption preferences to expanding parents’ ability to use state dollars to send their children to private and parochial schools.
Fueling this success is a savvy strategy, a keen understanding of the nuances of the legislative process, and a powerhouse in the center’s president — Cathi Herrod. To critics, Herrod is a bully who gets her way by putting her foot down — on lawmakers’ necks. But to supporters, she is a smart strategist, an effective articulator of the center’s agenda and a fearless apologist of the conservative right.
Up to this week, the center’s level of influence in shaping Arizona’s political agenda has been unparalleled, although the courts have also struck down several laws it advocated for, including a measure that sought to defund Planned Parenthood and to ban abortion beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy.
But some say the defeat of SB1062 has put the center in shaky territory, and many are pouncing on its perceived vulnerability.
“CAP has consistently led Republican legislators over a right-wing cliff,” said Chris Herstam, a veteran lobbyist and former GOP legislator. “If SB1062 does not once and for all convince Republican-elected officials to be leery of Cathi Herrod and her mission to undercut the gay rights movement, I don’t know what else will. Governor Brewer’s appropriate veto sends the message that CAP homophobia is not going to trump state economic development and Arizonans’ growing desire to see equality for all.”
Republican publicist Jason Rose said the center misfired in asking Republicans to pass the bill because now the Republican Party “looks like a bunch of goofs.”
But the center’s supporters said the criticism is misplaced and it is based on the erroneous assumption that lawmakers are coerced into voting for its agenda.
“They certainly aren’t the Pied Piper leading people to vote a certain way,” said Senate President Andy Biggs. “Nobody forces anybody to vote for anything down here. If you are controlled by somebody down here other than your conscience and your principles and what you think is best for your constituency, you probably shouldn’t be down here.”
Biggs said that instead, the center’s influence is derived from an obvious political calculus — many lawmakers believe in its causes, and their constituents also agree with CAP’s priorities.
This meshing of ideological positions is obvious, former House speaker Kirk Adams told the Arizona Capitol Times.
He pointed out that the center doesn’t endorse or raise money for candidates and it doesn’t operate an independent group that spends heavily on elections. Its ultimate source of influence comes from its philosophical leanings, which legislators agree with, he said.
“The Republican caucus is strongly prolife. They’re not arm-twisted or convinced by Cathi or CAP to be prolife. They come down there as prolife elected officials,” Adams said.
“So when the Center for Arizona Policy supports legislation that fits with the Republican caucus’ already agreed-upon provisions, it’s a natural fit,” he said.
Adams added that the “narrative” that the center has led its allies to a rightwing cliff comes from folks who fundamentally disagree with the group’s position.
Yet privately, some Republican lawmakers have admitted their fear of crossing the center.
What many agree, including supporters and detractors of the center, is that beyond the political implications of SB1062, what’s unfolding is a social upheaval that’s been in motion for decades as the LGBT community clamors for rights and the religious push back, worried that this societal transformation would trample their rights of conscience.
Some see the center as simply on the losing side of an issue.
“There’s something about our time that we’re living within where sexuality and gender are these flash points,” said Prof. Linell Cady, director of Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. “It is a strategy to stem the tide — yes. And I think attitudes have significantly changed.”
Indeed, while supporters of the ban on same-sex marriage, for example, insist that it is not inevitable here, a map created by Stateline.org shows that gay rights activists are rapidly advancing their cause.
Five years ago, only two states allowed same-sex marriage. Today, 17 states and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Last year alone, seven states legalized same-sex unions, Stateline noted, adding that the change in attitude among Americans toward same-sex marriage is just as stark. In the last few weeks, federal judges in Virginia and Texas have struck down those states’ ban on same-sex marriage.
A Pew Center chart, which shows a map of the United States and where the states have stood on gay marriage over time, dramatically reflects on this profound sea change: In 2001, only 35 percent of Americans favored same-sex marriage, while 57 percent opposed it. Today, support hovers at the 50 percent mark, while opposition has dropped to 43 percent.