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Blackwell is darling of foes of gay marriage

By Ted Wendling, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 7, 2006

Columbus -- In June 2003, a group of evangelical Christian leaders met in Arlington, Va., to map strategy for a clash they viewed as the political equivalent of Gettysburg, the greatest battle ever fought on American soil.

The group members, veterans of the culture war and the birth of the religious right that followed the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 ruling legalizing abortion, coalesced around an issue that they felt crystallized the depths of depravity to which America had sunk -- same-sex marriage.

For Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, the timing couldn't have been more perfect.

Thought to have little chance of beating either Attorney General Jim Petro or Auditor Betty Montgomery in a Republican primary for governor, Blackwell seized the moment and led a successful, high-profile campaign to outlaw gay marriage in Ohio in 2004. In the process, he helped hand President Bush a second term.

Largely as a result, Blackwell today is the Republican nominee for Ohio governor. He also is a national political figure and, courtesy of the organizers of the Virginia conference, a member of the Arlington Group, a powerhouse, by-invitation-only organization whose roughly 60 members have direct access to the White House.

Arlington Group members and their spouses have donated $18,400 to Blackwell, and their organizations have provided vast quantities of money and assistance to him in other ways.

Citizens for Community Values, whose president, Phil Burress, sits on the Arlington Group's executive committee, poured nearly $1.2 million into the campaign to ban gay marriage in Ohio. He was assisted by Arlington Group member Colin Hanna of Let Freedom Ring in West Chester, Pa., which spent nearly $1 million organizing "pastor policy briefings" in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Blackwell was invited to join the Arlington Group in the summer of 2004 after he was identified as a leader of the anti-gay marriage movement by Arlington Group co-founder Donald Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss.

Only two other Ohioans - Burress and televangelist Rod Parsley, senior pastor at World Harvest Church and head of the Center for Moral Clarity in suburban Columbus - are members.

"One of the reasons I'm so high on Ken Blackwell, and he shares this perspective, is that this is not just another skirmish in the culture war," said Stephen Crampton, an Arlington Group member who serves as chief counsel at Wildmon's Center for Law and Policy.

"This is the ultimate battle. He who wins the same-sex marriage battle in effect wins the culture war."

Burress and Mathew Staver, president of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel and a fellow group member, also credit the gay marriage debate with uniting black, white and Hispanic voters behind a visceral issue that is fraught with peril for politicians who support same-sex unions.

"I know of no candidate, from the local level to the national level, that has run against marriage between one man and one woman and survived an election," Burress said. "I know of no one who's even tried it."

States cases gave birth to group
Now that the primary is over, Blackwell is reluctant to discuss the Arlington Group and social issues such as gay marriage, saying he wants to focus on job creation and Ohio's economy.

"My views from a historical standpoint are well-documented and, I think, well-articulated," he said, disputing the claim that the Arlington Group is primarily focused on gay marriage. "This is a . . . broad network of, I think, conservatives and moderates concerned about issues of family, life and the economy."

The Arlington Group's co-founders are Wildmon and Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. A coordinating committee, it has no formal business structure; its meetings are private and members are prohibited from releasing a membership list, although many have talked openly about their membership.

John Green, director of the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and an expert on religion and politics, said the group was spawned by two legal rulings in 2003 - the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Texas' sodomy law and the Massachusetts Supreme Court's sanctioning of gay marriage.

"Many of the deep thinkers among Christian conservatives had long worried about traditional marriage being changed by gay-rights advocates and others, but it wasn't until 2003 that it became a pressing issue," Green said.

Having used his opposition to gay marriage to burnish his image as a darling of the Christian right in 2004, Blackwell used it again this year in the gubernatorial primary to demolish Petro.

One of Blackwell's TV ads - showing two men embracing next to a photo of Petro - claimed that Petro sided with those "who favor same-sex marriage," although Petro and most other Ohio politicians opposed Ohio's gay marriage ban on grounds that it was poorly drafted.

The amendment's author, Cincinnati lawyer David Langdon, is among a handful of devoted conservatives who, working in concert with members of the Arlington Group, have brought Blackwell within view of the mountaintop.

They include Norm Cummings, Blackwell's chief campaign adviser; Carlo LoParo, his chief spokesman; and Lara Mastin, his campaign chairwoman.

Dennis Lieberman, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party, said Mastin has been particularly invaluable to Blackwell since losing a disputed election to succeed State Sen. Jeff Jacobson as chairwoman of the county's Republican Party.

"Lara is very driven, she is very intelligent and she's a wonderful fund-raiser," Lieberman said. "The mistake the Montgomery County Republican Party made was in letting her go. She had nothing to do, so she threw her energy into Blackwell's campaign and did a tremendous job for him because, without her, I don't think he would have raised half the money he did."

Money pours in from out of state
Between January 2005 and last month, Blackwell collected more than $3.8 million, surpassing Petro by more than $1 million and raising only slightly less than his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland.

A report by Ohio Citizen Action found that more than $900,000 of Blackwell's money came from out of state - just short of what Petro, Strickland and Democrat Bryan Flannery combined raised from out-of-state donors.

Blackwell also had far more out-of-state contributors who gave the maximum $10,000, with 29 such donations.

"The downside of that is he can be charged with, 'Outsiders are trying to affect the election,' " said Kelly Shackleford, an Arlington Group member who heads the Free Market Foundation in Plano, Texas. "The upside is that, if he wins, he will be a nationally known governor. He will be a star."

With Arlington Group members providing Blackwell with so much assistance in the primary, Green said, "If the fall election turns out to be as close as many people think it will be, having these kinds of allies could be pretty helpful."

Some of them could even be helpful beyond the fall, and on a larger stage.

"I think he'd make a good presidential candidate," said Staver, whose nonprofit litigation and policy organization is on the campus of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. "He's a man of strong social and moral convictions and I think people in America like to have someone who has strong convictions and would protect traditional marriage."

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