New Tactic In Fighting Marriage Initiatives

Al Breznay, 79, and Maxine Piatt, 75, are registered domestic partners living in Tucson. Their faces appeared on fliers and television ads opposing a statewide same-sex marriage ban.
Al Breznay, 79, and Maxine Piatt, 75, are registered domestic partners living in Tucson. Their faces appeared on fliers and television ads opposing a statewide same-sex marriage ban. (By John Miller -- Houston Chronicle)

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By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2006

TUCSON -- A pair of retirees keeping house in a concrete bungalow, with snapshots of their 30 grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the living room and an American flag out front, may not look like the face of gay America.

But this month Al Breznay, 79, and Maxine Piatt, 75, were pivotal in defeating an Arizona initiative that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman -- the only one of 28 such state measures ever to fail.

Breznay, a retired mechanic who still does odd jobs to bring in extra cash, and Piatt, a former bank teller, are at the forefront of a strategy to defeat a tide of same-sex marriage bans by talking about straight people.

Of those 28 state marriage initiatives, 17 have included language outlawing domestic partnerships. Gay rights advocates see this as an opening to highlight for heterosexual voters the impact such initiatives may have on them, and in Arizona, activists kept the spotlight on couples such as Breznay and Piatt, registered domestic partners whose faces appeared on fliers and television ads.

"The majority of people in Arizona don't support gay marriage. That's clear, they do not," said Marty Rouse, national field director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group. "Once you say gay and lesbian, people hone in on that. We have to focus on the majority of people that will be affected by this. And the majority of people are straight couples."

The campaign against the Arizona measure, Proposition 107, avoided almost any mention of gay marriage, except in small liberal pockets of the state. Instead, the message was about the section of the measure that would have banned government agencies from recognizing civil unions or domestic partnerships.

That apparently struck home in the state's sizable senior-citizen enclaves, where many older couples do not marry because their retirement income would be affected. The initiative was defeated, 52 percent to 48 percent.

"It's not a liberal-versus-conservative issue," said Steve May, a former Republican state representative who is gay and who served as treasurer of the campaign against Proposition 107. "It's about, 'I don't need to take away health care from Al and Maxine, this nice old couple in Tucson.' "

In fact, the couple's health coverage would not have been affected by the measure's passage, although their ability to pay for the coverage or to visit each other in intensive care would change, as they discovered when Piatt got sick two years ago.

Such generalizing upsets supporters of the initiative, who accuse opponents of fear-mongering.

"They misled voters. They scared seniors into believing they would lose Social Security benefits," said Cathi Herrod, spokeswoman for the pro-107 campaign. "Our problem was we did not have funds to respond to the attacks."

Her campaign spent about $1 million, she said, compared with the $2.1 million spent by the measure's opponents.


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