New doc reveals ’09 anti-same-sex-marriage campaign in Maine lacked local control
As same-sex-marriage friends and foes gear up for another marriage battle in Maine in 2012, a soon-to-be released documentary about a 2009 voter referendum that struck down marriage equality in the state reveals surprising details about the campaign -– details that suggest the in-state committee supposedly leading the fight against same-sex marriage was controlled by larger, outside influences.
“Question One,” a Fly on the Wall production directed and produced by veteran journalists Joe Fox and James Nubile, covers the period beginning after the Maine Legislature legalized same-sex marriage in May 2009 and ending just after Maine voters overturned the law in November 2009. Where “Question One” differs from “8: The Mormon Propo$ition,” the documentary about a similar campaign to defeat same-sex marriage in California in 2008, is its attempt at neutrality. Fox and Nubile embedded themselves in both the “Yes on 1” (for the proposition to stop gay marriage) and “No on 1” campaigns, getting the respective sides of the stories.
“I still can’t get over that [we were] given access to do this thing,” Fox recently told The American Independent over the phone from the Fly on the Wall headquarters in New York City.
In September 2009, Fox and Nubile rented a house in Maine, and by the end of the referendum campaign had more than 250 hours’ worth of footage, Fox said, along with a story told cinema verité-style about how same-sex marriage was won, fought and lost in Maine -– complete with developed characters and plot twists.
One of the characters at the center of those twists is Marc Mutty, director of public affairs for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and the former chair of Stand for Marriage Maine Political Action Committee (SMM). The film begins with Mutty describing his role in the campaign as that of the “chief cook and bottle washer,” but in the campaign’s final weeks, it’s Frank Schubert, president of California-based Schubert Flint Public Affairs -– the same publicity firm used to defeat same-sex marriage in California in 2008 –- who is calling all the shots, telling reporters he’s the chairman of SMM, making himself marketable for a future anti-same-sex marriage campaign.
At one point in the film, Mutty admits to being upset over two ads pushed by Schubert Flint, which Mutty admits “when I saw it, I cringed,” because of their insistence that same-sex marriage in Maine will lead to teachers instructing first-graders about gay sex. The longer version of the ad, which Mutty opted not to use, discussed sex toys. In the car, a visibly frustrated Mutty tells Schubert in clipped tones that his staff signed off on the ad. He then slams his cell phone shut and mutters, “So Frank wins the day again.”
In another scene, Mutty admits he didn’t have a better campaign strategy than the one devised by Schubert Flint.
“In order for me to resist, I had to have a different plan, which I didn’t,” Mutty tells the camera. “I certainly could have devised a whole way of approaching this that was very different. But do I believe it would have won for us? No.”
“The least likely character is someone like a Marc Mutty,” Fox told TAI. “He was sort of like a gift from the gods, in every way. … I always thought he felt like he had made a pact with the devil but he would come out okay. I think he underestimated the intensity of this issue, and I think he underestimated the force he was dealing with the Schubert Flint. It was clear he was outmatched.”
On screen, Mutty says he never wanted to run the “Yes on 1″ campaign, but that his boss, Bishop Richard Malone, wanted the diocese to handle it, and Mutty felt as though he had no choice. In the early days of the campaign, he jokes around with his small staff in their Yarmouth, Maine, headquarters and appears to take his position — one he describes as being “impossible” — in stride. But by the campaign’s end, Mutty often appears agitated, saying things like: “This has been a mother-f**ing son of a btch.”
In April, Fox and Nubile released the trailer of their completed “Question One,” including a clip of Mutty telling his staff: “We use a lot of hyperbole, and I think that’s always dangerous. We say things like, ‘Teachers will be forced to–’ Well, that’s not a completely accurate statement, and we all know it isn’t.” Off camera someone from his staff says, “No, we don’t say that,” to which Mutty responds, “Let’s look back at our ads and see what we say, and I think we use hyperbole to a point where it’s like, ‘Jeez.’”
Following Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz’s April 17, 2011, column about Mutty’s comments in the documentary — “Documentary clips show sad face of Yes on 1“ – the paper published a guest editorial attributed to Mutty on April 24, 2011, titled “Yes on 1 campaign worthwhile.”
In the editorial, Mutty declares his full support for “the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman.” He goes on to characterize himself as a longtime civil rights defender, writing, “I have always been a strong and tireless advocate for the civil rights of all, and have fought unjust discrimination in all its forms. Fairness in housing, fair employment practices and the right to vote are all civil rights. Redefining marriage is not.”
In a recent telephone interview, Mutty told TAI that he was “very upset” by Nemitz’s column and that the clip that served as the centerpiece of the article was “misleading” and taken out of context. Mutty’s story is that the clip was part of a 20-minute strategy session during which he was playing devil’s advocate in order to force his staff to defend their advertising.
“Oh, puh-leeze,” Fox told TAI, in response to Mutty’s claim that his “hyperbole” comment was taken out of context. “To that I say, come see the context, which I’m pretty sure you [Mutty] don’t want to see because it would make things worse. … There was a constant self-doubt about [the tactics of his campaign]. It was not a standalone comment. I think a reasonable assumption is that he had to defend himself [to the diocese].”
But it wasn’t just the “Yes on 1″ campaign’s “hyperbolic” tactics that appear to visibly stress out Mutty in the documentary; it also it appears as though Mutty’s team is often losing. Their polling and fundraising are always below what the “No on 1″ side is reporting. Fox told TAI that Mutty often appeared worried because promised bundles of “Mormon money” never materialized; however, that footage did not make it into the final cut. Additionally, the amount of bustle and enthusiasm coming out of the “No” side — headquartered in Portland, Maine, and run by EqualityMaine chair Jesse Connolly, Executive Director Betsy Smith and field director Darlene Huntress — seems to be at a much higher level than that coming from the “Yes” team, which is often portrayed as being disorganized and nervous.
Throughout the course of the film, it appears that the race is going to be neck and neck. The actual result — 53 to 47 percent — is not so close and seems to shock everyone but Schubert, who declares victory in the late hours of Nov. 3, 2009 — without consulting Mutty — even before all the precincts have been counted.
“They needed a figurehead,” Fox says of Mutty. “It was quite clear that there wasn’t much happening on the local front. No decisions were being made from the [Yes on 1] headquarters in Maine.”
“In a way that’s sort of very telling,” he continued. “The appearance that was created and stage-managed was that this was a locally run effort. In point of fact, it was Schubert Flint in California in conjunction with NOM [the National Organization for Marriage] that were basically running the campaign.”
Mutty told TAI he was anxious to see the film and said he had found the ‘Yes on 1′ campaign frustrating, but not for the reasons that the film suggests.
“Campaigns such as this referendum are, by far, not the best way to have public discourse over sensitive issues,” Mutty said. “It’s frustrating to do in-depth discussing geared to sound bites.” When asked what a better format for this type of social discourse would be, Mutty said “any way but this one.”
Fox said he hopes Mutty will be satisfied with how he is portrayed on screen.
“The way he was portrayed publicly wasn’t fair to him,” Fox said, referring to how some people called Mutty a bigot for heading this campaign. “I think he agreed in part to [participate in this documentary] because he wanted, in his own way, to get his side of the story out. And I think he comes across as being very sympathetic. You kind of could understand the situation he was in.”
“Question One,” is due to be theatrically released in September, first in select theaters in Maine.
Watch the trailer: