Baby steps are okay with Belanger: "A short-term gain, and then the long term."
After more than two decades with the Green Bay public works department, David Fowles asked his employer for domestic partner benefits for his longtime partner. Fowles' request instead prompted an alderman to propose that the city join a legal challenge to the state's new domestic partner registry.
Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin, says her organization got wind of the move and helped mobilize opposition with "old-school phone trees."
"It was literally community members calling others to say you have to be at this meeting," she says. Fair Wisconsin, the Madison-based gay rights advocacy organization, and more than 100 people showed up at the next council meeting to testify against Ald. Shae Sortwell's proposal.
"One of the reporters said he had never seen so many people at a Green Bay city council meeting," says Belanger. "It was pretty crazy."
The council ultimately voted 9-2 on Nov. 3, 2010, to postpone action on the issue indefinitely.
Belanger says it was critical that the group marshal its forces to protect what had been a crucial victory for Fair Wisconsin in 2009. "We can't have municipalities trying to dismantle our domestic partner registry," she says. "We have to draw a line in the sand that this registry is not going anywhere."
The registry provides legal recognition for same-sex couples and some limited rights, including the right to inherit each other's assets and to visit each other in the hospital.
Belanger says the group's victory in Green Bay set a new path for Fair Wisconsin: passing local domestic partner ordinances and anti-discrimination laws. Word spread of early successes, and local officials started turning to Fair Wisconsin for advice. "Fair Wisconsin began to be known as a place where you can go to do pro-equality measures," she says.
Fair Wisconsin has since helped get domestic partner benefit ordinances passed in Appleton, Racine, Manitowoc, Janesville, Kenosha and Eau Claire, in some cases overcoming considerable pushback. The group is also working to extend nondiscrimination laws at both the state and local level to the transgender community. The State Equality Fund recently awarded Fair Wisconsin $100,000 to support this work.
Fair Wisconsin has also beefed up its presence in the electoral arena and remains the lone defender of the state's domestic partner registry against a challenge brought by Wisconsin Family Action.
The organization has come a long way since its crushing defeat in 2006, when Wisconsin voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions. Though its donor list grew to 12,000 and its mailing list to 50,000 by the end of the campaign, its future - including its mission and even its name - was unclear.
Says Belanger: "Fair Wisconsin didn't know that Fair Wisconsin was the future."
The details of how Action Wisconsin, the predecessor to Fair Wisconsin, got started are sketchy, though there seems to be consensus it coincided with the election of Tammy Baldwin to the state Assembly in 1992.
The story is that the newly elected Baldwin, then the first out lesbian elected to the Assembly, was in great demand as a speaker around the state. Belanger says Baldwin would go to these speaking engagements and collect names and contact information in a spiral notebook.
"The legend is that those lists started Action Wisconsin," says Belanger. John Kraus, spokesman for Baldwin, now a U.S. senator, confirms the story.
Over the years the group fought early attempts to ban same-sex marriage through legislation and did outreach around the state.
"We really wanted to illustrate it was truly a statewide organization," says Scott Evertz, an early member who traveled around Wisconsin spreading word of the group. Evertz, a gay Republican who went on to serve as the director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy under George W. Bush, says it was important to "engage the rest of the state" outside of Madison and Milwaukee.
Action Wisconsin had just a couple hundred members at the time it launched its campaign against the 2006 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
But it quickly ramped up operations, changing its name to Fair Wisconsin, hiring a full-time executive director - Mike Tate, now chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin - and raising more than $6 million in its fight to defeat the amendment. Along the way, the group assembled a broad coalition of supporters, including faith-based groups, student organizations and public and private unions.
Despite these efforts, Wisconsin voters handily approved the amendment on Nov. 7, 2006. It was part of a national sweep, with voters approving similar measures the same day in Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia.
Afterwards, critics charged that Fair Wisconsin had erred strategically by emphasizing the ban's effect on all unmarried couples, gay or straight, rather than the moral fight for the rights of gay and lesbian people.
Some also believed the group had misallocated its resources in a way that improved the fortunes of Democratic candidates - including Gov. Jim Doyle, who was reelected on the same ballot - but failed to deliver the votes in crucial districts to defeat the amendment.
Belanger, who was not with the organization at the time, says, "It's easy to look back at any unsuccessful campaign and point fingers and find fault." But she says the organization has moved on.
"I think we are finally out of the shadow of that campaign. It took a victory like the statewide domestic partner registry to move from a crushing defeat into a significant victory."
A recruiting tool
Just before 10 p.m. on March 19, 2012, Matt Kadow sent out a tweet: "Equality is the policy in Manitowoc. Domestic partner benefits adopted 5-4. Thanks @katiebelanger and @fairwisconsin for all your help."
Kadow, a Manitowoc city alderman at the time, had contacted Fair Wisconsin after watching the Racine city council a couple of weeks earlier vote 10-4 to grant standard benefits to the state-registered domestic partners of city employees.
"When I saw it pass in Racine, that told me here was a real opportunity to move quickly and get it done," says Kadow, noting the similar demographics of Racine and Manitowoc.
Manitowoc was redoing its employee manual in the wake of Act 10 - the state law that, among other things, eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public workers. Kadow emailed his colleagues to say that he planned to offer an amendment at the next council meeting, about two weeks away, that would extend domestic partner benefits to city workers.
Kadow says he was expecting some resistance since conservatives had the edge on the council, with most votes breaking down 7-3.
To prepare, he briefed John Smallwood, the field organizer for Fair Wisconsin, on what he understood to be the political leanings of his colleagues. Smallwood himself made calls to council members to see where they stood.
Kadow says in the weeks leading up to the council meeting things were quiet. He never heard back from his council colleagues, and there were no letters to the editor opposing the effort.
Similarly, no one from the public showed up the night of the vote to speak against the measure. In making his case, Kadow told his colleagues that offering these benefits was in the best interest of the city. "We want to recruit the best and the brightest to serve our citizens, and we can't be writing off a good portion of that applicant pool."
Conservative wake-up call
Appleton Mayor Timothy Hanna made a similar argument when he championed domestic partner benefits for city employees in the fall of 2011.
Appleton was also updating its fringe benefits because of Act 10. Hanna says it made sense to standardize benefits and add domestic partner benefits to the mix. It had been a topic of discussion among his staff for years, so he did not expect it to generate much discussion or opposition. He was wrong.
"It was the only piece that drew any attention, and it drew a lot of attention," he says, laughing.
Hanna says city council opponents succeeded in pulling out domestic partner benefits from the rest of the policy manual, but they eventually survived in three separate votes.
Hanna says the issue did "wake up a very conservative group" in the community that lobbied the council to reverse its decision. The group went on to recruit candidates to run against the council members who had voted in favor of the policy.
Hanna says Fair Wisconsin went to work to rally support when the measure became controversial. "They made certain that people who had connections to the community were speaking at city council meetings and forums where this was being heard."
He says the group also assured council members who were being threatened with a challenger in the upcoming spring election that help would be there.
Hanna says none of the council members challenged on this issue lost their reelection bids.
Despite significant support for the measure from the business community, Hanna says there was further pushback during the 2012 budget deliberations when conservative forces tried to eliminate the position of the city's full-time diversity officer. But by 2013, it was a non-issue, says Hanna - "not even a peep."
A pragmatic leader
In turning its attention to hyper-local work on domestic partner and nondiscrimination ordinances, Fair Wisconsin has taken a page from the anti-abortion movement. Abortion opponents have been extremely successful chipping away at abortion access in communities across the country, even as they have been unable to achieve their ultimate goal, making abortion illegal.
Fair Wisconsin, in a similar vein, would like to see the state reverse course on its constitutional ban on gay marriage, but even to get the matter on the ballot requires approval by the Legislature in consecutive sessions. With Republicans in control of both the Assembly and Senate, that is unlikely to happen soon. In the meantime, local communities appear to be more in line with changing public opinion on LGBT issues, says Belanger.
Julaine Appling of Wisconsin Family Action, which opposes homosexuality and spearheaded the gay marriage ban, declined comment on her political foe's strategy. But her group is clearly aware of Fair Wisconsin's work in municipalities around the state. Wisconsin Family Action board member Jo Egelhoff, in fact, led the opposition to Appleton's adoption of domestic partner benefits.
Richard Esenberg, one of the attorneys representing Appling in her challenge to the domestic partner registry, says Fair Wisconsin's tactic might well prove effective.
"You've got to be very, very careful when you alter fundamental social institutions," he says. "If you're going to do it at all you have to do it in a slow and incremental process."
Taking gradual steps, adds Esenberg, "might lead to the issue becoming less divisive over the long run."
By all accounts Belanger is a pragmatic leader who is comfortable pursuing incremental change.
In Janesville, for instance, the city council tabled a vote to extend domestic partner benefits to city workers in February 2012 but the same night granted funeral leave to employees who lose a same-sex partner. Belanger says Fair Wisconsin used that first defeat to "build capacity" - a wonky term for support - and in November 2012 helped get domestic partner benefits through the council.
"A short-term gain, and then the long term," she says.
Belanger, 31, joined Fair Wisconsin as the legislative director in January 2009, to help guide the domestic partner registry through the Legislature. She became executive director in July 2009.
She has extensive experience in political fundraising, including serving as the finance director for then U.S. Rep. Baldwin. Her work extends to the national stage: She is currently board co-chair of the Equality Federation, the national alliance of LGBT advocacy organizations like Fair Wisconsin.
"I can't sing her praises enough," says Laurie Guilbault, a board member of Fair Wisconsin. "She has the political skills, along with the personal and social skills. She can speak to almost anybody. Whether or not they agree, she still has a good working rapport at the end."
Belanger, who is not gay herself, says that she is ofen asked why she works in the movement.
"For me this is about a personal commitment I have to true social justice. None of us are fully equal until all of us are equal."
"Modeling what it is to be an 'ally,'" she adds, "can change the dialogue."
'Things we can accomplish now'
While Belanger is proud of her group's work in local communities, she does not want to give the impression that she's given up on repealing the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage. In fact, she sees the two as intertwined.
"We are building capacity for achieving statewide legislative victories down the road," she says.
"It's about working on things we can accomplish now while working on marriage as a long-term project."
In fact, big, bold moves are needed to make the smaller ones possible.
The state domestic partner registry, for instance, likely eased the adoption of local domestic partner ordinances since couples now have the ability to register their relationships with their county clerk. Human resource departments do not have to establish their own qualification process; they can simply require proof of registration.
When Green Bay employee David Fowles appealed to his city council for domestic partner benefits, he brought a copy of his domestic partner registration as proof of his commitment to his partner.
Proponents of the registry made a conscious decision at the time to focus on the "most basic legal protections that caring and committed couples need to take care of each other," says Belanger. Supporters knew that a constitutional challenge would be much harder if just a few select rights were chosen from the thousands that come with legal marriage.
And in fact, a state appeals court in December ruled that "the same-sex domestic partnerships created by the Legislature are substantially different than marriages because, among other differences, domestic partnerships carry with them substantially fewer rights and obligations than those enjoyed by and imposed on married couples." Wisconsin Family Action has asked the Supreme Court to take the case.
When Gov. Doyle signed the domestic partner registry into law, it was the first victory for gay rights in Wisconsin since 1981, when the state passed the nation's first statute prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The registry also had national significance: Wisconsin became the first state with a constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions to approve domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.
Just three years after passage of the state's gay marriage ban, the adoption of the registry provided a much-needed political boost to Fair Wisconsin: "Tangible victories are really important for momentum," says Belanger.
Momentum for gay marriage - which has become the centerpiece of the gay rights movement - has picked up in the past year.
Public opinion now tilts in favor of marriage equality. President Barack Obama has endorsed it, as have two Republican U.S. senators; and three states last year passed gay marriage laws. Tammy Baldwin also made history as the first out lesbian elected to the U.S. Senate.
Many doubted that Baldwin could win a statewide election, but Fair Wisconsin went all in.
"We really look for opportunities that are going to have the greatest impact on the overall landscape in Wisconsin," says Belanger. "Electing the first out lesbian to the U.S. Senate, we thought, was the greatest impact we could have on equality in the state."
The lack of any controversy during the campaign about Baldwin's sexual orientation also affects the dialogue in the state, she adds.
Belanger says Fair Wisconsin's PAC ran a statewide direct-mail program and talked to more than 80,000 voters about why Baldwin was the right person for the job.
The group's PAC now regularly endorses in state and local elections and teams up with other progressive groups on electoral work.
Evertz, the Republican member of Fair Wisconsin, thought the group should have stayed on the sidelines during the attempted recall of Gov. Scott Walker.
"I think it's unwise for an LGBT group that wants to be bipartisan to be involved in one of the most partisan political events in recent history," he says.
But Belanger disagrees.
"It is critical that LGBT people have a voice in every major election in Wisconsin, including recall elections," she says. "That is why Fair Wisconsin PAC works to identify, endorse and support pro-fairness candidates. We have a duty to our constituency to communicate which candidates in any election are poised to be champions for equality."
Belanger says Fair Wisconsin "looks forward to the day when we can support members of both political parties."
Board member Guilbault says Fair Wisconsin's electoral work shows how far it has come since its early days as Action Wisconsin.
"It started out as a small group that elected officials frankly didn't pay much attention to," says Guilbault, who lives in Milwaukee. "And now they're actually approaching us and asking us for assistance, either for an endorsement or for getting legislation passed within their municipalities. That is a 180-degree turnaround for any small organization in such a short period of time."
Fair Wisconsin's next project is to help communities pass nondiscrimination ordinances. Many of them adhere to the state's nondiscrimination law, but it doesn't include protections for transgender individuals.
"That's why it's important to get communities to pass their own nondiscrimination ordinances," Belanger says.
Evertz would like to see Fair Wisconsin merge with Equality Wisconsin, a gay rights group based in Milwaukee that also aims to serve a statewide constituency.
"It doesn't seem to make sense to have two distinct organizations with similar missions and activities," he says.
Belanger says the two groups are "engaged in a facilitated dialogue" to ensure that they're maximizing resources.
She promises an "exciting decision" in the coming weeks that will ensure the two groups are able to move forward on their shared mission of "advancing, achieving and protecting the civil rights of LGBT Wisconsinites."