October 26, 2011

Bill Nemitz: ‘Question 1’ documentary holds lessons for next vote

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

“Question 1,” the just-released documentary about the 2009 referendum that repealed same-sex marriage in Maine, contains a lot of surprises. Two stand out.

click image to enlarge

Frank Schubert of the California firm Schubert Flint Public Affairs claims victory for the Yes on 1 campaign to repeal same-sex marriage on Nov. 3, 2009, at the Eastland Park Hotel in Portland. At left, clapping, is Marc Mutty, the campaign chairman from Maine. “We’ve been accused all the way through that Frank Schubert was running this campaign. And he just proved it,” Mutty says later that night in comments captured in the documentary “Question 1.”

2009 Associated Press file

The first is that the New York City-based filmmakers Joe Fox and James Nubile were allowed in with their cameras by both sides – giving the documentarians, and now us, a strikingly unvarnished view of what went on behind the scenes during those oh-so-divisive days two years ago.

The second is what that view reveals about who actually ran the successful “Yes on 1” campaign – and just as significantly, who didn’t.

Let’s cut to Marc Mutty, who took a leave from his job as public affairs director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland to serve as chairman for “Yes on 1”:

“I feel like I’ve been thrown under the bus,” Mutty says during one of his many introspective moments in the 93-minute film. “I have been the sacrificial lamb.”

Mutty’s role as the tortured soul was previewed in this column last spring when trailers for “Question 1” showed him repeatedly lamenting the toll his temporary job was taking on him.

In one clip, he uses a double profanity (for which he has since apologized) to describe the work. “I hate it. I hate it. I hate it,” he adds.

In another, he insists that the central campaign theme for “Yes on 1” –  that same-sex marriage, if not repealed, would be required teaching throughout Maine’s public schools – was “hyperbole” and “not a completely accurate statement and we all know it isn’t.”

Mutty insisted last spring that those snippets don’t tell the whole story. And it turns out he was right – the whole story is even more disturbing.

The film, scheduled to play in several locations around Maine in the next two weeks, lays bare the illusion that “Yes on 1” was a grass-roots effort by Maine’s Roman Catholic and conservative Christian churches to overturn the same-sex marriage law that passed in the Legislature but never took effect.

Rather, the campaign was run by Schubert Flint Public Affairs, the California firm that used the same school-based fear tactics to choreograph California’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2008.

And once again it is Mutty, of all people, who puts the spotlight directly on Frank Schubert and Jeff Flint – two guys from away whose interest in Maine began and ended with the paychecks they collected to come here and stir our political pot.

“Schubert Flint is high-powered,” Mutty says during one of several sit-downs with Fox. “They like to be in charge. They want to be in charge. They insist on being in charge. They tend to take over – and we had said early on that we did not want that in this campaign.”

But alas, that’s exactly what “Yes on 1” got.

Mutty fought hard against the monotonic “our kids will be forced to learn about same-sex marriage in school” campaign. The ads made him “cringe,” he says at one point, adding that the theme was “worn out” and that “I can’t see us going much further with this without doing ourselves some damage with it.”

Yet go much further they did. At one point, in a telephone call with “Yes on 1” Communications Director Scott Fish, Mutty complains that the school ads “are really pissing people off now.”

“So why are we doing it?” asks Fish.

“Well, we’re doing it because Schubert Flint thinks it’s the way to go,” a rueful Mutty replies.

Later, while sitting in his car, Mutty endures a tense conversation with Schubert. After hanging up, Mutty sighs, “So Frank wins the day again.”

Then there’s election night.

Schubert is here, there and everywhere at “Yes on 1” headquarters at the Eastland Park Hotel, granting interviews to a phalanx of television news crews. Mutty, meanwhile, sits away from the lights in the ballroom, taking it all in with his wife, Pam.

“They just interviewed him on (Channel) 8,” Pam tells her husband. “He’s standing up there saying,

‘I’m chairman of the campaign.’ I thought you were chairman of the campaign.”

“Yeah, I am,” Mutty replies. “Who cares ... who cares ... who cares? Right?”

“Right,” replies his less-than-pleased wife.

But Mutty did care. And in an interview with the documentary crew later that night, he demonstrates just how much.

“Frank Schubert has certainly done a great job of stealing the limelight,” Mutty says. “He’s getting paid to do what he’s doing. And we’ve been accused all the way through that Frank Schubert was running this campaign. And he just proved it.

“And then he gets up there and declares victory for us, without checking with me. And had he checked with me, he would have told me to go to hell, I’m sure. And that was all about Frank doing marketing and making sure he was setting himself up for the next campaign.”

Some undoubtedly will dismiss Mutty’s mutterings as nothing more than the typical infighting that goes on behind the curtains of any highly charged political campaign. Mutty himself is sticking to his decreasingly convincing claim that he was portrayed – over and over and over – out of context.

But as same-sex marriage supporters doggedly circulate their petitions to put the issue back on the ballot a year from now, Maine voters would do well to see this film. (On Sunday, “Question 1” was named the best documentary for 2011 by the REEL Independent Film Extravaganza in Washington, D.C.)

Documentarian Fox, who happens to be gay, said in an interview last week that his goal in producing “Question 1” was to act as “a mirror” to all of Maine as it grappled with same-sex marriage.

He accomplishes that admirably by framing the narrative around five central characters: Darlene Huntress, field operations director for “No on 1,” Sarah Dowling, a “No on 1” volunteer, Pastor Bob Emrich, co-chairman of “Yes on 1,” Linda Seavey, a “Yes on 1” volunteer and, last but by no means least, Mutty.

But Schubert, who three times refused to do an on-camera interview with Fox, in the end quietly steals the show – much as he used fabricated fears for Maine’s school children to steal the election.

“The people of Maine need to see this,” Fox said. “This was a campaign that split Maine apart. This was a campaign in which people voted in part because of messages that were given to them.”

It’s also a campaign whose sequel is just around the corner. Might “Question 1” help inform that debate?

“It absolutely should,” Fox said. “People who go to the polls in the next round should know what went on during the first round.”

So, fellow Mainers, enjoy the show.

And if that’s asking too much, at least learn from it.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: bnemitz@mainetoday.com

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