The political consultant working to defeat gay marriage in Washington and three other states this fall is reviled and revered by those familiar with his work.

Share story

The man behind the messages in campaigns against same-sex marriage in Washington and three other states is a master strategist both revered and reviled by those who know his work.

Frank Schubert helped engineer defeat of gay marriage in California in 2008, in Maine a year later and in North Carolina earlier this year, and has worked to help unseat Republican lawmakers who supported same-sex marriage elsewhere.

He speaks with unwavering confidence of his chances for victory again in a swath of blue states — in Washington, Maryland and Maine, where voters will be asked to approve or reject gay marriage, and in Minnesota, where they will decide whether to amend their state constitution to ban it.

Political director for the National Organization for Marriage, which is shepherding all four campaigns, Schubert said Washington’s domestic-partnership law granting gay couples all the benefits of marriage gives his side a clear advantage.

“It forces the debate squarely on the definition of marriage,” he said.

In mailings and in TV and radio ads set to begin airing here over the next two weeks, he is expected to drive home this message and lay out what he says are the harmful consequences of gay marriage on businesses, schools and especially on children.

“The approve side has already told people all they can tell them” — that gays deserve the right to marry, Schubert said during a recent telephone conversation from his offices in Sacramento, Calif.

“They may say it a lot of different ways — have brothers and mothers and grandparents and church members say it, but there’s nothing more for them to say. Once we engage voters, we’ll be able to move (them) in our direction, especially when we remind them that same-sex couples already have full legal equality.”

Through Referendum 74, Washington voters will decide the fate of legislation that was passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire in February. Under Schubert, Preserve Marriage Washington — a coalition of conservatives and conservative faith groups — is working to defeat the measure.

Schubert’s hardball tactics have won him no friends among gay-rights advocates, who accuse him of firing up the same playbook in every state, using actors rather than everyday people to tell scary stories about gay marriage.

“Frank Schubert wakes up every morning trying to figure out how to take freedoms away from loving, committed couples,” said Marc Solomon, national campaign director for the gay-rights group Freedom to Marry.

Anne Levinson, adviser to the Washington United for Marriage campaign, which is working to preserve the state’s gay-marriage law, compared Schubert to controversial conservative consultant Karl Rove, who is largely credited with the political strategy that led to constitutional bans against gay marriage in 11 states in 2004.

Schubert, Levinson said, “relishes creating this rhetoric, and he doesn’t care if it’s borne out by truth. He polls and does focus groups to find out what voters’ fears are and then designs tactics to play on those fears.”

But some of Schubert’s professional colleagues — even those who part with him on the social issues he champions — describe a political consultant who in the end delivers for his clients.

Dale Emmons, president of the bipartisan American Association of Political Consultants, said gay-marriage advocates need to recognize the arena in which they operate.

“This is a political marketplace, and if you’re gonna put out an ad it has to tell your client’s side of the story,” Emmons said. “This is Frank’s truth. It may not address equal justice and basic fairness that those of us who have different views believe are truisms. But that’s the truth he and his clients believe.”

Joseph Fuiten, senior pastor of Cedar Park Church in Bothell and an opponent of same-sex marriage, said he’s not surprised gay-marriage advocates dislike the man: “He’s cleaned their clocks everywhere,” Fuiten said.

“It’s like how people thought about the New York Yankees in the old days.”

Washington is different

From across the country, much attention is being focused on the states with gay-marriage measures on the November ballot because they will be the first real tests of whether America’s attitude on gay marriage has softened.

Schubert believes one of the toughest battles will be in Washington state, where his campaign faces some unique challenges.

Schubert recognizes Washington as one of the least-churched states in the country. And because of something he calls “the nature of the West — that sense of individuality where everyone wants to be his or her own keeper” — those churches that do support his cause are more difficult to organize.

Washington voters, he recognizes, are sympathetic to gays. Their approval of the state’s domestic-partnership referendum in 2009 marked the first time anywhere that relationship recognition for same-sex couples was advanced in a statewide ballot measure.

But Schubert dismisses that, saying there was little money spent against it, and he characterizes the 53 to 47 percent outcome as having “barely passed.”

Hits close to home

Though most people in Washington have probably never heard of Frank Schubert, this is not his first foray into the state.

In the mid-1990s, he worked on behalf of businesses to help roll back a Clinton-era health-care plan that Democrats had pushed through the state Legislature.

Twice the winner of a yearly MVP award by the bipartisan Political Consultants group, Schubert in April sold his interests in a successful Sacramento firm, Schubert Flint Public Affairs, that he’d founded nearly 10 years ago, to start a one-man operation, Mission: Public Affairs, “so I could focus my work on issues like life and marriage and relationships,” he said.

Ironically, Schubert’s sister, a deputy district attorney for Sacramento County who is running for Superior Court judge, is a lesbian raising children with her partner.

Schubert’s otherwise steady voice softens when asked how he explains to her the work that he does, saying only, “I love my sister dearly; that’s a difficult area.”

Schubert Flint successfully led the 2008 Proposition 8 campaign to ban gay marriage in the California Constitution. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year struck down the ban as unconstitutional, and both sides are now waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the case.

Since the battle in California, the twice-married Schubert said he’s thought more deeply about the importance of marriage and has grown more connected to his Catholic faith.

“Through Prop. 8, I realized how important an institution marriage is and how badly we as a society have messed it up,” he said.

“Redefinition of marriage to accommodate the desires of gay couples will lead to a further breakdown, because it transforms an institution into something it is not.”

Gays have long argued they are not responsible for what’s wrong with traditional marriage in this country.

“What you’ll find is that his arguments are getting old and stale and will be less effective because so many people now know same-sex couples who are in committed relationships,” said Solomon, of Freedom to Marry.

Parental fears

A key element of Schubert’s messaging involves what he refers to as the consequences of gay marriage in many areas of society — from business owners who, because of their religious beliefs, may not want to serve gay couples, to what schools teach children about such unions.

Particularly troubling for gay advocates, his ads depicting children have been especially effective, with focus groups he convenes and surveys he conducts showing they play on parental fears.

One of his more famous TV ads features a girl running up to her mother asking her to guess what she learned in school that day: “I learned how a prince married a prince, and I can marry a princess.”

While gay-marriage bills say nothing about what kids should be taught in schools, the reality is that in grades as young as kindergarten, children are already being taught about different kinds of families, including those headed by same-sex couples.

Schubert believes it should be left to parents — not schools — to decide when it’s appropriate for children to learn about such issues.

“I’m simply telling people that this is a concern,” Schubert said. “It’s documented that this has happened. And people should be aware that it could happen in Washington state,” although he added, “I don’t know yet that we’ll get into it.” David Farmer, communication director for Mainers United for Marriage, which is working in favor of same-sex marriage in Maine, remembers the work Schubert did there in 2009.

That year, the Maine Legislature approved a measure to grant same-sex marriage, only to have voters later reject it in a referendum.

“We saw a significant decline in polling numbers after their side began running ads,” Farmer said. “I absolutely believe those ads played a major role in the outcome of the election.”

Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.