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January 5, 2014

MAUREEN HAYDEN: Conservative fight against constitutional amendment

An activist pushes for return to ‘small government,’ even on social issues

INDIANAPOLIS — Megan Robertson grew up in a Democratic family in a heavily Democratic area known as “the region” for its proximity to Chicago. But when she went off to college at a private, Christian university in Anderson, her first political science course helped her discover her true identity — as a small-government Republican, as she puts it, who believes in personal liberty and freedom.

Over the next decade, Robertson earned the political chops to call herself a Republican activist. She served as precinct committeewoman, chaired a GOP ward, ran two successful Republican mayoral campaigns, organized campaign rallies for Tea Party icon Sarah Palin, and served as spokeswoman for a conservative Indiana congressman.

Now, she's tapping into those experiences to lead the fight against Indiana’s proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions — despite the fact that many of her party’s conservative leaders support it.

At 31, Robertson is the campaign manager for Freedom Indiana, a statewide organization seeking to stop the Legislature from putting the amendment to voters on the November 2014 ballot.

“I’m a Republican because I’m for small government,” Robertson told me, repeating the argument she hopes will appeal to Republicans who control the Statehouse. “Amending our Constitution for a social policy doesn’t make sense from a conservative Republican view, in my opinion. Obviously, some people feel differently.”

The “some people” include Republican Gov. Mike Pence, an avowed defender of what he calls “traditional marriage.” They include GOP legislative leaders who steered the amendment through passage two years ago, in the first of a three-step process required to amend the state Constitution.

And they include the influential Indiana Family Institute, a conservative advocacy group with strong ties to Pence and key GOP lawmakers. The Institute and other amendment supporters argue that Indiana's current law against same-sex marriage needs to be locked into the Constitution to protect it from “activist” judges.

Robertson, an energetic optimist, shrugs off past support for the amendment. Citing polls that show rapidly evolving opinions on the issue of same-sex marriage in Indiana — combined with court rulings favoring same-sex marriage in New Jersey, New Mexico, Utah and Ohio — Robertson is convinced her efforts will pay off.

“We're fair-minded people,” Robertson said of her fellow Hoosiers. “We know this isn't the image we want for our state.”

She's won some impressive backing for that message that ties directly into that “Hoosier hospitality” sentiment for which we pride ourselves.

When Freedom Indiana kicked off its campaign this summer, announcing Robertson as the shaper of its message, it also announced twin donations of $100,000 from two of the state's biggest and best employers — pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and the engine-maker Cummins. Robertson used the money to ramp up the organization and mobilize volunteers who’ve made 250,000 phone calls, triggering a tsunami of emails and letters to lawmakers.

Since Robertson started, vocal opposition to the amendment has grown and included Republican (and Democratic) mayors from the state's biggest cities.

And it includes prominent GOP stalwarts such as former U.S. Attorney Deborah Daniels — sister to former Gov. Mitch Daniels — who wrote an opinion column that asked the question: “What can my Republican friends be thinking?”

It's a question echoed by Rep. Ed Clere of New Albany, who predicts that he won't be the only Republican lawmaker to vote against the amendment, as he was two years ago.

Of Robertson, Clere says: “She’s living proof that this is not a partisan issue.”

The conventional political wisdom has the amendment as an odds-on favorite for passage when the Legislature convenes.

Robertson is dismissive of the conventional wisdom: “Anybody who says they know what's going to happen in session is going to be proven wrong. The process is just too volatile.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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