The Fall of D.C. Church Power Gay marriage effort shows preachers' waning influence.

Pew Foundation: Walker and Gaston look for ways to turn their congregant base into clout.
Darrow Montgomery

Last Thursday, in a small meeting room on the second floor of the Madison Hotel, a few dozen leaders of the local gay community gathered to kick off this year's Capital Pride weekend.

Among those who joined them for the cash bar, coconut shrimp, and mushroom canapés: four powerful members of the D.C. Council; its chairman, Vincent C. Gray; congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

"I support marriage equality!" Fenty told the crowd to cheers and applause. "Count on us for full support," he later added.

The event was a demonstration of the political heft of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, which held the reception to honor local politicos who "Stand Up for Equality," and it came at a pivotal time for gay political activists: Some 30 years of campaigning, in the open and behind the scenes, has the District on the cusp of becoming one of the first jurisdictions in the country to legalize gay marriage through legislation.

Those politicians have pursued that course in recent months in spite of the widespread view that Washington, very much still a majority black town, would reveal its conservative streak and respond hellaciously to any attempts to recognize gay marriage. Thus far, the organized opposition to the 12–1 council vote to recognize out-of-state marriages has been vocal but ineffective; anti-same-sex-marriage forces have thus far been consistently stymied—outmaneuvered to the point that their chances to overturn that vote by referendum are virtually nonexistent. On Monday, the city's elections board ruled that the council's vote wasn't referendumable, leaving a dubious court challenge as the opposition's only way to force a wider vote on the matter.

To glimpse what the organized opposition to gay marriage in D.C. looks like, head down to Trinidad Baptist Church around noontime any given Monday. That's when and where the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference has met for as long as anyone can quite remember. There you'll find 50 or so black men dressed in neat, dark suits. A dozen or so sit in the basement, chomping on fish platters; the rest sit upstairs, attending to group business and listening to a guest preacher or two.

Together, the men in that church every Monday pastor to tens of thousands of D.C. residents—the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference is the closest thing to an umbrella conservative religious organization this city has. But they aren't much in the habit of organizing; if an issue concerns them, they'll usually draft a letter or perhaps testify before the council.

But now, on gay marriage, "We've stepped it up," says the Rev. Dr. Henry A. Gaston, the group's president.

That includes, in recent weeks, a "Monday Messages to the Council" campaign, with preachers urging their flocks to inundate Wilson Building offices with next-day phone calls. (Gray's office reports more than 500 total since the marriage-recognition vote.) And the ministers have appointed a young, charismatic point man—Patrick J. Walker, senior pastor of New Macedonia Baptist in Fort Dupont—to focus exclusively on fighting gay marriage. "We understand we have to impact public policy; we have to be involved," Walker says. "There are issues that are so important to us in terms of the moral fiber of the city that we have to speak out."

What's particularly frustrating, he says, is that no politician ever thought to give the group a heads-up about gay marriage—"to at least say, 'Reverend, I'm not with you on this issue but it's coming down the pike,' instead of trying to catch us off-guard."

Off-guard? Contrary to Walker's suggestion, the gay-rights movement didn't orchestrate a sudden coup d'etat at the Wilson Building. Its supermajority of councilmembers in favor of gay marriage is the result of years of door-knocking, phone-banking, campaign-donating, candidate-querying, city-hall-visiting, hearing-testifying, and promise-extracting. The Stein Club, the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, and other liberal and gay-oriented groups can all claim some credit for the gains.

The church lobby's impotence these days finds expression in the public face of the recent anti-gay-marriage push: Bishop Harry Jackson, who leads Hope Christian Church, a congregation housed in a converted office building in a Beltsville industrial park. It's Jackson who organized the first rally on the issue, back in April. It's Jackson who has been appearing on camera and in print representing the activists. And it's Jackson's name and address that appear at the top of the group's application for a referendum on the marriage recognition bill.

That address, in a Mount Vernon Square condo building, has led to no small amount of grief. As the Washington Blade has reported, Jackson only registered to vote at that address on April 22—less than a week before he held his first Wilson Building rally. The Blade has followed up with reporting on his Maryland homes, throwing his actual residency into doubt. Also in doubt is Jackson's grasp of criminal computer lingo—this is a guy who went on the O'Reilly Factor last week to complain that the Blade had "hacked into my records" to reveal his publicly available voter information.

Tomfoolery notwithstanding, Jackson may be the most qualified person around to take up his cause. He has helped ally white Christian conservatives with the black evangelical church in successful voter drives to overturn gay marriage in California and other states. D.C., of course, is a different ballgame. The whites are all liberal lovers of gay marriage; and the black evangelical church is more concerned with stamping out gay rights in Upper Marlboro.

But Jackson does bring to bear resources that the local church folks simply don't have—for instance, lawyers from the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian conservative group that is helping to press the referendum. But, says Gaston, "he also needs us. We have the foot soldiers here."

Thing is, there aren't as many of those foot soldiers as there used to be.

The pastors of the big downtown superchurches—United House of Prayer, Metropolitan Baptist, Metropolitan AME, Bible Way, New Bethel Baptist, Shiloh Baptist—once fancied themselves political kingmakers. As those churches' congregants (and sometimes the congregations themselves) have moved out of the District and into the surrounding suburbs, that political power has disappeared to almost nothing. Take the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, former congressional delegate and former pastor of New Bethel. He is a signed proponent of putting the council action to a city referendum but has lent virtually nothing besides his name to the effort—a name that hasn't graced city ballots in nearly 20 years.

Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, whose bailiwick includes most of those congregations, says the days when the midnight endorsement of United House of Prayer's Walter "Sweet Daddy" McCollough was enough to send David Clarke to the council chairmanship are over.

Evans says he still maintains relations with churches and seeks their support—"because I'm of the old school." But, he says, "I really don't see anyone else" doing so.

About the only issue in the past five years that's been able to bring churches out of their shell is parking—finding more of it for their increasingly cross-town and out-of-town followers.

"There's not been a consistent, broad-based political power base in D.C.," says the Rev. Graylan Hagler, the pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ and a liberal activist. That's a consequence of the fact that "very few of the pastors actually live in town," says Hagler, a Ward 4 resident. Not to mention the congregants: "How do you hold a politician accountable if you can't withhold your vote from them?"

Perhaps a more rigorous organizing body would combat the demographic realities. But the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference hasn't been it. A search of the Washington Post archives turned up 31 mentions of the group over the past 20 years. Two of those mentions were meeting announcements; another 10 were in obituaries.

The ministers, Walker says, know they have to up their political profile—maybe doing more formal "legislative days" rather than just having the odd councilmember wander in every so often. But he also notes some wariness about doing that, given churches' tax-free nonprofit status and such.

LL pointed out to him that white religious conservatives have had no problem organizing nationally under such groups as the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority—organizations separate from churches themselves that are free to engage in political organizing.

"This will cause some kind of group to be birthed," Walker says. "Something like that more than likely will come as a result of this."

 

D.C. Lottery Update

A week from Friday, a new set of bids are due on the D.C. Lottery contract.

Who will step up?

The big question is: Which local business types will each of the three major global lottery equipment providers tap for a partnership? Tapping locals earns each company points in the procurement process and also helps grease the political skids.

Last month, LL ran down the possibility that Caribbean CAGE, an outfit backed by BET founder Bob Johnson and old D.C. politico Bob Washington, might pursue the potentially lucrative contract with big fish GTECH or Scientific Games.

This week, LL got an unequivocal denial from Todd Washington, Bob's son and a CAGE VP: "We've taken a look at the opportunity, and we don't think it fits in our sweet spot. We just don't see it being as lucrative an opportunity."

CAGE's main business is in video lottery terminals, slot-machine-like devices; the parameters of the D.C. contract, he explains, don't offer a comparable profit margin. "We don't see how we get the kind of ROI that would interest our principals. We've spent time looking at it and running through the numbers."

But Washington says, "If VLTs come into play, that's a different situation."

So where does that leave Scientific Games and GTECH?

Scientific Games, at this point, is almost certain to partner with Charles Hopkins, a Maryland businessman and former investment banker whose main business to date has been in airport retail. He's likely to have other local partners, but they are thus far unknown.

GTECH, at this point, is a cipher. The Rhode Island–based outfit has dumped longtime partner Leonard Manning, as LL first reported last month. So they're in the hunt for a new dance partner.

LL had heard rumblings about local businessman Pedro Alfonso getting involved; last time he appeared as a local partner in a gaming venture it didn't turn out well: He hooked up with a Caribbean financier and his shady Las Vegas money man to push a plan to place hundreds of VLTs at a New York Avenue NE slots parlor. That effort ended in disgrace, with the Board of Elections and Ethics handing Alfonso et al. a half-million-dollar fine for ballot fraud. In recent weeks, his name has disappeared from chatter. Also said to be in the mix is Lorraine Green, director of the city personnel office during the Sharon Pratt Kelly administration and now VP of human resources for Amtrak. More to the point, she's close friends with Gray, who helped derail the original bid. Neither Alfonso nor Green returned calls for comment.

Speaking of the original bid, that leaves Intralot, which was initially selected for the contract, along with partner W2Tech. That pick, infamously, was not approved by the D.C. Council, leaving Intralot with a dilemma.

They made noise last year about not participating in a rebid if political concerns caused interference, and proceeded to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to have the initial award enforced. But the prospect of leaving money on the table—and, more to the point, being politically outmaneuvered by blood rival GTECH—might be too much to bear.

But if they stick with W2Tech—headed by Alaka Williams, wife of politically connected businessman Warren C. Williams Jr.—their political problem remains. In an interview last year, Intralot exec Byron Boothe to LL, "You always take home the person you brought to the dance."

But the facts are these: If Intralot had bid without a partner last year, they still would have beat the GTECH group—the local preference points wouldn't have made a difference.

Sometimes you take someone to the dance, and sometimes you have to leave alone.

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Our Readers Say

Oh no -- not more lottery contract coverage!
The Church would be better off addressing spousal abuse, child/senior abuse and teen pregnancy and HIV education/prevention than worrying if 2 likeminded people want to join together in matrimony. Let gays be married and miserable like anyone else.

I'm more concerned about the spouses who sit in church every Sunday pretending that they are good Christians while beating and cheating on their spouses and having babies outside of marriage. And that's just the PREACHERS...
I don't see why Black churches find this to be an issue to expend political capitol. You have more than 81 percent of black household led by single women. Marriage in the black community only slightly better than a few years ago but way less than when King walked the earth.

And this is something you want to contend with.

If you don't approve of gay marriage don't marry a gay. This is a little frivolous to try to hurt someone else's right.

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