LITTLE ROCK For a group that successfully rallied Arkansas voters to outlaw same-sex marriage four years ago, a campaign to effectively ban gays and lesbians from serving as adoptive or foster parents seemed like a slam dunk.
The Arkansas Family Council Action Committee set a goal of gathering 100,000 signatures in support of its proposal a seemingly easy feat compared to the roughly 200,000 it turned in for its gay marriage amendment in 2004. Instead, the group this month struggled to turn in slightly more than the minimum 61,974 required for initiated acts and is already preparing for a second go-round on the assumption that the initial submission isn't likely to have enough valid signatures.
And with another measure aimed at denying state services to illegal immigrants falling short of the signature requirement altogether, 2008 isn't looking like a good year for social issues to drive Arkansas voters to the polls.
Unlike four years ago, when Republicans were able to use a multistate drive to ban same-sex marriage to their advantage, this year social issues are instead competing with pocketbook concerns. With a gloomy economic outlook nationally and rising gas prices, social issues may not rally voters as easily in the past.
"In some way, they're still viewed as important issues here in Arkansas but perhaps they've lost a little a bit of saliency," University of Arkansas at Little Rock political scientist Art English said.
Jerry Cox, the Family Council president, acknowledged that the foster care issue hasn't gathered the same level of support during the petition drive process. Last week, Cox's group submitted 65,899 signatures but acknowledged that state officials would likely toss out some as invalid and an extension would be needed. But he said the number of signatures gathered is more a reflection of lack of knowledge about the issue rather than lack of concern.
"I think they're not paying attention to this," Cox said. "With the issue of same-sex marriage, it was on the news every night. So people were outraged about it. This is different. People don't hear about this every night, so it's harder to get their attention."
And unlike the amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, this year's proposal is one that goes beyond just affecting gays and lesbians. Though Cox has said his proposal is geared toward blunting what he calls the homosexual agenda, it would ban any unmarried couples living together from becoming foster or adoptive parents.
Opponents of the measure have noted that in their campaign against the new ban, and point to the low number of signatures as a sign of its unpopularity.
Debbie Willhite, the lead consultant of a coalition opposed to the Family Council's proposal, called Arkansas Families First, said she also sees it reflecting an ideological move nationally. She called both proposals intrusive measures that go against the state's populist bent.
"The tilt has been so extreme to the right that people are really looking at what they sign and they're being more inquisitive about what they're being asked to support," Willhite said.
Republicans say it's dangerous to view the low number of signatures collected for either issue as the death knell for social issues in a Bible belt state like Arkansas. "I wouldn't say the political climate is different, rather that the campaign is just different," Republican strategist Bill Vickery said.
"I think the gay-marriage issue had a national profile. That was a big national issue people were paying attention to. There is not a national profile on the gay adoption issue." And unlike gay marriage four years ago, the adoption and foster care issue won't have a governor as an outspoken cheerleader like it did with Republican Mike Huckabee a socially conservative Baptist minister.
Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, has said that the Family Council measure goes too far with its restriction on adoptions. After the state's Supreme Court struck down a ban on gay foster parents in 2006, Beebe said as a candidate for governor that he would support reinstating the ban if it could pass constitutional muster. State policy already bars placing foster children in the homes of unmarried couples living together. The immigration measure, backed by a group called Secure Arkansas, failed to garner enough signatures. Secure Arkansas' proposed initiated act would have required government agencies to verify that everybody seeking public benefits from the state is a legal U.S. resident.
Opponents of the measure who called it unfair to immigrants billed the failure as an informal poll showing lack of support, but the real test may come next year when backers say they'll lobby lawmakers for similar restrictions.
If that's the case, opponents may not want to take too much comfort in the petition drive's failure. Even though they failed to make it on the ballot, Secure Arkansas still gathered 56,122 signatures on a strapped budget.
"It suggests that even that kind of hard, strong anti-immigrant appeal still has some credibility in Arkansas," English said. "It's a lot of signatures when you talk about the number of voters in the state."
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