TEP finds success canvassing Nashville community

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Randy Tarkington, the Tennessee Equality Project’s campaign manager for the “Vote No on 1” initiative, spoke enthusiastically to a group of volunteers who’d gathered early one sunny Saturday afternoon last month at the popular east Nashville bar, The Lipstick Lounge.

With chairs flipped up on tables and sunlight shining uncharacteristically through the windows, many hours before the bar opened for business that day, Tarkington explained to the group its objective for the following few hours.

“The only success we had for equality from the elections in 2004 was in Cincinnati,” he said. “While the state of Ohio voted to ban gay marriage statewide, voters in Cincinnati – not at all known as a liberal bastion – they repealed a law that prohibited all laws based on sexual orientation. And the main reason they won, they say, is because they got out and talked to their neighbors about it.”

“And that’s what we’re doing today.”

“The purpose of canvassing is not to change people’s minds or debate with people,” he said, “but to identify supporters and get them to vote. Now we’ll divide up in pairs and you’ll each have a clipboard and script. You don’t have to follow that script to the word. Just remember you’re looking for what degree [on a scale of 1-5] that they want to support us. If they say they don’t support us, just say ‘thank you’ and move on.”

For the next few moments, pairs of people looked over their clipboard and prepared to hit the streets of Nashville.

“If you find they’re strongly in favor,” he added, “see if you can get an e-mail address so we can stay in touch with them and definitely encourage them to talk to their friends about it.”

In the past few weeks especially, Tarkington has become confident the “Vote No” advocates can actually win in November.

“Our opponents released a poll they conducted a week ago and it really isn’t good news for them,” he told me later. “They found that 59 percent of respondents are against gay marriage. That leaves 41 percent for us. That’s a tremendous starting point for us, and we’re finding not many people are undecided.”

This despite the statement Governor Bredesen made earlier in the week suggesting the amendment is overkill, before endorsing it and estimating it will pass with support from upwards of 95 percent of votes.

“What we’re finding is that people are for fairness,” said Tarkington, “and there is great concern about changing the constitution. I’ve always had a great deal of faith in the people of this state, and they’re beginning to see this as an issue of fairness.”

“What varies is the passion toward the amendment,” he said. “The only direction people are moving toward is marriage equality. That’s why we’re stressing for people on their own to do their own canvassing – talk to co-workers in the break room at work, on lunch, whenever.”

Notably absent from the group that met at The Lipstick Lounge that day were many of the leaders of Nashville’s GLBT activist community. Tarkington emphasized there will be many more opportunities to join in this grassroots movement, and plans to engage our community groups directly.

“People shouldn’t be afraid of canvassing,” he said. “Most people understand that it’s part of the democratic process. Generally people are very accommodating and gracious, whether they agree with you or not.”

He’s spoken with people from Knoxville and Memphis who plan to canvass their cities in the upcoming months and, for Nashville, plans to increase the frequency of these meet-ups as the campaign nears the November election.

“I’m confident we can win because when we talk to people they understand us,” he said. “I’m for fairness, equality, and against discrimination. Who can disagree with that? But we have to talk to them."