When I was director of Affirmations LGBTQ+ community center in Ferndale and working with the paper, everything was just so frustrating in Michigan because we were just like a political wasteland. Everything was terrible. We were illegal. We couldn't marry. And any efforts on the part of the gay groups, like the Triangle Foundation, were just slaughtered every time. It was very frustrating.
We decided to do the Voter Guide starting in ’96, really right out the chute. We took the paper over in late 1995, so it was right during the first election cycle that we kicked it off. And we followed the format that we stole from the Right Wing, who brilliantly presented all the endorsements so you could see who was who very quickly.
This was all before the internet. You know, licking envelopes and mailing. Everything was old school in the beginning. We bought every gay mailing list we could find, contacting all the mail list vendors and asking them for whatever gay lists they had. It's expensive to do that.
But it was worth it because we could show someone, “Hey, you're in the Upper Peninsula, and you're in this district, and we just mailed out 40 surveys in your district.” Or whatever the number. Escanaba was a gay hotspot.
Our first success really came in 2000. That was the year that Debbie Stabenow ran against Spencer Abraham for the U.S. Senate.
I think we printed 150,000 Voter Guides, and we mailed out 80,000, to try and encourage people to vote (and also to vote Democratic). It was a nonpartisan voter guide, but the reality is that the Republican Party's platform was so anti-gay we really couldn't endorse many Republicans.
After the ‘96 Voter Guide, we did some focus groups about voting, including why people didn't vote. Because what we found was that nationally, LGBTQ+ people weren't voting at the same rate as the general population. We wanted to know why. And what we found was that most people had no idea who to vote for.
And they didn't really feel comfortable just voting for a party. They wanted to know actually who they were voting for, because not all the Democrats were good on our issues, either. So it wasn't something that you could just count on the Democratic Party being amenable to LGBTQ+ rights.
We figured we could educate voters on what people really stood for and who liked them. Were they pro-choice? Were they for labor?
Ahead of the 2000 election, we mailed out 80,000 Voter Guides and Debbie Stabenow won by 50,000 votes. And it was a thrill. I don't know if really that was what caused it, but whatever we did helped to push her over the finish line. And she's been re-elected ever since.
We used the Voter Guide as sort of a carrot to the candidates to say, “Pay attention to the LGBTQ+ community; it's a substantial voting bloc.”