OLYMPIA — The young voice gaining prominence among Washington’s social conservative forces is the son of a pastor who had dreams of playing college football and chasing serial killers for the FBI.
Thirty-three-year-old Joseph Backholm’s emergence comes as social and religious conservatives statewide mount an all-hands-on-deck effort to prevent gay and lesbian couples from winning the right to marry in Washington.
The Lynnwood resident is earning his stripes as an articulate spokesman of their ideals who can tap into a national network of money and muscle to take the fight to the ballot if necessary.
He is the executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, which is associated with Focus on the Family, an amalgamation of legal and political organizations founded by conservative James Dobson.
Though Backholm never envisioned himself as a commander in this year’s culture war, the uniform fits well as he combats what he considers the radical redefinition and reconstruction of family.
“I do what I do because I think ideas matter. I think ideas have consequence,” he said. “I didn’t choose this issue. I’m not driving this debate. The other side of this debate is driving it. If I could push a button so we’d never have another debate on same-sex marriage, I would.”
Lawmakers have introduced bills in both the House and Senate to make gay marriage legal in Washington. The House already has a majority of lawmakers ready to approve it and now all eyes are the Senate where supporters need one more vote to approve it. Gov. Chris Gregoire has said she would sign it into law.
What’s made Backholm’s voice stand out in the chorus of gay marriage opponents is its tone. There’s less fire and brimstone and more stoic argumentation, a product of his training as a lawyer and toils as a policy wonk.
“He’s not a flag waver, Bible waver or stomp around kind of guy,” said Pastor Joe Fuiten of Cedar Park Assembly of God in Bothell, who served on the Family Policy Institute board of directors when Backholm came on board. “He’s not a hired gun. He believes in what we’re all about. It’s always good for our side to be represented by someone like that.”
Political foes say his pleasant personality doesn’t mask his rock-ribbed conservatism.
“He is certainly more articulate, more respectful and brings a different tone to this debate,” said Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, a gay lawmaker who is a sponsor of the House bill to legalize same-sex marriage. “I think the challenge is going to be he isn’t going to have any good arguments.”
Josh Friedes, director of Marriage Equality for Equal Rights Washington, said Backholm’s views are as “extreme” as any other conservative leader and way out of sync with those his age who polls show want marriage to be legal for gay and lesbian couples.
“I am sure he is one of the darlings of the far right because of his relative youth,” Friedes said. “It cannot be easy for Mr. Backholm to take positions that are opposite to where his generation is.”
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Joseph Backholm, who is married and a father of four, was born in Aberdeen and his parents still live in the home where he and his two older siblings grew up. His dad was a pastor until becoming a contractor and now is in the insurance business. His mom is a homemaker.
When Backholm graduated from Aberdeen High School in 1997, he was in line for an ROTC scholarship through the Air Force at a college in Minnesota where he intended to play football. Plans changed when a failed hearing test led to his medical disqualification. With the financial aid offer revoked, he enrolled at the University of Washington where he majored in sociology.
“I found the classes interesting,” he said. “I thought I wanted to be in the FBI, chase serial killers, do criminal forensics, that kind of stuff.”
Upon finishing, he went to work at a rental car company and realized quickly he’d rather be a lawyer. A year later, he enrolled at Seattle University.
He didn’t spend much time in a courtroom though. In December 2005, he joined the policy staff of the state Senate Republican Caucus and was assigned to work on transportation and economic development issues.
Three years later, when the executive director job at the Family Policy Institute opened up, Backholm got it. He succeeded Larry Stickney, of Arlington, who had departed to launch the group, which led an unsuccessful effort in 2009 to repeal an expansion of rights for same-sex couples known as the “everything but marriage” law.
This was Backholm’s first venture into activism and he said the new gig “is a much better fit for my personality. I like to talk about issues that matter to me.”
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The Family Policy Institute of Washington, with offices in Lynnwood and Spokane, focuses on coalescing social conservatives to fight to preserve traditional marriage, life, religious freedom and parental rights.
“On our four issues we want to be a reasonable, professional voice in the state for public policy,” Backholm said.
With only four paid staff members, it is not a large organization. But it’s got a wide reach as a conduit of information to thousands of individuals on each issue.
Backholm hopes to extend it further as part of a coalition formed to repel gay marriage legislation. Volunteers from coalition members aimed to contact 200,000 people by phone by Monday when legislative hearings on bills to legalize gay marriage will be held in the state House and Senate.
“If we can find them without them coming to look for us, we can make them useful in this debate,” he said.
Around the country, there are 39 other Family Policy Institutes like Washington’s. Each is independently run yet share one thing in common — an association with the Focus on the Family arm of the Alliance Defense Fund, Family Research Council and CitizenLink.
Backholm made clear association is legally different than affiliation.
“We are totally self-sustaining, self-funded and self-operating,” he said. “We get no funds for operation.”
Yet the ties are strong. The Alliance Defense Fund planned to dispatch lawyers to Olympia last week to strategize with lawmakers opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage.
And if Gregoire does sign a law making Washington the seventh state allowing gay couples to marry, opponents vow to take it to the ballot so voters can have the final say.
Backholm predicted people from every corner of the nation will be helping their side in the fight.
“People who think like us all over the country care about what’s going on,” Backholm said.
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Josh Friedes, who tangled with Backholm on Referendum 71, which extended the rights of domestic partnerships to gay and lesbian couples in 2009, is girding for Round Two this year.
“I know what Joseph Backholm is against,” he said. “It is not at all clear to me what he is for.”
Backholm has an answer: “Organizationally and personally, what I am for is men and women should get married, should have lots of kids, they should take care of the kids and sexual relations should occur in that relationship.”
What he’s against is the redefining of marriage to be no more than legal validation of relationships of gay and lesbian couples.
“Basically they’re saying, ‘Our love is the same as your love and so we’re entitled to marriage,’” he said. “Is this really a principle we want to build on?”
Rep. Marko Liias said proponents are ready with a response.
“We have real people who want to show their love and commitment for one another and I don’t think the other side or any of the organizations have the human stories,” he said. “They don’t have compelling arguments about the harm that they say this will cause.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Public hearings are scheduled Monday in the Senate and House for bills that would legalize gay marriage in Washington. The issue is one of the most watched in the 2012 legislative session. Supporters believe that enough representatives will back the gay marriage bill to pass it and are trying to sway enough senators to support it. Gov. Chris Gregoire has already she would sign it into law.