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Organizer Dean Merkley hands out bumper stickers and other paraphenalia to volunteers meeting in a San Jose parking lot to coordinate their efforts to help pass the Proposition 8 ballot initiative Friday Oct. 3, 2008. The two sides in the Proposition 8 ballot initiative have each collected millions of dollars for their media campaigns this fall, but the most important weapon in their arsenals might be the army of volunteers doing battle over whether same-sex marriage remains legal in California. The two sides have collected what they say are tens of thousands of volunteers, including many people who have never gotten involved in politics before, who are operating phone banks and canvassing neighborhoods for voters. (Patrick Tehan/Mercury News)

The two sides in the Proposition 8 ballot initiative have amassed more than $40 million for media campaigns now playing on California television, but their most important asset might be the huge, volunteer, shoe-leather armies battling over same-sex marriage.

In an election that looks increasingly tight, Dean Merkley, a retired executive and part-time rancher in San Jose, is a member of a volunteer army that hopes to convince Californians to pass a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Darius Ngo, an 18-year-old college student in San Francisco, is among an opposing corps of volunteers who could make the difference on Nov. 4 in whether California becomes only the second state to reject a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Merkley has spent countless hours over the past six weeks, walking neighborhoods from Milpitas to Alum Rock, Evergreen and Willow Glen in San Jose, canvassing voters as one of seven regional coordinators who oversees about 400 Santa Clara County volunteers on behalf of the Yes on 8 campaign. It's part of a statewide effort the Yes campaign says will be the largest volunteer effort in the state's history, involving members of the Church of Latter-day Saints, Evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims, Sikhs, Jewish groups and non-religious supporters of Proposition 8.

"We're not professional politicians," said Merkley, a 64-year-old retired executive with Litton Industries. "Most people who are involved in this have not done it before, but feel strongly enough about where we are at, that they wish to express their dissatisfaction about the way this could affect our family values."


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Many of the volunteers on the No on 8 side are new to politics too, and say they feel just as strongly about the values they are seeking to protect. To a group of volunteers including Ngo, who gathered in San Francisco to run a phone bank on a recent Sunday morning, the issue was about equality. The group ranged from gray-haired veterans of the 1960s movement for racial equality, to newlywed gay men, to moms with young kids and husbands at home.

After listening to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom proclaim in a speech to fire up the volunteers that Proposition 8 was the second-most important election in America this fall, Ngo picked up his cell phone and began dialing numbers in Silicon Valley.

With a half dozen friends from San Francisco State University who sat in a circle on the floor in an unbearably sweaty space turned campaign office that used to be a record store in the Castro, Ngo worked his way down a long list of area code 408 numbers. As he did, he tried to keep in mind the exhortations of campaign workers — "Smile! Always smile when you're on the phone. People will hear it and respond."

"It's tough work," Ngo said, pausing between calls. But he said keeping same-sex marriage legal "is something that is going to make America a better place."

By early fall, each side in the Proposition 8 campaign said it had at least 10,000 volunteers poised to work for or against the proposed ban.

If all those volunteers actually show up for phone banks and for other volunteer work this month, "it would be historic," said David McCuan, a professor of political science at Sonoma State University who studies the history of initiative democracy in California. "It would be equivalent to what we saw in Propositions 187 and 209 a generation ago."

Proposition 187 was the 1994 ballot initiative that denied social services to illegal immigrants, while Proposition 209 was the 1996 vote on a constitutional amendment to reject affirmative action. Both social issues, like Proposition 8 this year, attracted national attention.

While early polls showed Proposition 8 trailing by a double-digit margin, more recent polls show the measure gaining strength, and even leading in one recent survey. The Yes on 8 campaign says its volunteers and their door-to-door effort are big reasons the race is tightening.

One thing the polls agree on is that a relatively small number of people are undecided on Prop. 8, generally less than 10 percent of likely voters. The small number of undecided voters means that getting their supporters to the polls will be crucial for both sides. That's where volunteers come in.

"It is about turnout — period," said Newsom, who forced the state's political battle over same-sex marriage when he began marrying gay men and lesbians in San Francisco in 2004. "There is still enough undecided that it could swing, especially in a very, very close race, which I think this will be.

"The good news is that we have a very energized base of supporters that recognize this moment in time and this moment in history."

The strength of a grass-roots volunteer effort may be even more important for the Yes side, McCuan said, because it's easier to generate opposition to a ballot measure than to build support for it.

Merkley said that as the Yes on 8 volunteers have crisscrossed San Jose in recent weeks, they have generally received a good response, with many voters saying they are unhappy that judges, rather than voters, decided that same-sex marriage should be legal in California.

Merkley estimated that he gives 20 to 30 hours a week to the effort, something he does to safeguard the values he tried to instill in his seven sons and two daughters.

"I have a strong belief in the traditional role of marriage in raising children — that the child has a right to a mother and a father, and the different perspectives they have on life," Merkley said. "That is the tradition of marriage."

Contact Mike Swift at (408) 271-3648 or at mswift@mercurynews.com.