Maine in spotlight as nation awaits gay-marriage vote
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BY SUSAN M. COVER
Staff Writer
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 10/11/2009

AUGUSTA -- Maine is at the center of a divisive national debate that touches on religion, family, children and sexuality, political scientists say.

And it's all about gay marriage.

"This is the first real statewide vote to preserve same-sex marriage as opposed to trying to ban it," said Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington. "It's startling for people in Maine to be in that hurricane, but when you think about it, where else would it be more likely?"

Melcher points to several factors to back that up.

Maine is one of 24 states to have a people's veto process to allow citizens to call for a public vote, which is how Question 1 came to be on the ballot. New England has been more gay-friendly than other parts of the country in recent years. Advertising for these types of campaigns is much cheaper in Maine than in other parts of the country, he said. Also, Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders targeted New England with a campaign to make gay marriage legal in all six states by 2012. And, Maine-based groups have traveled the state for the last three years talking to different people about the issue.

Among New England states, gay marriage is currently legal in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont. New Hampshire will begin allowing same-sex marriages in January and Maine's law is on hold pending the outcome of the November vote.

In Rhode Island, a bill to allow gay marriage did not make it out of a legislative committee and the governor there opposes same-sex marriage.

The only other state in the country to allow gay marriage is Iowa, where a court ruling this spring made it legal.

Yet while gay rights activists tout their recent success, 30 states have voter-approved constitutional prohibitions against same-sex marriage.

Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Orono, said on this "off-off year election" -- there are no major candidate races on the ballot -- Maine will be prominently featured on national news programs when the election night returns come in.

"The outcome is highly uncertain at this point," he said. "I personally don't see this being decided by more than five points one way or the other." Recent public opinion polls have given a slight edge to opponents of same-sex marriage, with a small percentage of people still undecided.

Melcher said two things have struck him as somewhat surprising about the Maine campaign.

One is the heavy involvement of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which took up a second collection plate at churches to raise money to repeal gay marriage.

And the other is the effort by gay activists to draw people from out of state to work on the campaign by asking them to take vacation time.

"An awful lot of the country is looking at this," he said.

Only one other state -- Washington -- will vote on a gay rights issue this fall as voters there consider whether to repeal that state's domestic partner registry. Dubbed the "everything but marriage" law, it gives "state-registered domestic partners the full array of rights and responsibilities that married couples enjoy," according to the Washington Secretary of State's Office.

When it comes to marriage -- specifically whether to repeal a new state law that allows gay and lesbian couples to marry in Maine -- the Pine Tree state is where it's at this election cycle.

The California connection

Both sides are making use of expertise and money from California, where gay activists suffered a setback last year when voters approved Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage. A court ruling that followed upheld the vote, which outlawed gay marriages but allowed the 18,000 gay couples who wed before the vote to stay legally married.

Early on in the Maine campaign, gay-marriage opponents hired California consulting firm Schubert Flint Public Affairs of Sacramento, which successfully conducted the campaign to ban same-sex marriage there.

In fact, one of the television ads running in Maine is nearly identical to one that ran in California, except the Maine ad uses a Maine private school teacher in place of the teacher who appeared in the California ad.

On the other side, gay marriage supporters -- including Equality California -- pledged to give money and other campaign support to groups working in Maine.

And, a group called Californians Against Hate filed a complaint with the Maine ethics commission alleging that gay-marriage opponents are not properly disclosing the names of contributors. The commission voted to investigate the claim, which Stand for Marriage Maine characterized as "frivolous."

Just how much money each side gets from California -- and other out-of-state interests -- will be disclosed in updated spending reports due to the state by midnight Tuesday.

Maine's path

The debate in Maine began in January, when gay activists announced a bill to allow same-sex marriage in the state. At the time, Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, released a statement in which he said he was struggling with the issue.

"This debate is extremely personal for many people, and it's an issue that I struggle with trying to find the best path forward," the statement said. Despite Baldacci's initial reluctance to support the bill, Democrats in the Legislature moved it forward, reserving the Augusta Civic Center for what would be the largest public hearing on a bill in recent memory.

More than 3,000 people showed up for the 10-hour hearing, an orderly and well-organized proceeding that continued beyond the scheduled ending time to give everyone a chance to comment.

The Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the bill the following week, and it later passed the House and Senate.

On the same day it gained final Senate passage, Baldacci signed it into law saying that although he had previously expressed support for civil unions instead of marriage, he now believed the state constitution called for him to support gay marriage.

"I did not come to this decision lightly or in haste," he said to reporters at a brief press conference following the bill signing.

He cited Article 1 of the Maine Constitution as part of the reason he supported the law. The article states "no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor be denied the equal protections of the laws, nor be denied the enjoyment of that person's civil rights or be discriminated against."

The following day, religious groups launched a people's veto effort to gather the signatures necessary for a public vote. After gathering nearly twice as many signatures as needed -- about 100,000 -- the groups moved to the next phase: a campaign on the issue of same-sex marriage.

National implications

"Maine is certainly a very high priority," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a marriage equality group based in New York. "I do think non-gay and gay people who care about fairness ought to be supportive of the work in Maine."

Wolfson said despite the setback in California, those who support gay marriage were able to find success in more states this year than in any other.

"No one victory, no one defeat is going to fix everything," he said. "If we lose, it will be a missed opportunity to get the antigay funders to cut it out."

On the other side, Brian Brown is the executive director of the Washington D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage, which formed in 2007 to provide organized opposition to same-sex marriage.

"I think there's no doubt Maine is critical to protecting marriage throughout the country," he said. "This is the first direct vote after Proposition 8."

Brown said it's also the first vote in the country where the people have a chance to overturn a decision made by the Legislature and the governor.

"Both sides in the debate understand the central importance of Maine," he said.

Susan Cover -- 620-7015

scover@centralmaine.com

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