Gay-marriage advocates in Md. urge O’Malley to play bigger role in effort

With New York’s embrace of same-sex marriage last week, advocates of gay nuptials in Maryland are pressing Gov. Martin O’Malley to play a more vigorous role as state lawmakers prepare to push the issue again.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, another Democrat whose national profile is on the rise, is widely credited with getting a bill through his divided legislature with a well-funded lobbying campaign to persuade conflicted lawmakers.

In Maryland, O’Malley supported a similar measure that fell short during this year’s legislative session but, unlike Cuomo, largely limited his advocacy to private conversations.

O’Malley made no mention of same-sex marriage in his agenda-setting State of the State speech in early February and did not highlight his support in news conferences, as he did with legislation to jump-start Maryland’s wind-energy industry and other priorities.

“It was great to have his support in 2011, but we need his leadership in 2012 to get it done,” said Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), who is openly gay. “Governor O’Malley was an advocate for us behind the scenes this year, but we all recognize that we can’t run another closeted campaign for marriage equality in the next session if we want to win.”

Mizeur and other advocates are asking O’Malley to make same-sex marriage part of his legislative agenda in January — a move that would signal he intends to put the weight of his office behind it.

O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said Monday that it is too early to say which bills the governor would sponsor next year and declined to speculate on what form his advocacy might take. She pledged only that O’Malley would continue to work with gay-rights advocates “to make sure that equal rights under the law are protected, enforced and expanded, including signing a same-sex marriage bill when it passes.”

Maryland’s gay nuptials initiative passed the state Senate in late February only to unexpectedly stall in the House of Delegates, traditionally the more liberal chamber on social issues. As black churches in Prince George’s County and other foes stepped up their opposition, several delegates grew uneasy about the legislation.

The bill was also a hard sell among some Democrats in more conservative districts in Southern Maryland and the Baltimore suburbs, and only one Republican in the legislature supported the measure.

Advocates say they were two votes shy of passage when the bill got to the full House. Facing defeat, lawmakers pushing the legislation chose to send it back to a committee to keep the measure alive.

Supporters of the Maryland legislation say there are several lessons to be learned from New York, which Friday became the sixth and largest state where gay couples will be allowed to wed. They can also marry in the District.

“The key differences were probably the infusion of a lot of money and the determination of a governor to use every political tool at his disposal,” said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), a leading bill sponsor.

A lobbying campaign orchestrated by Cuomo’s office was funded in part by well-heeled Republican donors. Cuomo was also able to persuade enough Republican lawmakers — four — to push the bill through the GOP-led Senate.

Maryland House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), who served as the lead House sponsor of the bill this year, said he would step aside if O’Malley wanted to take up the mantle. “Having a governor sponsor a piece of legislation in Maryland is a big deal,” he said.

Since arriving in Annapolis in 2007, O’Malley has racked up more wins than losses when lobbying a legislature led by fellow Democrats. But putting his name on a bill is hardly a guarantee of passage.

In 2009, he fell short championing another thorny issue: repeal of the death penalty. And in this past session, lawmakers rebuffed O’Malley on the wind bill, one of his leading priorities.

At the time, several lawmakers also said there was little O’Malley or other party leaders could do to change their minds on same-sex marriage because they considered it a vote of conscience.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert) said it was doubtful that O’Malley could do much going forward to change the minds of Republicans, who he added would be taking their cues from their constituents and not Albany.

“This is an emotional issue,” O’Donnell said. “I don’t think anyone can bring political pressure to bear to change anyone’s mind. This isn’t about road projects or school construction projects, or at least I hope it’s not.”

Like those of many mainstream Democratic politicians, O’Malley’s views on same-sex marriage have evolved in recent years. As mayor of Baltimore, O’Malley, a practicing Catholic, backed civil unions as an alternative, saying it was a reasonable compromise between freedom of religion and equal rights for gay couples.

When this year’s legislative session began in Annapolis, O’Malley said publicly that he would sign a same-sex marriage bill if it reached his desk.

“The debate seems to have evolved more quickly than many might have foreseen,” O’Malley, 48, said in a February interview. “I’d be willing to sign any law that reaches me as long as it protects rights equally. I’m not going to get hung up on the words used.”

Both O’Malley and Cuomo have been mentioned as possible 2016 presidential candidates, and buzz about Cuomo’s prospects has increased since he signed the bill late Friday night.

The gay community has for years been a potent fundraising source in national politics, and more and more politicians with national ambitions seem to be comfortable with embracing its priority issue of same-sex marriage.

“They may not campaign on it, but on the Democratic side, I think you’re going to see a lot of future national candidates comfortable talking about it,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic consultant who has worked for candidates around the country.

Among those giving credit to Cuomo are prominent Maryland Democrats.

“American voters love winners,” Barve said. “They love people who say what they’re going to do and got out and do it.”

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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