Same-sex marriage backers courting Maryland Republicans

February 12, 2012

In Maryland, a Democratic governor’s efforts to persuade a heavily Democratic legislature to pass a same-sex marriage bill could come down to the votes of a few Republicans.

In search of fresh support for legislation that fell short last year, Gov. Martin O’Malley and his allies have reached out in recent weeks to about a quarter of the GOP members of the House of Delegates, the chamber expected to once again decide the fate of the measure.

The overtures — most of them long shots — underscore how closely divided the General ­Assembly remains over same-sex marriage, which was the subject of an emotional, 101 / 2-hour hearing Friday that drew politicians, families and clergy to Annapolis.

O’Malley’s coordinated outreach also comes from a recognition that in the last two states to approve same-sex marriage legislation — New York last summer and Washington last week — the votes of a small number of Republicans were pivotal.

“It could well prove true here as well,” O’Malley said in an interview. “We are still pushing, talking and having conversations with people in both parties who may have open minds.”

A month into this year’s 90-day legislative session, no Republican in the House has publicly committed to backing the bill, despite the overtures from O’Malley, his aides and lawmakers working to pass the bill.

Last year, Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (Howard) was the only one of 12 Republicans in the Senate to vote for a same-sex marriage bill that narrowly passed his chamber. None of the 43 House Republicans voiced support for the bill, which was pulled from the floor before it could come to a vote.

Supporters have sought to appeal to the libertarian leanings of some of their GOP colleagues and have pointed to polling data that show growing acceptance of same-sex marriage among younger voters.

A Washington Post poll last month found that 35 percent of Republicans in Maryland support legalizing same-sex marriage, compared with 57 percent of Democrats.

The level of GOP support statewide has not been reflected in the legislature, in part because of the way the state’s districts are drawn, lawmakers and analysts say. Most Republican members represent solidly conservative areas.

Moderates ‘conflicted’

A few GOP lawmakers, including Del. Patrick N. Hogan (Frederick) and Del. Robert A. Costa (Anne Arundel), who represent relatively moderate districts, have acknowledged that they are wrestling this year with the interplay between government and religion on the issue.

“I’m conflicted,” said Hogan, who as a Catholic was taught that marriage should be between a man and a woman. “While I believe we should provide couples rights, I don’t know about using the word ‘marriage.’ ”

Costa said “I haven’t taken a position one way or another” in an interview Thursday night, during which he said he would pay close attention during Friday’s hearing.

Most of their Republican ­colleagues say they are firm “no” votes. Those include Del. Justin D. Ready (Carroll), who, at 29, is the youngest Republican member of the General Assembly.

“I’ve put a lot of thought and prayer into this,” Ready said. “A lot of people my age say, ‘It’s a free country; you’re free to do whatever you want.’ But I see marriage as a very important building block in our society. . . . Our culture is quick to dismiss anything traditional. I don’t think you throw everything out.”

Bill supporters say they can envision a path to victory without GOP support, but Republicans are an enticing target in part because the legislation remains a tough sell within certain segments of Democrats.

Most African American lawmakers from Prince George’s County remain opposed, citing the views of church communities and others in their districts. Last month’s Post poll found 41 percent of black Democrats statewide supported same-sex marriage, while 53 percent were opposed.

Several Democratic lawmakers from more conservative pockets of the Baltimore suburbs and Southern Maryland also oppose the legislation.

“If we had a couple of Republican members who would vote for marriage equality, it would assure passage in the House,” said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), a gay legislator and leading supporter of the measure. “There are a number of Republicans who are certainly interested. I don’t know what the count will be.”

National overtures

Gay-rights leaders nationally say they have started more actively reaching out to Republicans, and Republicans are becoming more receptive to their overtures.

“I think there’s a recognition that to win these fights, we need to have a big tent,” said Michael Cole-Schwartz, director of media relations for the Human Rights Campaign. “This issue is becoming less and less partisan. Politicians from both parties who want to play the long game are interested in being on the right side of the issue.”

In Washington state, the 28 to 21 vote for same-sex marriage in the Senate included four Republicans on the prevailing side. Two House Republicans supported the bill in a vote last week that sent the legislation to the governor.

In New York, the votes of four GOP senators were crucial to passing the bill in the Republican-controlled chamber. Three Republicans voted for the bill in the Democratic-led Assembly.

After providing the decisive votes, the four Republican senators in New York, who had been threatened with challenges from more conservative candidates, were flooded with campaign contributions from same-sex marriage supporters.

Kittleman, the only Republican lawmaker in Maryland to vote for the bill last year, said he has seen no similar largesse but has felt relatively little fallout since last year’s legislative session.

During appearances at Republican gatherings in his district, not everyone has agreed with his position, Kittleman said, but most people seem to respect his decision once he explains it.

This year, he decided to co-sponsor the bill and testified at a recent Senate hearing, urging his colleagues to pass it.

“I think history will bear me out,” Kittleman said. “Thirty years from now, people are going to come up to you and ask where you were on this crucial issue.”

Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

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