In Maryland, a red-carpet rumble over gay marriage and more gambling

When David Copperfield calls at dinnertime to talk about local school funding, you learn that some ballot measures are sexier than other ballot measures.

When Melissa Etheridge offers a chance to come hang backstage, it’s clear: We’re not talking about bond issues here.

Most years in Maryland, getting voters excited — or at least dimly aware — of those obscure policy choices they will find at the bottom of the ballot amounts to little more than yard signs and mailers extolling them to “Vote Yes” or “Vote No.”

But this year, two of the measures are aglow with star power. The fights over allowing same-sex marriage and expanding gambling are shaping up as a kind of red-carpet rumble.

Copperfield, a Las Vegas magician, has weighed in with a robo-call in favor of Question 7, which would pave the way for a new casino in Prince George’s County and generate additional revenue for public schools. Etheridge is offering the green room visit to “six lucky winners,” asking that they include a $25 donation to Marylanders for Marriage Equality when they enter.

Adam Lambert, Susan Sarandon and Ed Norton also have stepped up on the yes side of Question 6, the same-sex marriage measure. Two Baltimore Ravens have lined up on opposite sides of the issue, even as former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his wife donated $100,000 this week to the pro-side.

The Washington Redskins, meanwhile, came out as pro-casino.

“I can’t think of another time when you’ve seen something like this in local politics here,” said Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary’s College. “Maryland has always been a very comfortable, very well-off state, but without a lot of sexy appeal on issues.”

The only high-profile measure before voters this year that has not drawn a celebrity endorsement parade is the Maryland Dream Act, which would grant in-state tuition rates to certain undocumented immigrants.

A-list endorsers are common to voters in places where the person in the next voting booth might actually be a movie star. The list of opponents to California’s Proposition 8, which eliminated the right of gay couples to marry in 2008, read like the Malibu white pages. And when the New York legislature debated legalizing gay nuptials last year, Julianne Moore was among those who recorded promotional videos, as were Larry King and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream icons Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield.

The glitterati are playing a role in Maryland this year, Eberly said, because the issues have national implications. The same-sex marriage debate is being waged state by state across the country, and a celebrity-industrial complex has emerged, mostly on the pro-gay-marriage side. And the expansion of slots and table games has ramifications beyond local borders as states increasingly compete for gambling dollars.

“They’re coming here because there are folks beyond the borders of Maryland who have a vested interest in how Marylanders decide these issues,” Eberly said.

In her e-mail solicitation, Etheridge, who is a lesbian, says she got involved because of her connection to Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), who is also gay.

“I’m helping Marylanders for Marriage Equality raise critical funds to win Question 6 because my friends Heather and Deborah Mizeur — and every (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) couple in the Free State — should be treated equally under the law.”

Although same-sex marriage advocates insist that the celebrities are not central to a campaign focused on equal rights, they keep coming. Last month, supporters paid at least $250 apiece to party on a SoHo rooftop in New York with a clutch of celebrities in favor of Question 6, including Sarandon, comedian Sandra Bernhard, actors Josh Charles and Norton, filmmaker John Waters, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and former first daughter Barbara Bush.

But do all the bold-faced names make a difference to voters?

“To most people, not a lot,” said Mike Morrill, a veteran Democratic consultant in Maryland.

But Morrill said the star power can be important in a couple of ways: Celebrities can boost turnout at fundraisers. And voters are usually not as familiar with ballot measures as they are with candidate races, so the celebrity involvement “helps remind people to go down to the bottom of the ballot” even if it doesn’t sway how they vote.

Liz Cattaneo, for one, wasn’t swayed. The Takoma Park voter said she and her husband were initially surprised, and amused, to get a call from Copperfield, but she said it will have no influence on how she votes.

“I just don’t believe an illusionist is a very credible source on this issue,” said Cattaneo, 38, who works for a labor policy and advocacy organization. She assumes Copperfield has a financial stake in whether a full-fledged MGM casino is built in the Washington area.

In Baltimore, two professional football players have gone face mask to face mask on the marriage question.

Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has been an outspoken advocate of same-sex marriage for years, appearing in promotional videos for proponents during the past two legislative sessions when the issue was debated. His profile on the issue rose considerably last month, however, when a state delegate tried unsuccessfully to get the Ravens organization to silence him.

In a letter, Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr. (D-Baltimore County) asked the team to “inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions.”

Exactly the opposite has happened. Ayanbadejo is scheduled to appear next week at a Monday Night Football watch party in Baltimore with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) that is doubling as a fundraiser for Marylanders for Marriage Equality.

But same-sex marriage opponents enlisted their own brawny advocate in Ravens center Matt Birk, who is cutting a video explaining his support for heterosexual marriage.

Birk, a Roman Catholic father of six, has also been active on the issue in Minnesota, where he grew up. Minnesota voters will be asked next month whether to write a same-sex marriage ban into the state constitution.

Otherwise, gay-marriage opponents have a lower-profile campaign, without the aid of big names from the entertainment and sports worlds. Except for Birk, their boldest-face name has been Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori.

“There’s no glitz or glamour in this event,” Catholic Conference spokeswoman Kathy Dempsey said of the archbishop’s appearance at a Sept. 26 event sponsored by the Maryland Marriage Alliance. “We’re not trying to impress anyone.”

Not all the measures on November’s ballot have attracted celebrity endorsements. Of course, Questions 1, 3 and 5 aren’t natural glamour bait. (They deal with judicial qualifications, officeholder misconduct and congressional redistricting, respectively.)

But Question 4 is a much talked about local version of the proposed federal Dream Act. No Jimmy Smits? No Lucy Liu? No Iman?

“We’re very locally focused,” said Kristin Ford, spokeswoman for Educating Maryland Kids, a statewide group pushing the measure. “We have relied heavily on leaders with established credibility in the state.”

Materials for the group have included endorsements from Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and State’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks (D). Rushern and Angela.

Not Brad and Angelina, maybe, but well-regarded in these parts.

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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