Correction to This Article
The Maine's gay-marriage battle incorrectly said that the National Equality March in Washington is Saturday. The march is Sunday.

Maine Proves a Low-Key Battleground — and Bellwether? — for Gay Marriage

Jesse Connolly heads the effort to affirm Maine's new law allowing same-sex marriage. A referendum is set for Nov. 3.
Jesse Connolly heads the effort to affirm Maine's new law allowing same-sex marriage. A referendum is set for Nov. 3. (Pat Wellenbach - AP)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

PORTLAND, Maine -- Canvassers are knocking on the doors of saltbox houses and slogans are pinned to yellow slickers. But outside the Pine Tree State, next month's referendum on gay marriage is the vote that dare not speak its name.

Even as President Obama delivers a high-profile speech about gay rights on Saturday -- the eve of a national march for equality on the Mall -- Maine's landmark gay marriage legislation remains practically a secret. With low-volume murmurs of support from the institutional advocates and opponents of gay marriage, Maine's operatives, on both sides of the issue, are curious to find themselves nearly alone as they contest an election that will determine the national gay-rights agenda.

"We're focused on Maine people talking to Mainers," said Jesse Connolly, who is running the campaign to protect the nation's first gay marriage bill to have successfully passed through the traditional legislative process. A schlubby Red Sox fanatic who wore orange Crocs on a recent rainy weekend, Connolly lives south of the state's largest city (population 65,000) with his wife and son. He's an unlikely figure to be leading the rainbow-bearing ranks as new gay leaders and activists demand concrete results from Congress and the White House.

"If we're successful," said Connolly, "it will give a shot in the arm to Washington."

Connolly's conservative counterpart, Marc Mutty, plays more to type. The chairman of Stand for Marriage Maine said he agreed to lead the opposition campaign "because my boss told me to." His boss is Richard Malone, bishop of the Portland Roman Catholic diocese, which has unequivocally thrown itself into the election, going so far as to pass around collection plates at Sunday Masses to fund the campaign.

But Mutty, too, professes astonishment at the lack of interest from leading national conservatives such as Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.

"What happens here is of great national import," he said. "A lot of our folks seem to not fully get that."

The state's failure to get noticed is due to the simple fact that the vote will not take place in, say, California, where an expensive and bruising win for gay marriage opponents last year shook the national body politic for weeks.

Since then, many dependable gay Democratic fundraisers have felt burned -- and decidedly less generous. Plus, progressive lawmakers, worried about the 2010 midterm elections, have shied from the issue. And within the gay leadership in Washington, established politicians and a freshman class of bolder legislators disagree as to whether the Maine campaign should be central to a larger federal push for equality. Those frustrated voices are lobbying Obama to include a reference to the Maine referendum in his speech. Any failure to do so would be the last straw for many gay activists fed up with the small-bore approach of the Obama White House, the Washington-based gay lobby and the Democratic Party's gay elders.

(A Democratic source familiar with the White House's thinking on the speech said Obama will stress incremental advancements as evidence of progress.)

"You need to encourage elected officials," said Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the highest-ranking openly gay political figure in the country, who met his partner at a fundraiser in Ogunquit, Maine, during a successful 2005 campaign to keep sexual orientation in the state's non-discrimination policy. Frank has attended and spoken at fundraisers here and in Washington and New York supporting marriage equality in Maine, and has argued that passing gay marriage in Maine would add pressure on national legislators.

But Frank, who has called Sunday's march "useless," is part of a generation of gay advocates who lived much of their lives in the closet and considered marriage something of a pipe dream. He thinks everything must done at a measured pace.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company