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.
"We don't have the votes to [repeal] DOMA," he said, referring to the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law explicitly stipulating that marriage is between a man and a woman. "We do have the votes to pass hate crimes, the employment non-discrimination acts and get domestic-partner benefits for federal employees. To divert energy for that, to a bill we have no possibility of passage, doesn't sound smart to me."
But new gay leaders in Washington make no distinction between Maine and Congress. They want equality everywhere -- and now.
Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a gay freshman representative, has broken with Frank and emerged as a spokesman in Washington for a bolder agenda. Along with lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and nearly 100 other members of Congress, he has signed on to legislation introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, (D-N.Y.) that would repeal DOMA.
Polis's allies are directly involved in the Maine effort. Andy Szekeres, his campaign's deputy finance director, is now the Maine campaign's finance director.
"Some of the next generation of LGBT opinion leaders think more boldly than the preceding generation," said Polis. "We grew up in a different environment than people who grew up in the 1960s or the 1970s. The new generation grew up in a post-AIDS-crisis world. I don't know anybody who died of AIDS, and for a gay man 20 years ago, that would have been a shocking statement. But most of my peers don't either. We're not characterized by being survivors."
Downtown Portland, which is the state's reliable bastion of social liberalism and the center of gravity for gay Maine, reflects that view. In coffee shops, baristas and their tastefully tattooed clientele wear buttons supporting gay marriage. Signs urging a "no" vote on the referendum hang in storefronts. Rainbow lights advertise "Pride" directly under neon Miller Lite signs in gay-bar windows. A much-anticipated gay-marriage benefit concert with all the best local bands will be held on Oct. 17 at the Empire Dine and Dance.
"I know ridiculous amounts of people who are supportive," said Conor Tubbs, a 22-year-old bartender who recently nursed a shot glass filled with ice chips to numb a new piercing between his lip and nose. He sat at Styxx, a gay club off Spring Street, and said opposition will surely wane. "Those voices are being heard less," he said. "A lot of people in my generation are going to be in charge soon anyway."
But Portland is hardly indicative of Maine's 16 counties. Throughout the rural terrain that Mainers call Upcountry -- places like Piscataquis, Washington and Somerset -- gay marriage is still a foreign idea.
Democratic Gov. John Baldacci signed the legislation last May after a history of opposing gay marriage. Soon after, opponents of gay marriage collected enough signatures to force a referendum, which he predicts will be decided by the narrowest of margins. He sought to dampen expectations.
"Results do matter, but this is an issue that will continue to evolve," said Baldacci, who nevertheless made his pitch in moral terms: "When history's light shines on you, whether you are a representative, senator or governor, you can either push things ahead or hold things back, and they have to think about that long and hard."
Or you can just dodge it. No one seems to know where Maine's two moderate Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, fall on the issue. ("Good question," said Connolly when asked.) Collins's office said she does not weigh in on state referendums. Snowe's office said she would leave it up to voters.
* * *
At the end of a 20-minute drive from Portland, past trees catching the red and yellow fire of autumn leaves, a small office on the side of Route 1 in Yarmouth displays a ballpoint scrawl of "Stand for Marriage Maine" on a Post-it note. Other than that, there is no indication that this is the conservative campaign's headquarters.
Inside, Mutty, the campaign's chairman on leave from the diocese, wore suspenders over his jean shirt and complained about "intimidation" from the gay-marriage supporters and silence from the national folks.
"We tried to get Romney involved, but nothing," said Mutty, referring to former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate. (Romney's spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, said his political action committee had not been contacted.) Same for Huckabee, another presidential candidate who staunchly opposes gay marriage.
Mutty also claimed that the Mormon Church, which acted as a major backer to the effort to oppose gay marriage in California, has thus far not played a major role in Maine. (Kim Farah, a spokeswoman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the church "does not involve itself institutionally in every same-sex election contest.")
Just who is funding the opposition to gay marriage is difficult to verify. The majority of the money is coming from the Washington-based National Organization for Marriage. NOM is suspected of fronting for national conservative groups such as Focus on the Family, as well as the Catholic and Mormon churches, the Knights of Columbus and others. On Mutty's desk lay a copy of an Oct. 1 decision handed down by Maine's state ethics board announcing an investigation of NOM's funders. The finding is due after the election.
Not all the activity is so opaque. After Sunday Mass at Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Congress Street, ushers handed parishioners a pamphlet from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. ("Persons in same-sex unions cannot enter into a true conjugal union.") One of the churchgoers, Gwen De Cicco, 38, of Portland, said she had seen envelopes left on the pews at another church across town, soliciting donations for the campaign. The small print on the envelope notified parishioners that these donations were not tax deductible. She didn't approve.
"Civil matters are civil matters," she said.
The ads in Maine are produced by the same experienced hands that turned the California vote, but Mutty said that he only wished there was more money coming in from national conservatives. "It could be the first time that they are able to win at the polls," he said of the gay marriage advocates. "It would mean them breaking through. For us winning would mean holding them off. Maine could really blow it for them."
Connolly is determined not to screw it up. With the Democratic establishment reluctant to dive in wholeheartedly and fundraisers failing to collect big checks, Connolly has sought to activate bloggers through his friend Joe Sudbay, a Portland native and the deputy editor of the influential and progressive AmericaBlog. And they have joined the battle, helping raise nearly $1 million in online contributions, according to the Internet-based fundraising hub ActBlue. Plus, another native Mainer, Eli Pariser, president of MoveOn.org, has solicited Web donations from his cyber-flock.
"Sometimes," said Sudbay, who is gay and writes often about Maine. "I think we are driving the agenda."
One month out from the vote, as progressive blogs sought to heap pressure on Obama and Congress, Connolly and his campaign staff spent the afternoon in a ground-floor office furnished with blank computer screens, an overstuffed dorm-style couch and decorated with dozens of handwritten motivational signs ("Highlighting successes, Turning them into bigger asks," "Phone Bank Hall of Fame," "Days Left: 30").
Volunteers wearing galoshes started trickling in out of the rain to report their door-knocking experiences to Shirin Khosravi, a 25-year-old organizer. She sat at the head of the table, sipping from a silver can of Diet Moxie soda and nodding.
"There were lots of empty houses; we should canvass at the mall," said Mary Dougherty, 44, who sat next to the partner she hopes to marry.
"We were chased by a dog!" said Michael Michaelson, 11, who sat beside his mother, another one of the volunteers.
Several of them complained that the opposition's television ad, arguing that homosexuality would be taught in schools under the new law, seemed to be swaying voters against them.
"That was a big problem in California," said Khosravi.
Then she tried to leaven the mood. Early votes were being cast, and she promised that, with rain-or-shine commitment, they'd certainly prevail.
"Tomorrow," she said, brightly, "we start our get-out-the-vote phone bank operation in the carpet warehouse building right across the street!"