Same-sex marriage opinion was politics unusual in Maryland

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's opinion likely sets up a showdown in the state's courts.
Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's opinion likely sets up a showdown in the state's courts. (Alfredo Duarte Pereira/el Tiempo Latino)
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By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010

On paper, the declaration last week by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) that the state would begin recognizing same-sex marriages from other places might have seemed right in line with a state ranked as having the nation's largest percentage of left-leaning voters.

In reality, it violated the way Maryland politics works.

Even though Democrats hold a 2 to 1 advantage among voters and dominate both houses of the General Assembly, lawmakers in Annapolis are a more conservative lot than their counterparts in other deep-blue states. Powerful Democrats in the legislature hold onto their jobs for decades by moving slowly, not setting trends.

The state's brand of liberalism is explained in part by geography and in part by culture. Democrats are hesitant to embrace many progressive social policies, lest they upset the state's many Catholics, evangelicals and others with deep religious convictions.

And although parts of Montgomery County are every bit as left-leaning as Boulder, Colo., and Berkeley, Calif., African Americans in Baltimore and Prince George's County -- the state's other Democratic strongholds -- tend to be more socially conservative. Rural Democrats, particularly in the southern and western parts of the state, identify more culturally with Virginia than with Takoma Park.

The state's years-long debate on approving slots, which ultimately went before voters, and its slow march toward a ban on the death penalty is more typical of Maryland politics. Despite a full-court press by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to persuade the legislature to approve a ban last year, a state panel continues to study the issue.

Democratic conservatism among state lawmakers also frustrates progressive advocates in realms beyond the social: Corporate-tax restrictions, for instance, lag behind those in some Republican states, such as Texas, while levies on hard alcohol, which have been raised to pay for public-health costs in many Democratic states, have remained unchanged for 55 years.

"We are more comfortable, seemingly, waiting for other states to tiptoe into territory that is trendsetting to see what the reaction is before we step up and do the same thing," said Del. Heather R. Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat and one of the state's few openly gay lawmakers.

"We are a Democratic state, but in the big-tent sense, we have a lot of conservative Democrats, and we do things in a very measured sense."

Against such inertia, Gansler's decision to press ahead on gay rights not only got ahead of the curve but jumped the cautious political track on which Maryland lawmakers remain most comfortable.

Gansler used a request from Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., another openly gay Montgomery Democrat, to reverse an opinion and direct state agencies to begin offering same-sex married couples the same rights afforded heterosexual ones.

Gansler insisted that his decision was not playing politics and was right, given that the state has respected less-scrupulous contracts than out-of-state same-sex marriage licenses. Gansler's critics, however, insist that he intended to circumvent the legislature.

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