By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010; B01
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.Shrewd or misguided?
The decision sets up a likely showdown in the state's highest court, and Gansler said he thinks his opinion has provided a successful road map for same-sex couples to win such cases.
If voters become more comfortable with same-sex marriage over the next four years, the move could prove a shrewd one for an attorney general already positioning himself to run for governor in 2014. If not, he could be cast as too liberal even in his party's own primary.
The other Democrats who hold statewide office and who are likely to seek the nomination haven't supported same-sex marriage.
More immediately: In an election year with the seats of not only O'Malley but all 188 state legislators up for grabs, Gansler's decision exerts new pressure on Democrats with tenuous holds on the state's more conservative districts. The state's Republican Party has made clear that a primary focus in November will be to pick off five seats to break the Senate's filibuster-proof majority. At least some of those Democrats are likely to face committee votes on same-sex bills in coming weeks.
"We have a long history of pragmatic politics," said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a powerful Democrat who represents Southern Maryland and who often votes against bills introduced by his more-liberal colleagues. "You've got the rural areas that offset some of the more progressive areas, and because of that . . . there are some issues that you'd think we'd be a lot further ahead on than we are, which I think is appropriate."
Bohanan then described an exchange that often typifies some of the tension within the state's Democratic majority: "Somebody said in [the] Appropriations [Committee] the other day that, 'Well, you know California has passed this bill already,' and I said, 'Some of us believe that if they've done it, then we run in the opposite direction.' "Defining the Democrats
A recent Gallup poll found that 57.7 percent of Maryland voters are Democratic or left-leaning, the highest percentage in the country aside from the District.
The party's power is centered in the middle of the state, in Baltimore and the heavily populated Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Democrats win in rural areas, too, but often by toeing conservative lines on immigration and crime issues.
Religion also plays a moderate role. A strong arc of Catholic voters resides throughout Howard and Anne Arundel counties, boosting the legislature's ranks of Catholics to 53, or almost a third of lawmakers. Catholics are only outnumbered by the half of Maryland lawmakers who identify themselves as Protestant.
"Maryland's electorate, and therefore its lawmakers, are different than in other blue states," said Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a pastor and Baltimore County Democrat who authored a House bill that failed last month to ban recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages.
"The leadership of both the House and the Senate are Catholic, and I think the religious aspect has a lot to do with what happens in Annapolis," Burns said. "We have a bumping of the heads of the legal and the moral. And even though it's mostly run by the legal minds, the morality of this -- in the minds of many in the legislature -- supersedes."
Although Burns's bill failed, a similar measure against recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages remains active in the Senate.
That bill has 10 co-sponsors: five Republicans and five Democrats. Three -- including Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. (D-Baltimore County), the lead sponsor -- represent fairly conservative districts. The other two -- Sens. Anthony C. Muse (D) and Douglas J.J. Peters (D) -- hail from Prince George's.
The Democratic co-sponsors underscore the diversity of views within the party in the all-important Senate. Liberal legislation can pass the House but often dies there. Democrats dominate the chamber, holding 33 of 47 seats, but there is little consensus on social issues.
In recent years, conservative Democrats have sided with Republicans on several other divisive issues, including stem-cell research.
Maryland was one of the first states to approve funding for stem-cell research, but it remains one of the last sticking points each year in the budget.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said he wasn't sure how much debate Stone's measure would get, saying he considered the House as having already dealt with it. Miller said bills to pass same-sex marriage also haven't gone anywhere in the Senate because "it would be very difficult to get past a filibuster."
Still, Miller, who on many occasions has tried to curtail debate on social issues since he began presiding over the Senate in 1987, said his members' views on the latest hot-button social issue, same-sex marriage, are just one slice of being a Maryland Democrat.
"We're not going to tolerate a litmus test for people who belong to the Democratic Party," he said.
Jennifer Kali, 31, recently gave birth to a daughter and plans to travel with her partner, Karen, from their Silver Spring home to get married in the District next week. Maryland already gives same-sex couples many rights, "but this could be huge," Kali said, referring to Maryland potentially recognizing her marriage.
"The fact that we're even talking about it," Kali said, "is a big deal."