Personal appeals on Md. gay marriage bill making a difference, lawmakers say

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 11:13 PM

When he learned that Sen. James Brochin was planning to vote against Maryland's same-sex marriage bill, Tim Connor was dumbfounded.

After all, he and Brochin (D-Baltimore County) knew each other pretty well: For several summers, they had volunteered side by side in the concession stand at the neighborhood pool, where both have daughters on the swim team.

So last month, Connor, who adopted his 11-year-old daughter with his same-sex partner of 20 years, called his senator on his cellphone.

"I said, 'Jim, what are you doing here?' " Connor recalled. " 'Look at it through the kids' eyes. They don't have any issue with this.' "

Brochin didn't tip his hand at the time, but a couple of weeks later, he joined a majority of senators voting for the bill. That 25 to 21 vote shifted action on the legislation to the House, where a committee approved the bill Friday, setting up what promises to be a dramatic debate in the full chamber this week.

As legislators have weighed the highest-profile issue in Annapolis this year - in some cases trying to reconcile their desire to extend rights with their religious beliefs - they've heard plenty from lobbyists and advocacy groups on both sides.

But it's the personal appeals that are making a difference, some lawmakers say.

Del. Tiffany Alston (D-Prince George's) cited the outpouring of opposition from black churches in her county as one reason for reconsidering her support of the legislation last week. On Sunday, ministers in some African American churches preached about the legislation and asked their congregations to register their opposition with lawmakers. A prayer vigil is planned for Monday night in Annapolis.

"I know that my community does not like this bill," Alston told her colleagues before voting against the measure Friday as a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Alston's unexpected absence at a voting session earlier in the week had slowed the bill's progress.

Some of the personal outreach on both sides has been coordinated.

As part of a lobbying campaign, Equality Maryland, the state's leading gay-rights organization, has nudged neighbors, co-workers and fellow pool members of lawmakers to make personal appeals. Connor was encouraged to call Brochin by a former executive director of the group.

Within the same span of a few days, the senator's position was also questioned by a real estate broker in his district and a Republican constituent with whom he speaks regularly.

"It all started to grow on me and have an impact," said Brochin, a divorced father who previously supported civil unions for gay couples but balked at same-sex marriage. "These are families, just like my daughter and me. It made me realize the problem with the word 'marriage' may be my own."

Last Monday, the top Catholic leaders in the three dioceses that include parts of Maryland issued a joint statement urging their flock "to act at once to make your voices heard." Versions of the statement posted on the Internet and sent by e-mail included a link to a form letter constituents could send to their delegates.

But for many lawmakers, the more influential voices have been people they already know.

The six openly gay lawmakers in the 141-member House of Delegates have had conversations with their colleagues behind the scenes, some at their initiation and some by invitation.

Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore) said he has probably talked to at least 10 delegates, including several fellow freshmen with whom he bonded on a three-day bus trip across the state in December for new lawmakers.

In some cases, Clippinger said, he has shared his story of coming out as a gay man in his late 20s as he was finishing law school.

"We all come from different places and different perspectives and life experiences," Clippinger said. "On issues big and small, people want to hear from people who are directly affected."

Patrick L. Wojahn had talked to Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George's) several times in recent years about same-sex marriage, always coming away unsure of exactly where Rosapepe stood.

On a Saturday morning shortly before the Senate vote, Wojahn, an openly gay member of the College Park City Council, met with his senator one last time. Over eggs at one of Rosapepe's favorite diners in his district, Wojahn said he made a personal appeal.

"I had been through a lot of this before, about why Dave and I want marriage," Wojahn said, referring to his partner. "But I wanted to give him my personal appeal and talk to him one last time."

Rosapepe, a Catholic, announced his support for the bill about a week before the final vote. He has said little publicly about his thinking since then and declined to be interviewed for this article.

Rosapepe was also the subject of a letter-writing campaign organized by a Democratic student group at the University of Maryland, which is in his district.

On Valentine's Day, as part of a lobbying effort by Equality Maryland, a student visiting Rosapepe in his Senate office delivered a stack of about 450 letters from the university community, including one by Justin Shugarman, a sophomore double-majoring in economics and math.

"My parents are lesbians, and they have been in a loving, committed relationship for 27 years," Shugarman wrote. "I could not have asked for more loving or supportive parents."

Steve Charing began talking to the only Republican senator who voted for the same-sex marriage bill about that prospect four years ago.

Charing, who has been with the same partner for 31 years, was part of a group of about 10 people who asked for a meeting with Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard) at a library in his district.

Charing and the others, who were members of the Howard County chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, pointed to the legalization of same-sex marriages in Massachusetts and asked Kittleman to consider supporting it in Maryland.

"He didn't make any commitments at all," Charing said, "but he listened very patiently and was very courteous."

In the years that followed, Kittleman attended the group's picnics and holiday parties. There were more casual meetings as well.

"We'd just sit down and have coffee together," said Dan McCarthy, a group member whose 24-year-old son came out about a decade ago. "He got to know us as people."

In December, Kittleman announced he would be introducing civil unions legislation, a move that pleased neither his Republican colleagues nor many in McCarthy's group.

"I said, 'Allan, I really don't think that's a good idea,' " McCarthy recalled. "We'd been down that road before, with separate lunch counters and separate water fountains."

Kittleman later dropped his plans to push for civil unions and announced he would instead support the same-sex marriage bill.

"The folks who had the most influence on me weren't the lobbyists, but the folks from our everyday lives that came to talk to me," Kittleman said.

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