This November 3 the people of Maine will decide whether to keep a law, passed just six months ago, that made Maine the fifth state (of six) to legalize gay marriage. Polls are predicting a nail-biting finish, with the most recent showing those in favor of repeal ahead by 51 to 47 percent, effectively a tie (the poll has a 2.9 percent margin of error). With early voting already underway, both sides are ramping up their campaigns to reach out to Maine’s voters and to ensure strong turnouts in this unusually intense off-year campaign.
A victory for the “No on 1” campaign would be the nation’s first popular vote in support of gay marriage. It would build on momentum from a string of important victories in Vermont, Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this year. It would put an end to more than thirty consecutive defeats of marriage equality at the ballot box–including California’s Proposition 8 one year ago–as states across the country have passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman. (A 2006 vote in Arizona which rejected such a constitutional amendment is the only exception, but that was followed by a 2008 measure banning gay marriage which passed by a comfortable margin.) A defeat on Tuesday would be a major blow, reinforcing the argument that gay marriage has been won only through the actions of “liberal elites” in state courts and legislatures.
While Tuesday’s vote is clearly of national significance, the campaigns run by both sides in Maine have kept their message local. Maine’s Governor John Baldacci, who opposed gay marriage before changing his mind and signing the bill in May, has since then thrown his weight behind the campaign to keep the new law. He insists to the New York Times that this is not a national issue, or about gay rights in general, but is “Maine-specific.” Supporters of the law “don’t mind being part of a national address on this issue,” he told me, but they “are going through this because there are Maine individuals and families that would be negatively impacted if we didn’t provide equal protection under the constitution.” Whether or not Maine’s LGBT community is so narrowly focused on state issues, this message may prove critical in winning the support of undecided voters.
Baldacci points to public hearings held by the state legislature in April this year as a pivotal moment, not only for himself, but for the broader debate in Maine. The hearings, attended by an unprecedented crowd of 3-4,000 people, an estimated three-quarters of whom wore red shirts to show their support for marriage equality, included powerful testimonies in support of gay marriage from a wide range of people: rural farming families, World War II veterans and children from LBGT families. (One especially moving testimony, from an 86-year-old World War II veteran and lifelong Mainer Philip Spooner, has since received over half a million hits on YouTube.) Baldacci, a lifelong Mainer, described the testimony as “completely remarkable…unique and different than anything I have experienced in my history in this state.” It was “really a baring of the soul” and “people in Maine…realized that we’re not talking about people in California or Washington, we’re talking about people here in Maine.”
“Maine people getting up and telling their stories” had a huge impact on legislators,” says Mark Sullivan, communications director for the No on 1/Protect Maine Equality campaign. Baldacci hopes that other Mainers have “gone through the same process that I have,” and insists that “it has been a real growing process for us all…regardless of the outcome.”
Faith Moritz and Janet Jones, who have been together for almost twenty-four years and have two 6-year old children named Benjamin and Lucy, found the hearings “empowering” just because “we were being listened to.” For Stephen Ryan and Jim Bishop, who have been together for thirty-four years, and who testified, the hearings were a “bittersweet” experience. On the one hand, the “hurtful, untruthful, filthy testimony” of opponents of the legislation brought them back to the terrible things the kids would say to one another during their school days forty years ago. But they saw with their own eyes the impact “one story after another of how not being able to marry had hurt a family, a child or…a surviving partner” was having on legislators, who for the first time appreciated that the demand for gay marriage was not an “infantile want” but a plea for crucial legal protections.
For both couples the absence of the legal and financial protections of marriage is a constant source of concern. Faith and Janet carry around a stack of papers documenting their adoption rights and medical powers of attorney. Stephen and Jim worry about getting old, about whether nursing homes would honor their wishes “to be together until the very end,” and whether the property management business they have spent a lifetime building together would be hit by an inheritance tax, from which married couples are exempt, should one of them die. The implications are emotional too: Faith wonders whether, despite being in a deeply committed relationship, marriage would take their relationship to “a whole other level that we’ve never had the chance to experience.”
While the Protect Maine Equality campaign has echoed the optimism of families like Faith and Janet, appealing to “Maine values” of family, fairness and equality, Stand for Marriage Maine has opted for an ominous message, borrowing heavily from the tactics and strategists used in the Prop 8 campaign. The company managing strategy and media for pro-repeal Maine groups is Schubert Flint Public Affairs, the Sacramento-based company that managed the the California campaign against gay marriage. As in California, their ads play on fears that legalizing gay marriage will lead to homosexuality being taught in schools. They warn of such dire consequences as “gay-friendly books in day care facilities.” “Don’t be fooled,” one ad concludes, “Gay marriage will be taught in Maine schools unless we vote Yes on Question 1.”
When it comes to funding, the National Organization for Marriage, a conservative Christian group at the forefront of battles against gay marriage in other states, has provided more than half of the $2.5 million raised by Stand for Marriage Maine. While the Mormon Church has played a far smaller role than it did in California, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has provided over half-a-million dollars. Despite these large donations, the campaign to repeal has been significantly out-funded by Protect Maine Equality, which has raised over $4 million. Campaign manager Jessee Connolly reported more than 22,000 donations, as opposed to 710 donations that came in to Stand for Marriage Maine. Protect Maine Equality has used this funding to create a sophisticated grassroots campaign, with over 8,000 volunteers, five regional offices and several major phone banks. They have already made hundreds of thousands of phone calls, and expect to make 300,000 more in the final six days of the campaign–all in a state whose population, at 1.3 million, is roughly the same as that of San Diego.
Despite the apparent superiority of Protect Maine Equality’s organization, Tuesday’s result remains far too close to call. The last few days of campaigning will be crucial as remaining undecided voters take up a position. Even more important will be the “get-out-the-vote” efforts on Tuesday, with supporters of same-sex marriage counting on younger voters and college students, and opponents hoping proposals to cut taxes will bring out older, more conservative voters. Governor Baldacci is hopeful, if not confident: “History shines a light on you once every so often. We have an opportunity as individuals to do the right thing.”