Picture state Rep. Stacey Fitts of Pittsfield as he caucused with his fellow Republican lawmakers back in May 2009.

It was eminently clear to everyone in the State House that Maine’s same-sex marriage bill, heavily favored by the majority Democrats, had all the support it needed to pass.

And while a handful of his Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives planned to cross the aisle and back the measure, Fitts had been around long enough to know, as he recalled last week, “you don’t take on a controversial issue if you don’t have to.”

So even as his conscience tugged at him, even as he wondered if he might be on the wrong side of history, Fitts voted no.

Then he sat back and watched as Gov. John Baldacci signed the bill into law. He grimaced as the inevitable people’s veto campaign — led by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maine and California anti-same-sex marriage guru Frank Schubert — split the state in two.

And through it all, something inside Fitts changed.

“In my mind, through that summer, watching how the campaign played out and how hateful it became, it certainly iced it for me that this wasn’t just about people being concerned about marriage,” he said. “This had everything to do with what a person who is gay deals with on a daily basis.”

That fall, Fitts went to the polls and quietly switched sides, voting to keep the law he’d once opposed. Once again, he found himself on the losing side — although this time, at least, he walked away confident he’d done the right thing.

“I basically didn’t want to be in a place ever again where I didn’t stand up against something that hurt people,” Fitts said. “And I wasn’t going to be part of campaigns that were hateful.”

You’ve probably seen Fitts by now, front and center in a new television ad urging his fellow Mainers to vote yes on Question 1 next month and lay this issue to rest once and for all.

“Deciding who you marry is the most important decision you will ever make. I don’t believe the government should tell anybody who they can love or who they can marry,” he says in the 30-second spot. “Voting yes protects religious freedom and it protects individual freedom. To me, that’s what our country’s all about.”

It’s also a sign of these rapidly changing times.

Republicans United for Marriage, of which Fitts is one, will hold news conferences in Portland and Bangor this week to highlight a pivotal difference between this year’s same-sex marriage campaign and the one that lost by just over 33,000 votes three years ago:

This time around, there’s growing support among conservatives for making a state marriage license available to any gay or lesbian couple that wants one.

Dan Demeritt, a former communications director for Gov. Paul LePage and now a columnist for this newspaper, spoke movingly at the group’s rollout in July about how important his wife has been to him through good times and bad.

“Through it all, every day, I came home to my wife, who I knew would be there for me to listen to my troubles and celebrate the successes. To share in the joy and the pain. And, when things were toughest, to bring me comfort,” Demeritt said. “I support the freedom to marry because I want every person to have a chance at that kind of relationship, to be able to share the joys and obligations, and to help shoulder the troubles of life that we all face.”

Phil Harriman, a former Republican state senator from Yarmouth and now a blogger for the Bangor Daily News, wrote last week that for all the politics swirling around same-sex marriage, “actually it’s not complicated.”

“The U.S. Constitution endows us with rights, among which is liberty,” Harriman wrote. “It’s not the government’s role to tell anyone who they can or cannot devote themselves to.”

In coming over to the “yes” side, the Republicans bring two important elements to a debate that for too long has split — at least on the surface — along the same old liberal-conservative lines.

One is the inescapable fact that all of us — liberals, conservatives, moderates, you name it — have a gay or lesbian family member, friend, neighbor (or all of the above) who knows every day what it means to be less in the eyes of the law.

The second is the equally powerful introduction of a libertarian thread to the debate, a recognition that if you truly support less government interference in your life, you logically must oppose government-sanctioned barriers to same-sex marriage.

“I think that’s absolutely true — I don’t think there’s any mystery in that at all,” Fitts said. “You can’t have it both ways. And you have to be true to that. And when someone points it out to you, it’s not dishonorable to say, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t thought about it, but I am being somewhat duplicitous.’ “

Jill Barkley, marriage project coordinator for the ACLU of Maine, said words like that carry considerable weight coming from a Republican of Fitts’ stature. And Fitts is not alone — other Republican lawmakers who have lined up behind same-sex marriage include state Rep. David Richardson of Carmel, Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess of Cumberland and Sen. Chris Rector of Rockland.

“It creates permission for others to follow,” Barkley said. “So we’re very thankful for the leadership that’s been shown by these folks who have some name recognition.”

Fitts, who is terming out after eight years in the House, said his exit “does free me up to take stands and be public again, where maybe (in past elections) it wasn’t politically expedient to do.”

You heard that correctly, folks — a veteran politician conceding that his party’s line didn’t always align with his moral compass. A guy who three short years ago wouldn’t have dreamed he’d be on statewide television urging his fellow Mainers to end this divisive battle once and for all.

“It’s funny how stuff works out,” Fitts mused. “Sometimes when you get into the political realm, you do a complete turnaround.”

And sometimes, when given another chance, you find the courage to talk about it.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]