Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud, who could become the nation’s first openly gay candidate to be elected governor, has won the backing of EqualityMaine, the state’s leading gay-rights organization.

Michaud took the endorsement over independent Eliot Cutler, whose campaign sharply criticized EqualityMaine’s decision.

In a statement released in advance of Thursday’s scheduled announcement in Portland, Cutler’s campaign said it was politically motivated and ignored Michaud’s early voting record on discrimination and marriage-equality laws.

In November, EqualityMaine’s former director, Betsy Smith, announced that she is backing Cutler. Smith heads a political action committee that is working to get Cutler elected.

Ali Vander Zanden, EqualityMaine’s political director, said in a media statement Thursday that Michaud “will stand up for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Mainers and our rights and will also work to put our state back on track by finding solutions that will benefit all the people of Maine.”

“From making health care more affordable to putting Maine’s students first and growing our economy, Mike is the best candidate to move Maine forward,” she said.

EqualityMaine has led campaigns for marriage equality in Maine. It partners with the Equality Federation, a national group that leads state-based efforts to ensure that same-sex couples can legally marry. The national group has not spent significant money on elections, but it is built on grass-roots activists who could become valuable to Michaud in November.

EqualityMaine has 10,000 volunteers and engaged more than 20,000 donors in its efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine, which voters did in 2012. It has 70,000 members. The group’s communications director, Ian Grady, said it will encourage those supporters to help elect Michaud.

CONTRASTS IN MICHAUD VOTING RECORD

On Thursday, the Cutler campaign condemned the endorsement, saying it is political, not principled. In a prepared statement, the campaign criticized Michaud’s voting record on marriage equality issues, saying the Democrat has not fought for anti-discriminatory measures.

“Eliot Cutler and his family have stood side-by-side with the LGBT community for decades as outspoken advocates and supporters,” said Crystal Canney, a spokeswoman for the campaign. “Mike Michaud’s voting record in the Maine Legislature – 19 consecutive votes against equal rights for the LGBT community – speaks for itself. EqualityMaine cannot take away Eliot Cutler’s record on these issues, any more than they can create a new record for Mike Michaud. Once again, another special-interest group has abandoned its principles and denied its members an opportunity to hear from the candidates in a debate or forum and have a voice in their endorsement process.”

In response, Grady said that, from EqualityMaine’s perspective, Michaud has a “flawless” voting record in Congress supporting gay-rights issues.

Project Vote Smart, an organization that polls candidates on issues, asked Michaud in 2004 if marriage should be between a man and a woman. Michaud responded “yes.” He said there should be civil unions for gay couples. In 2004, he voted against a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage, and in 2006 he opposed a constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

In 2007, Michaud voted against a bill that would have prohibited employers from basing hiring decisions on sexual orientation. Michaud, one of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act’s co-sponsors, said the bill would not have protected transgender people.

Grady said Thursday that EqualityMaine had asked Michaud not to support the bill.

The Human Rights Campaign did not take the same position on the Non-Discrimination Act and docked Michaud for his vote against the measure in its annual congressional report card. Overall, the Human Rights Campaign has given Michaud a lifetime grade of 95.4 percent.

GAY RIGHTS AN EVOLVING ISSUE

Michaud’s campaign has said that the Democrat has an evolving record on gay-rights issues. He served 11 terms in the Maine Legislature and has served six in Congress. Over that period, he has become more closely aligned with the Democratic Party and its support for same-sex marriage, and in 2012 he supported the ballot initiative that allowed same-sex couples to marry in Maine.

The Cutler campaign focused on Michaud’s voting record in the Legislature. Over that period, bills were introduced to prohibit employers or landlords from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation. Michaud voted against several of those measures, and an anti-discrimination law finally passed in 1997.

Lizzy Reinholt, a spokeswoman for Michaud’s campaign, said Thursday that it is important to recognize how far gay-rights issues have come. She noted that in 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to not recognize same-sex marriage laws. The law was deemed unconstitutional last year by the U.S. Supreme Court, and Clinton supported the decision. President Obama did not publicly support same-sex marriage until 2012.

“We should be proud of how far this issue has come,” Reinholt said.

The EqualityMaine endorsement is another relatively early endorsement for Michaud, who is trying to consolidate support from progressive groups. Cutler has sought backing from some of the same left-leaning groups. In November, when the Sierra Club announced it was endorsing the Democrat, Cutler’s campaign manager, Ted O’Meara, acknowledged that Cutler had tried to win the same endorsement, then dismissed the group as part of the Democratic campaign apparatus.

CAMPAIGN TOUTS CUTLER GAY-RIGHTS RECORD

Michaud wasn’t able to attend Thursday’s news conference in Portland. In a prepared statement, he said EqualityMaine has “truly changed hearts and minds, and made our state a better place for all Mainers to live, work and raise a family.”

Cutler, in his statement criticizing the endorsement, said he and his family have long supported lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and helped raise money for EqualityMaine.

The group originally endorsed Democrat Libby Mitchell in the 2010 gubernatorial race, but later advised supporters that the latest polls in the race showed Cutler with a narrow lead as Mitchell began to fade to her third-place finish in the five-way race. Both candidates supported same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws and the group told supporters to vote for the candidate who had the best chance of winning.

Smith was executive director of EqualityMaine at the time. She is now leading the Campaign for Maine political action committee, which spent more than $330,000 to help Cutler’s candidacy in 2010.

Michaud has attempted to downplay his sexuality since he announced in November that he is gay. But his run has already attracted support from prominent gay-rights donors connected to national groups.

In December, Robert Raben, a congressional lobbyist who was a staffer for U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., hosted a fundraiser for Michaud in Washington, D.C. Raben was dubbed President Obama’s “gay-rights adviser,” and his firm has represented the Human Rights Campaign, a national group that has helped advance and finance same-sex marriage ballot initiatives in states, including Maine.

Brent Littlefield, Gov. Paul LePage’s campaign spokesman, issued a short response to EqualityMaine’s endorsement.

“The governor’s focus is on creating jobs and increasing prosperity for all Maine people,” Littlefield said.

This story has been corrected to note that EqualityMaine did not endorse Cutler in 2010, but advised voters that he was leading in the polls.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler