Thursday January 02, 2014 | 10:29 AM

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud has won the backing of EqualityMaine, the state's leading gay rights organization.

Michaud, who could become the first openly gay candidate elected governor in the country, took the endorsement over independent candidate Eliot Cutler. Cutler's campaign sharply criticized the decision, releasing a statement in advance of Thursday's scheduled announcement in Portland, saying it was politically motivated and ignored Michaud's early voting record on discrimination and marriage equality laws.

The group's endorsement Thursday follows the announcement in November that Betsy Smith, EqualityMaine's former director, was backing Cutler. Smith is also heading a political action committee that is working to get Cutler elected.

Ali Vander Zanden, EqualityMaine’s political director, said in a press statement that Michaud "will stand up for LGBT 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 healthcare 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 efforts for marriage equality in Maine. It partners with the Equality Federation, a national group leading state-based efforts to ensure that same sex couples can legally marry. The national group has not spent significant money on national elections, but is built on grassroots activists that could become valuable to Michaud in November. EqualityMaine has 10,000 volunteers and engaged more than 20,000 donors (It boasts a membership of 70,000 people.) during efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine. According to communications director Ian Grady, the group will encourage that same group of supporters to actively help elect Michaud.

On Thursday, the Cutler campaign blasted the EqualityMaine endorsement, saying it was political, not principled. In a prepared statement, Cutler's campaign criticized Michaud's voting record on marriage equality issues, saying the Democrat had 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." 

Grady, responding to the Cutler campaign's comments, 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 also 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 another 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 making hiring decisions based on sexual orientation. Michaud, one of Employment Non-Discrimination Act co-sponsors, said the bill did not protect 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. 

Michaud's campaign has said that the Democrat has an evolving record on gay rights issues. He has served 11 terms in the Maine Legislature and 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 a ballot initiative that allowed same-sex couples to marry. 

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

Lizzy Reinholt, a spokeswoman for Michaud's campaign, said Thursday that it was important to recognize how far gay rights issues have come. She noted that Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, a law that allowed states to not recognize same-sex marriage laws. The law was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, a decision Clinton supported. President Barack 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 also marks another relatively early one for Michaud, who is attempting to consolidate support from progressive groups. Cutler has attempted to win 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 the independent had tried to win the same endorsement, but then dismissed the group as part of the Democratic campaign apparatus.

Michaud wasn’t able to attend the press conference, which was held in Portland Thursday. In a prepared statement he said he EqualityMaine had "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 had been long supported LGBT issues and help raise money for EqualityMaine.

Michaud has attempted to downplay his sexuality since announcing that he is gay. However, his run has already attracted support from prominent gay rights donors connected to national groups. In December Robert Raben, a congressional lobbyist and former staffer for former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.,hosted a fundraiser for Michaud in Washington, D.C. Raben was also dubbed President Obama's "gay rights adviser" and his firm has represented the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT 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 reponse to the EqualityMaine endorsement.

"The Governor's focus is on creating jobs and increasing prosperity for all Maine people," Littlefield said.

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Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.

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