December 27, 2010

A change of heart on gay marriage

Baldacci, once an opponent, kept his position on Maine’s historic bill to himself right until signing it.

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - When gay activists announced their intention to pursue full marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, they didn't know whether Gov. John Baldacci would support them.

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Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, left, hands Gov. John Baldacci the bill that the Maine Senate passed earlier that day in May 2009 to affirm the right for same-sex couples to marry. Baldacci signed the bill into law that day.

2009 Press Herald file photo

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They knew they had a Democratic Legislature that was likely to pass the bill.

They had momentum in other New England states.

But they didn't know if Baldacci -- a Democrat and Roman Catholic who had already expressed support for the lesser standing of civil unions -- would go along.

Would he veto it? Would he quietly let it be known he wasn't supportive? Would he withhold support unless it was sent to voters for approval?

His early comments, made in January 2009 after a news conference to announce the bill, were noncommittal.

"This debate is extremely personal for many people and it's an issue that I struggle with trying to find the best path forward," he said. "I'm not prepared to say I support gay marriage today, but I will consider what I hear as the Legislature works to find the best way to address discrimination."

Four years earlier, Baldacci had been a strong proponent of a law to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in employment, housing, education and public accommodations. But he drew a distinction between his support for the Maine Human Rights Act and gay marriage.

During a debate over the anti-discrimination law televised on WCSH 6 in 2005, Baldacci called the station to clearly state his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Kathleen Shannon, host of "207," read a note handed to her by a producer about 15 minutes after Michael Heath of the Christian Civic League said that Baldacci supported same-sex marriage, according to a transcript provided by the television station.

Shannon read a statement that said: "He says, 'I have publicly and consistently said I do not support same-sex marriage and I would not support same-sex marriage.'"

At the time, November 2005, the issue before voters was the anti-discrimination law, not gay marriage.

A few days after the televised debate, voters upheld the law with 55 percent support.

Fast-forward to 2009 and gay activists were back with a proposal for full marriage rights.

But they had no promises from Baldacci, said Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine.

"We did not have a lot of conversations with him about marriage," she said. "He was very insistent on having the bill work its way through the regular legislative process."

They did, however, work to explain to Baldacci the difference between civil unions and marriage, she said. They packed the Augusta Civic Center with supporters who testified about the bill, sent postcards and made phone calls.

With the bill headed to the House and Senate for votes, pastor Bob Emrich, who led the opposition efforts, tried to get a meeting with the governor.

"We had asked a number of times early in the process and all the way through until he signed the bill," he said. "He at first said he would, and definitely would after the Legislature finished. And then, as soon as the Legislature approved it, he signed it."

Emrich and other evangelicals never did get a chance to talk to the governor.

"I felt like he was our governor, too, and he could at least let the opposition talk with him," he said.

On the other side, Smith said they had indications from Baldacci's staff that they could suspend their lobbying operations directed toward the governor.

But no one told them whether Baldacci planned to sign it. They knew for sure only when he held a news conference to announce his decision, she said.

Baldacci signed the bill into law May 6 -- about an hour after the Senate took final action.

(Continued on page 2)

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