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 scover@mainetoday.com
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.

click image to enlarge

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.

He invited reporters into his office to announce his decision only after he had signed it -- explaining that, while he once opposed gay marriage, he had "come to believe that this is a question of fairness."

At the time of the signing, Maine was only the fifth state in the country to allow gay marriage, but the first to pass a bill through the Legislature and have it signed by the governor without a court directive, Smith said.

Immediately after Baldacci signed the bill, Emrich and others in his coalition, which included strong support and leadership from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, gathered the signatures necessary to put the law on the ballot.

After an emotional and expensive campaign in which both sides spent a combined $9.6 million, voters repealed the law, with 53 percent of the vote.

In Smith's mind, the gay-marriage issue should be considered among Baldacci's most significant accomplishments.

At the Democratic State Convention in Lewiston earlier this year, Democrats invited three people to speak at the podium to honor Baldacci: a paper mill union representative; a wind energy proponent; and Smith, who spoke on behalf of gay and lesbian Mainers.

"I believe he does believe that this was one of his legacies -- and good for him," Smith said. "Someday, marriage will be the law and John Baldacci will be the first governor in Maine to have signed the law."

During a recent interview in his office, Baldacci described the evolution of his position from opposition to support, saying he was swayed by research that showed there were "400 citations in the state statutes dealing with state jurisdiction over marriage."

"At our very foundation as a country, each individual has a bill of rights," he said. "Each individual has rights. The majority may rule, but a minority has rights. We're all people, we're all Americans and we're all guided by the Bill of Rights."

Baldacci said he's confident the issue will come forward again and that more Mainers will change their positions, just as he did.

"It was a turnaround, but it's one in which I feel -- after listening to the people of Maine, and recognizing that they weren't ready for us having this as a statewide policy -- it turned a lot of hearts and minds and it represents where we are going to be headed," he said.

"You change laws, yes. But you also have to turn hearts and minds."

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan M. Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com

 

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