By Lisa Keen
After 28 years of trying, Maine civil rights supporters finally won statewide protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Activists have won passage of the law through the legislature four times only to see it vetoed once by a governor and rejected twice by voters. But on this fourth attempt – and third time at the ballot box – gays and their supporters cheered wildly in a packed hotel ballroom at about 11 p.m. Nov. 8. Reports from the Bangor Daily News showed a steady 57 percent of voters wanted to keep the law this year and there was no way that lead could evaporate, as it had in past years.
The Daily News reported Wednesday morning that 86 percent of the precincts showed Question 1 – which sought to block the law from taking effect – was rejected with 55 percent “No” votes and 45 percent “Yes.”
That makes Maine the 16th state to enact a comprehensive statewide law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
And that was the good news for gays in this month’s election results.
The bad news was that Texas voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to their state constitution to ban legal recognition of same-sex marriages. That made Texas the 19th state to amend its constitution to that end.
But the result in Texas was expected – both because Texas is a conservative state and because not one of the 18 ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage since 1996 has failed.
The result in Maine was much less predictable. In 1998, voters rejected the law by a 52 to 48 percent margin. In 2000, it was a razor thin rejection: 50.4 to 49.6 percent. Pre-election polls this year predicted victory, but they had in the past, too, so were of little value.
But early returns, gathered by the Bangor Daily News, held steady at 57 percent and showed the law earning approval from some of the state’s most conservative bastions including Lewiston, home of some of the anti-gay leaders. Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said the crowd of gay civil rights supporters gathered at a Holiday Inn in Portland was “jubilant.”
“There was jubilation, crying – even a little bit of disbelief,” said Foreman. “It’s been such a long struggle in Maine and the initial returns in those past votes showed us ahead only to have the lead taken away by the rural vote.”
What was different this time around – in addition to the votes – was considerable, according to Jesse Connolly, operations manager for Maine Won’t Discriminate, a statewide group that organized the campaign to defeat Question 1.
Connolly, whose father helped introduce the original gay civil rights bill in Maine in 1977, said the group targeted its efforts statewide this time, instead of concentrating on metropolitan areas as it did in 1998 and 2000. It also had the strong, active support of the Democratic Governor, John Baldacci, and key Republicans, said Connolly, including two former state party chairmen – one of whom served as a key adviser and spokesperson for the group.
“We mainstreamed our campaign this year,” said Connolly. “We went to the chambers of commerce, the innkeepers, the education association – they were all part of our operation. And we had a professionally run campaign,” he said. The campaign used direct mail to get absentee ballots into hands of supportive voters, used e-mails to aggressively solicit contributions, and, for the first time, bought airtime for television ads.
According to a press release from Maine Won’t Discriminate on Nov. 3, four political action committees that support the law raised almost $930,000 through Oct. 27. Two PACs supporting repeal of the law raised only one-third that amount.
Foreman said NGLTF contributed more than $150,000 to the effort against Question 1 and had two of its staffers in the state for several weeks. It also ran phone bank operations from its New York and Washington, D.C. offices to help get out the vote. The Human Rights Campaign said it also contributed staff and about $150,000 to the effort.
Now, every state from Maine to Washington, D.C., has some legal protection against sexual orientation discrimination – though Pennsylvania and Delaware have only executive orders prohibiting discrimination in public employment.
The marriage map is less attractive. All but six states and the District of Columbia have passed some form of restriction on legal benefits for same-sex couples. Texas, like many other states, already had a statewide law prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriages; but opponents of equal rights for gays believe such laws are vulnerable to legal rulings that they violate state constitutional guarantees to equal protection. So, they have moved quickly to amend the constitutions.
In Texas, 76 percent of the state’s voters approved Proposition 2, a constitutional amendment “providing that marriage in this state consists only of the union of one man and one woman and prohibiting this state or a political subdivision of this state from creating or recognizing any legal status identical or similar to marriage.”
The Texas legislature initiated the measure there and a wide range of conservative religious leaders backed it. Among the groups to support the amendment was a Ku Klux Klan chapter in Austin. The Austin American-Statesman reported that the Klan rally took place outside city hall the weekend before the vote (it also reported that pro-gay activists marched in greater numbers).
Like in Maine, the pro-gay campaign raised more money. According to the American-Statesman, the pro-gay campaign raised $500,000 through Oct. 31, compared to $350,000 reported by the pro-amendment groups. But the anti-gay side had the active support of the state’s Republican leaders, including the active, strong support of Gov. Rick Perry.
While the loss in Texas stung, Foreman said the victory in Maine was one particularly sweet to the gay community nationally, “not only because we won Maine after so many years,” said Foreman, but also because gays have suffered 14 consecutive statewide ballot losses over the past 12 months.
“Our community really needed a victory,” said Foreman. “Texas was not unexpected….Marriage equality is still a new topic in the minds of many people. Non-discrimination laws in Maine have been talked about for a long time, people understand it better. We’ll be in the same place with marriage in a few years.”
Meanwhile, gays are gearing up for yet another ballot battle as early as June of next year, when California voters could be asked to approve a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.