By Esmé E. Deprez
NEW YORK - Maria Woodbury has called hundreds of voters in Maine since March to talk about making same-sex marriage legal. Some hang up, others say they’re too busy. One man, who said he grew up as a Catholic, stuck out.
While the nephew he’s raising alongside his two teenaged sons is gay, the man said he “strongly opposed” revising the law when they began talking last week, Woodbury said in an interview. Within 15 minutes, he had changed his mind.
“By the end of the conversation, he really wanted all his boys to have the same opportunities when they found the right person and wanted to marry,” said Woodbury, 31, an outreach worker for a coalition of gay-marriage supporters.
Advocates such as Woodbury are looking to gauge support for same-sex marriage among voters, who shot down a law permitting the practice in 2009. If they do get a measure on the November ballot and it passes, Maine would be the first U.S. state where gays win the right to wed directly from the public. Court rulings or legislation led to the change in the six states and the District of Columbia where it has occurred.
At least five other states are tackling the issue this year. Lawmakers in New Jersey, Washington and Maryland plan to push legislation to make same-sex marriage legal, while voters in North Carolina and Minnesota will be asked to bar the practice through constitutional amendments.
A majority of Americans favored making the practice legal in 2011, with 53 percent supporting it compared with 44 percent a year earlier, a Gallup poll showed in May. Political independents and Democrats accounted for the change as Republicans’ views hadn’t budged, Gallup said.
Supporters of an effort to put the issue before Pine Tree State voters again, led by EqualityMaine in Portland, plan to announce on Jan. 23 whether they will submit signatures needed to place the question on the ballot, said Betsy Smith, executive director of the nonprofit organization. Smith said they have almost twice as many as needed to qualify.
“We wouldn’t want to move forward with a campaign that we don’t think we are well-positioned to win,” Smith said. “We have to look at our current level of support, what we accomplished last year and our plans for this year and make a decision.”
The goal is to avoid a demoralizing repeat of 2009, Smith said. Voters rejected, by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent, a same-sex marriage law passed by legislators led by Democrats and signed by then-Governor John Baldacci, also a Democrat. In 2010, Republicans won control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office for the first time since 1966.
Advocates for changing the law have sought to build support by knocking on 100,000 doors around the state and collecting signatures to get the issue on the ballot, Smith said. A presidential election, which attracts more young voters who tend to support same-sex marriage, may make it easier to win passage, she said.
“All this leads us to believe that 2012 is a very different year for us than 2009,” Smith said. “Until we finally win marriage at the ballot, opponents will always claim that marriage is supported only by the courts and legislatures, but not by the people.”
Gay marriage isn’t an issue that motivates Republicans or that most people are paying attention to, said Charlie Webster, the Republican Party’s state chairman and a former Senate leader from Farmington.
“In the end, if it goes on the ballot, it will help us more than hurt us,” Webster said by telephone. “The average voter will see this once again as the Democrats pushing this on us instead of focusing on the economy.”
Bob Emrich, a pastor at the Emmanuel Bible Baptist Church in Plymouth, helped lead Stand for Marriage Maine, the group that spearheaded the campaign against the law in 2009. The organization won’t regroup unless EqualityMaine gets the issue on the ballot, which he said he thinks is likely to happen.
“What we’ve been doing is building the network and expanding grassroots connections to people in Maine and talking to people around the country,” Emrich said. “We need to be ready so when this starts, we hit the ground running.”
Only Maine and Rhode Island bar same-sex marriages among the six New England states. New York lawmakers legalized the practice last year, joining Iowa and Washington, D.C.
New York Step
Passage of the law in New York marked the first time such a measure has been approved in a state where Republicans control either legislative chamber. That step “provided a powerful example of the momentum and growing and broadening support across the political spectrum,” said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, a New York-based national advocacy organization which lobbied Albany lawmakers and is working on the issue in Maine.
“No question that we are bringing the experience we’ve had, in victories and defeats, including in New York, and that makes us confident that we’re on the right track in Maine,” Wolfson said. In November, an organization in Oregon that has worked with his group announced its intention to build more support before pushing for a similar law there.
Voters in California passed a measure outlawing gay marriage in 2008, reacting to a legal ruling, while court challenges have put the initiative in limbo. That same year, Massachusetts lawmakers blocked a drive to let voters decide whether to overturn a Supreme Judicial Court ruling making such marriages legal.
Maine is a strategically smart location to press for the first popular vote to change the law and permit gay marriage because of its small population, said Ellen Andersen, who teaches politics at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Failure, while devastating for supporters, wouldn’t command the national attention it would in a bigger state like California, she said.
“Gay rights activists haven’t wanted people to get their hands on this issue until very, very recently,” Andersen said.