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The Daily Need

Maryland governor promises renewed gay marriage push, just in time for 2012 election

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 21, 2011. Photo: AP/Susan Walsh

As expected, Maryland is taking shape as the next battleground in the fight over same-sex marriage — just in time for the 2012 election.

Gov. Martin O’Malley said this week that he would prepare a more aggressive campaign to pass a measure legalizing same-sex marriage when the state’s next legislative session begins in January. O’Malley told Talking Points Memo that he would borrow elements of the strategy used by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and supporters to pass a gay marriage bill there just over a year after it had failed in New York’s Democratic State Senate by a wide margin:

“I think every state tries to learn — I think we all try to learn from one another. I’m sure there were things that they learned from our inability to get this done. And similarly we will learn from what they did.”

That means a more central role for O’Malley himself. “What can we try differently that we haven’t already done in order to get this passed,” he said. “We thought the right approach last time was to allow a less partisan space to resonate around the issue.”

As Need to Know has reported, Maryland’s first attempt at legalizing same-sex marriage was just a few votes shy of passing the House of Delegates when it was withdrawn earlier this year. A key Republican supporter of the measure, the former Republican caucus leader in the Maryland State Senate, told Need to Know that he believed Republicans could provide a handful of crucial votes, but only if O’Malley invested his political capital in courting conservative donors and protecting Republicans who vote for the bill.

In New York, Cuomo intensively lobbied marginal Republicans, who were privately torn by personal anguish over the cultural and religious implications of legalizing same-sex marriage. They were also threatened politically by influential players within the Republican Party, particularly the leaders of the state’s Conservative Party, which provides a crucial ballot line in New York’s system of fusion voting. Ultimately, Cuomo’s alliance with key Republican donors, and his own personal popularity, helped insulate Republicans from political pressure. The strength of the religious protections in the bill were also a decisive factor.

Allan Kittleman, the lone Republican lawmaker in Maryland to support same-sex marriage, told Need to Know that a similar effort was needed from O’Malley:

I actually don’t believe that our governor made a strong effort. He said that he would sign the bill, but I didn’t see a lot of real boots-on-the-ground work to get the votes needed … I think if he would push for it more strenuously, then maybe they’d be able to get the couple votes they need.

The sway African-American churches hold among Democrats in the House of Delegates is formidable, and shows no sign of eroding. Gay marriage opponents specifically cited the influence of African-American pastors in helping defeat the measure earlier this year. If that proves true again, it could fall to a few moderate Republicans to make up the difference.

A subtle shift in the way Republicans think about gay marriage, along with robust religious protections and an aggressive lobbying effort by O’Malley, could help make that happen. Kittleman, who lobbied fellow Republicans to support the bill, said conservatives were beginning to see same-sex marriage as a matter of personal freedom. Several pledged privately to support civil unions, and could be persuaded to support gay marriage if the religious protections are strong enough, Kittleman said:

There are several members of our legislature who I have talked to — because I certainly was involved in trying to get the House of Delegates to approve it — who are very sympathetic and philosophically agree with my position with supporting same-sex marriage, but felt like they needed to vote the way that their constituents would want them to vote.

Maryland’s gay rights groups, for their part, are consolidating under a new banner as well, another key feature of the Cuomo approach in New York. They’ve also joined forces with labor unions, who can provide manpower and an out-of-the-box organizing apparatus, and sympathetic religious organizations. A similar collaboration proved the difference in New York, where the campaign for same-sex marriage marriage had previously been characterized by power struggles and infighting.

Because Maryland’s legislature only meets for three months a year, the next opportunity to push for same-sex marriage legislation will come in January, just as the 2012 presidential election ramps up. President Obama has carefully avoided taking a firm position on the question of same-sex marriage, subtly indicating his support to influential gay rights groups while keeping a safe distance from the issue in public appearances so as not to alienate moderate or culturally conservative voters.

A fierce battle over same-sex marriage that puts the issue back in the national headlines just as the 2012 election begins could easily upset that strategy.

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