'Maine ways' and gay marriage

As we prepare for tonight's voting results in the '09 trifecta - the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races (where Democrats are hoping to hang onto the Garden State), plus the special House election in upstate New York (which has


become a conservative

cause celebre

) - let us not overlook the gay marriage referendum in Maine, where the movement for equality can ill afford a defeat.

Earlier this year, the Maine legislature passed - and the Democratic governor subsequently signed - a bill legalizing such bonds, thus making Maine the fifth state in New England to extend marriage equality to all. That signing should have been settled the matter, but no. Gay marriage foes quickly amassed enough petition signatures to put the law on a state referendum ballot. So here we are today, and all available polling evidence suggests that the vote will be close.

In the past, when courts have ruled in favor of gay marriage, cultural conservatives have generally insisted that such momentous decisions should be made not by judges, but by legislators representing the people. But now that Maine's legislators have done that very thing, the gay marriage foes naturally won't accept that either. Hey, that's politics; you fight by employing all available means. And since Maine does allow its people to nix a state law via referendum, it's natural that the New Jersey-based National Organization for Marriage, and an advertising team from California, would hook up with Maine's Roman Catholic Diocese to go that route.

Which means that Maine's gay marriage camp - which includes a lot of characteristically flinty and iconoclastic Mainers - has been presented with an historic opportunity. If the voters tonight decide to uphold the new state equality law, it will be the first time that any state has supported gay marriage at the ballot box.

Gay marriage supporters badly need this kind of political breakthrough - especially in the wake of the 52-48 percent loss last November in California (with pro-Obama African-Americans voting heavily to overturn the court ruling that had legalized gay marriage statewide); and especially in light of the fact that voters in roughly 30 states have banned gay marriage in past ballot tests.

With future fights looming in states such as New York and New Jersey, the equality forces need actual concrete evidence that "the people" are on their side. Given the fact that New England is their strongest territory, a thumbs-down verdict tonight would truly be damaging, at least in the short run. Cultural conservatives would be able to spin the results this way: If the "homosexual agenda" can't win via popular vote even in New England, where can it win?

Fortunately for the gay marriage camp, however, Maine is promising turf for a breakthrough win.

There's a strong live-and-let-live libertarian strain in the local thinking, the notion that people should simply be left alone - and the gay marriage camp is playing to these traditional "Maine ways" in TV ads (lots and lots of TV ads, since air time in Maine is relatively cheap). The ad narratives say things like, "Whether you're born here, or move here, it gets into your blood. It's how you're brought up. You know, in Maine, we don't tell anyone how to live." The talking heads are firemen ("It's not anybody's business to interfere with personal decisions") and tractor guys ("What's wrong with making marriage equal between all Maine people?").

And one noteworthy gay marriage endorsee is Phil Spooner, an 86-year-old World War II vet, whose recent Maine testimony has drawn more than 610,000 views on YouTube. (Referring to the Nazi death camps: "I've seen with my own eyes the consequences of a caste system that makes some people less than others, or second class. Never again...This is what we fought for in World War II - the idea that we can be different and still be equal...What do you think I voted for at Obama Beach?")

But the outcome of this referendum, like the gubernatorial races and the House race in New York, will hinge on turnout - always the biggest factor in non-presidential years. Will libertarian Mainers be motivated to show up and team up with a sufficient number of youthful and college-age voters? Or is the straight-marriage electorate more strongly motivated to show up - spurred, perhaps, by the conservative TV ads which warn that gay marriage inevitably will be taught in the Maine schools.

This is the homosexuals-are-coming-for-your-kids message, which Maine's attorney general has already dismissed as ridiculous, and which I admittedly find to be a tad puzzling. When I was growing up, during an era when everybody appeared to be straight, I don't recall ever being taught anything at school about straight marriage. And even though there were lots of divorces and breakups in my town, I don't recall ever being taught anything about straight divorces. But I digress.

Regardless of who wins or loses in Maine, of course, this particular culture war will continue to be waged in other venues - until at some future point the demographics will inevitably shift and gay marriage will become settled law. As Daniel Foley, a gay rights attorney, remarked, "I think it's no longer a question of if, but how and when."

The thing is, I just stumbled across Foley's quote, which appeared in the newspapers on August 30...1994.

Fifteen years later, there is still no clarity on the question of when. Maine can help determine that.


Message: Ya Think 9/11 Wuz Bad? You Ain't Seen Nuthin' Yet! The latest prize for right-wing demagoguery of health care reform is hereby bestowed upon Republican congresswoman Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, who declared yesterday on the House floor: "I believe we have more to fear from the potential of that bill passing than we do from any terrorist right now in any country."