The successful campaign to win marriage equality in New York stands in stark contrast to the disappointing effort earlier this year in Maryland to do the same.
Although there are many important differences between the two states — most notably the threat of a referendum in Maryland and the influence of conservative black churches there — the most glaring contrast was the role of each state’s governor in the fight. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo embraced the cause of marriage equality as a civil rights issue. He made it clear even before he was elected that he supported full marriage rights and then backed up those words with public and private efforts to make it happen. He personally lobbied for the needed votes behind the scenes, but more significantly, took a visible and public stand.
In contrast, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is the reluctant advocate, offering meek, private assurances of support but refusing to publicly embrace the cause, even after winning a second term in a landslide. O’Malley recently told the Baltimore Sun that a more public push for marriage on his part, “would have kicked it into the gutter of partisan division.”
Huh? Sen. Allan Kittleman — the former GOP Senate leader — bravely killed the false notion that this is a partisan issue by publicly and forcefully embracing full marriage rights. O’Malley’s own attorney general — and the likely next Maryland governor — Doug Gansler has already cleared the way for O’Malley thanks to his own visibility and advocacy on marriage equality.
O’Malley fails to understand his role and his own power. He’s a popular two-term governor in a decidedly “blue” state with a formidable campaign war chest. His full, fierce advocacy would reassure the fence sitters in the legislature and send a message that Maryland will lead on matters of civil rights and stand on the right side of history.
Instead, O’Malley ceded that leadership role to Cuomo, who, along with fellow marriage rights advocate New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is consistently mentioned in the top tier of 2016 presidential contenders. And let’s face it, by 2016, it will be untenable for the Democratic nominee to oppose marriage equality. President Obama will endorse it next year (if not sooner) and that position will become the Democratic standard.
Maryland’s 2012 legislative session is just six months away and there is much work to do. Sure, O’Malley says he supports marriage equality, but he could give a much-needed boost to the fight by taking a page from Cuomo’s playbook and finally engaging in a meaningful way.
And he’s not the only voice we need in this debate. As a recent Sun editorial pointed out, former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman, who came out as gay, is a native Marylander. He joined the fight for marriage equality in New York, but his penance for his myriad past sins is not yet complete. Mehlman should come home to Maryland and lobby Republican state lawmakers whose votes we will need next year.
Lobbying in Annapolis will be an easier chore next year, as advocates now know where the votes are and who needs a push. With O’Malley leading the charge on the Democratic side and Mehlman organizing Republican efforts for passage, Maryland’s same-sex couples will be in a strong position to finally win marriage rights in the Free State.
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.