Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, told the Washington Blade on Monday that his group chose not to join a coalition of local, state and national groups called Marylanders for Marriage Equality. The coalition is leading efforts to lobby the Maryland Legislature to approve a same-sex marriage bill when it convenes in Annapolis in January.
“We are deeply committed, as we have been for years, to ending exclusion from marriage in Maryland and throughout the country,” Wolfson told the Blade in an email.
But he added, “In Maryland, because of the likelihood that marriage legislation can be forced onto the ballot, the key question is not just passing a bill in the legislature, but defending it against an attack campaign via ballot measure,” he said.
“Freedom to Marry has made it clear to members of the coalition and to lawmakers that our goal is to win, not simply to pass a bill, if there is not sufficient groundwork and investment in a campaign to win at the ballot,” he said.
“We have continued to press for clarity and progress on benchmarks for success, and have urged elected officials, national organizations, and advocates on the ground to show the plan, investment, and activities needed now to build public support and succeed at the ballot, not just the legislature,” he told the Blade in his email message about the Maryland marriage campaign.
Spokespersons for two of the lead coalition partners of Marylanders for Marriage Equality – Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign and Lisa Polyak of Equality Maryland – responded cautiously to Wolfson’s comments, saying the coalition is actively engaged in laying the groundwork and mapping strategy for fighting a possible marriage referendum.
Other sources familiar with the coalition’s member groups, who spoke on condition that they not be identified, said at least some of the coalition’s representatives took offense at Wolfson’s remarks. They said he appeared to be drawing conclusions about the coalition’s capabilities and setting criteria for it to obtain help from Freedom to Marry without knowing the full details of the coalition’s activities since it formed in July.
In addition to HRC and Equality Maryland, other members of Marylanders for Marriage Equality include the NAACP of Baltimore, the ACLU of Maryland, the Service Employees International Union of Maryland, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Progressive Maryland, the National Black Justice Coalition, Catholics for Equality, Maryland Faith for Equality, Maryland NOW, the Family Equality Council, and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
“With the help of all of our coalition partners we believe that both a legislative fight as well as a referendum is very winnable in Maryland,” said HRC spokesperson Fred Sainz. “In fact, our recent polling shows that 51 percent of Marylanders would support it,” he said in referring to the same-sex marriage bill.
Another HRC spokesperson, Kevin Nix, released to the Blade the results of a poll that HRC commissioned from the polling firm Garin Hart Yang, which shows 51 percent of those polled would vote in support of same-sex marriage in a possible Maryland referendum. The poll showed 44 percent would vote against same-sex marriage in such a referendum, while 5 percent were undecided or had no opinion.
Nix said the poll was conducted Oct. 20-23 of this year.
“We believe that the numbers will continue to grow and the enthusiasm for marriage equality will only become greater should there be the need for a referendum,” Sainz said.
Lisa Polyak, board chair for Equality Maryland, acknowledged that the makeup of the Maryland Legislature will be the same in January as it was in March of this year, when it failed to pass a same-sex marriage bill due to lack of support in the House of Delegates. The State Senate passed the measure in what observers called an historic development.
But Polyak said the difference going forward is that Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, has agreed to introduce the bill this time around and serve as its chief sponsor in the legislature’s 2012 session, providing an important boost for its chances of passing.
“At Equality Maryland, we’re following the governor’s lead and we intend to show that his confidence and the ability of Maryland to pass this legislation are well founded,” she said. “We are going to work and work and work to not just pass the bill through the legislature but to deal with anything that comes after it to make sure that we achieve the goal of legal equality for our families through civil marriage.”
Asked if she believes the coalition is prepared to fight a ballot referendum, Polyak said, “Yes, we feel that we are and will be prepared if that becomes a reality.”
Maryland State Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery County), who’s gay, said he, too, believes the coalition is quickly building an infrastructure needed to fend off a referendum. However, he said a referendum is not an absolute certainty. Under Maryland’s referendum law, organizers of a referendum must obtain about 52,000 petition signatures in a period of less than three months.
In past referendum battles, those opposing a referendum have challenged the validity of many of the signatures in efforts that have sometimes succeeded in preventing a referendum from reaching the ballot.
Melissa Goemann, legislative director of the ACLU of Maryland, said her organization and the coalition as a whole are “definitely” working on a plan to deal with a referendum over the marriage bill. She said ACLU of Maryland has hired a field director to work full-time on the marriage bill.
“We are very enthusiastic,” she said.
Others familiar with the Maryland coalition acknowledge that fighting a voter referendum will be a daunting task if recent history is a predictor of the outcome. Since 2004, opponents of same-sex marriage have succeeded in persuading voters in 29 states to approve ballot measures banning same-sex marriage in those states’ constitutions.
In 2006, same-sex marriage supporters in Arizona succeeded in defeating a ballot measure seeking to put in place a draconian constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage in the state as well as civil unions and domestic partnership rights for same-sex couples. The defeat marked the first and only time a state ballot measure calling for banning same-sex marriage had been beaten back.
But a short time later, Arizona voters passed a less restrictive ballot measure that bans same-sex marriage while allowing civil unions or domestic partnerships.
The National Organization for Marriage, the group leading efforts to oppose same-sex marriage in the United States, boasts that opponents of same-sex marriage have a perfect record of 29-0 in the fight against same-sex marriage.
Despite these odds, marriage equality advocates, including Wolfson, have said in the recent past that efforts to pass same-sex marriage bills in state legislatures or through the courts should continue. In discussing the approval in 2008 by California voters of Proposition 8, which overturned that state’s same-sex marriage law, Wolfson said the debate over Prop 8 played an important role in educating the American public about the importance of marriage equality.
Although Prop 8 was a defeat for LGBT equality in the short term, Wolfson has said it opened the way for “conversations” about marriage equality among the American people that would lead to the changing of hearts and minds of the public in the near future.
Some of the participants of Marylanders for Marriage Equality, speaking on condition that they not be identified, said the same principles should apply to Maryland. They said Wolfson should not impose a “benchmark” on the Maryland effort that calls for a guarantee that a referendum will be defeated before Freedom to Marry or other national organizations will lend their support.
Wolfson responded to these concerns in a follow-up email on Tuesday reiterating his belief that some benefit can be achieved even if a state marriage referendum loses. But he said such a benefit can only come about if supporters of marriage equality wage an effective and well thought-out campaign.
“[W]hen we engage in these campaigns against ballot attacks, we should fight so as to at least ‘lose forward,’ i.e., gain ground and set the stage for the next fight, via public education and enlisting support, even if we can’t prevail on the enemy’s timeframe by election day,” he said.
“So it is true that I believe in the value, indeed the necessity, of persuasion,” he added, which he described as lesson number two. “Lesson 1 was win,” he said.
“In Maryland, we have the opportunity to actually win and hold marriage, if we do what is needed not just to advance a bill but to mount a sustained and sufficient campaign to defend marriage at the ballot,” Wolfson said. “Benchmarks for achieving and holding the win are what Freedom to Marry has called for.”