December 6, 2011 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Freedom to Marry spurns Md. marriage campaign

Evan Wolfson

Evan Wolfson says that a Maryland marriage bill would be vulnerable to a voter referendum. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The head of the national advocacy group Freedom to Marry startled leaders of Maryland’s campaign to pass a same-sex marriage bill in 2012 when he implied this week that organizers weren’t doing the work needed to defeat an expected voter referendum to overturn such a bill.

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.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

9 Comments
  • Maryland: Just pass the dam thing and get it over with. Nobody will take advantage of it anyway. If they do, they’ll divorce and re-marry just like Rosie and Company. Oh, but we’ve got to have our equal rights!! Pass it on a Friday night, let the supporters toast on Sat night to broad smiles of victory, and then move on to bigger and more important matters.

  • My hope is that the strategists are not banking on 51% support in a poll taken in October. I doubt the poll centered on likely voters whereby older citizens vote in greater numbers than the younger generation. As such, older folks who are prone to vote against marriage equality will support the referendum as will religiously conservative African-Americans who are expected to vote in higher than normal numbers given Pres. Obama will be on the ballot. And that is before the opposition goes full throttle and demonzies gays and lesbians on the airwaves. In addition, when it comes to social justice, respondents are more apt to reflect a progressive tone believing that’s what pollsters want to hear. Accordingly, these polls are commonly inflated and reality comes to fore at the election itself. To use the 51% as any kind of earmark is unrealistic.

  • Marriage equality is coming to Maryland, with or without Freedom to Marry. If Evan Wolfson wants to be remembered as someone who worked against this need when he could have worked for it—so be it. That will be his legacy—.

  • Why is this so complicated? In referendum states like Maryland, you need a transition phase to bring public opinion fully on board. The MD coalition could pass civil unions this year or next by an overwhelming majority and it is highly unlikely the opposition would even try to put it on the ballot. And if it did go on the ballot, we would win soundly. Let that process happen and give the public a few years to come on board with full equality. After a few years – say, 4 or 5 – upgrade to full marriage equality. In that time, we will have built up a solid majority and will have had plenty of time to prepare for a ballot fight.

    In non-referendum states, you don’t necessarily need this transition period, but in MD you do. That’s how to get it done. The alternative is to overreach and suffer a setback at the ballot, leaving us with nothing for years to come. Hopefully, the coalition will listen to Wolfson.

  • Let’s face it— Mr. Wolfson seems to be the only one willing to speak the truth. Equality Maryland is and has been a total trainwreck. They are not ready for this fight, and we don’t need another high profile loss. Better to get our act together in 2013 and win then instead of a devastating ballot loss in 2012. Finally someone is being honest about the situation.

  • My hope is that the strategists are not banking on 51% support in a poll taken in October. I doubt the poll centered on likely voters whereby older citizens vote in greater numbers than the younger generation. As such, older folks who are prone to vote against marriage equality will support the referendum as will religiously conservative African-Americans who are expected to vote in higher than normal numbers given Pres. Obama will be on the ballot. And that is before the opposition goes full throttle and demonzies gays and lesbians on the airwaves. In addition, when it comes to social justice, respondents are more apt to reflect a progressive tone believing that’s what pollsters want to hear. Accordingly, these polls are commonly inflated and reality comes to the fore at the election itself. To use the 51% as any kind of benchmark is unrealistic.

  • Mr. Wolfson states the truth

    Apparently the locals don’t like to hear the truth about their misguided efforts to pass same sex marriage. Last years attempt is a glowing example of how divided that ‘coalition’ can be. Mr. Wolfson is simply stating the obvious and Equality Maryland and H.R.C. would be wise to listen closely and make the necessary upgrades to their campaign for equality in marriage.

    Having a goal of 51% to claim a potential victory is ridiculous. That’s low-balling to an extreme. When voters come around to 65-70% then and only then can Equality Maryland be confident.

  • Rubbish and nonsense. Maryland is on the verge of becoming the likely 8th US state to get marriage equality.
    NOM and Brian Brown etc. can take a flying leap. Maryland will get marriage equality and will damned well keep it, referendum or none and NOM, Maggie Gallagher and Brian Brown can go chase themselves.

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