Having only come out five months ago in several editorials in Maine newspapers, Mike Michaud is new to the club in terms of out public figures.
Nonetheless, he’s on the path to achieving a goal that has never been accomplished by any openly gay person: Winning a gubernatorial election.
During an interview with the Washington Blade in the office of one of his campaign’s consultants near Capitol Hill, Michaud tried to tamp down his sexual orientation as a factor in the race, but acknowledged the significance it places on his candidacy.
“That’s not why I ran for governor, because of my sexual orientation; it’s because I want to move Maine forward,” Michaud said. “But, quite frankly, if elected, it is historic, and I think it’ll also change the tone of the debate when you look at LGBT issues, not only in Maine, but throughout the country.”
The five-term member of Congress is seeking election in a state that legalized marriage equality at the ballot in 2012 and non-discrimination protections for LGBT people in 2005 (after earlier failed attempts).
“As governor, one of the advantages I’ll have is the opportunity to talk with some of my colleagues,” Michaud said. “As a matter of fact, the National Governors Association just met this week. To sit down with some of the governors talking about LGBT issues as it might come up in their particular states is something that I’m not hesitant to do, and it’s easier talking to peer-to-peer.”
As Michaud noted, the State House recently rejected by a 89-52 vote a measure that would carve out a portion of Maine’s civil rights law to allow individuals to discriminate, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
It’s similar to a controversial “turn away the gay” bill pending before Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) that would enable individuals and businesses to refuse service based on a sincerely held religious belief.
Michaud said he would veto any such measure that might reach his desk as governor, and furthermore said he believes Brewer “absolutely” should veto the version of the bill in her state. Recalling the recent meeting in D.C. of the National Governors Association, Michaud said “that would be something I would be able to talk with her about this week if I was governor.”
The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Equality Maine have endorsed Michaud’s candidacy. The Human Rights Campaign hasn’t yet officially thrown its support behind him, but is expected to announce more endorsements for Election 2014 following an upcoming board meeting.
Elise Johansen, Equality Maine’s executive director, said a win by Michaud in the gubernatorial election would be historic for the country and the state — and maintained her organization will help him achieve the victory.
“We endorsed Congressman Michaud’s campaign for governor because we strongly believe that he is the best choice to lead Maine, for the LGBT community and everyone in our state.” Johansen said. ”In addition to electing a proven leader with a long history of standing with LGBT Mainers, we have the opportunity to make history by electing our nation’s first openly-gay governor.”
No other Democrats are challenging Michaud for the nomination in the race, so he’ll carry the Democratic banner in what could be a three-way race.
On the Republican side is incumbent Gov. Paul LePage, who was first elected during the Tea Party wave in 2010 and was recently dubbed by Politico as “America’s Craziest Governor.” Also in contention is Eliot Cutler, an independent who’s a perennial candidate for Maine governor.
The race will be tight. Cook Political Report rates the contest as a toss-up, while Rothenberg Political Report considers the match toss-up/lean Democrat. Nonetheless, Michaud said the polling he sees in the race is promising.
“I feel pretty good about where we’re at; we’re leading in all the polls head-to-head,” Michaud said. “With our current governor, it’s a slam dunk, with a three-way race it complicates it a little more, but I feel really good about where we’re at.”
Making an impact by being out
Although he’s served in Congress since 2003, Michaud came out in November via a series of editorials published in the Portland Press Herald, the Bangor Daily News and the Associated Press.
“It never was an issue in my campaigns before,” Michaud said. “It appears that someone was trying to make it an issue this time around, so rather than let them make an issue, I decided to come out and move forward.”
The announcement came the same week that the Senate began considering the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but Michaud said the timing was based on his presence in Maine as well as a pending endorsement from Maine firefighters and policemen. Because those groups tend to be more conservative, the campaign announced the news so those groups wouldn’t rescind their support afterward.
Nonetheless, Michaud said his announcement had a positive impact and recalled a story in which a restaurant owner who had a gay son wanted to speak with him.
“He actually literally had tears in his eyes because his son came out five months before that as gay,” Michaud said. “But the way he came out, he needed help, he was sick and needed help. And the fact that when I came out, it really lifted the spirits of his son.”
Saying the incident made him “feel really good” as he recalled what happened, Michaud said it was just one of several of cases of individuals who have told him it made a big difference.
Now that he’s out, Michaud said he sees no evidence of his sexual orientation being an issue among the candidates in the race — although he said a Tea Party challenger to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) took to Twitter and Facebook to make it an issue.
Although he could be be the first openly gay person elected as governor, Michaud won’t be the first openly gay person to serve as governor. That distinction belongs to former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, who came out as gay in 2004 amid controversy before resigning.
Michaud is also not the only openly gay person seeking to win election as a governor in 2014. In Maryland, Del. Heather Mizeur is pursuing the Democratic nomination in a contentious primary. The Maine Democrat said he’s never met Mizeur and professed that he’s unaware of McGreevey.
Heading Michaud’s gubernatorial campaign is Matt McTighe, who also ran a successful campaign in 2012 to legalize marriage equality at the ballot in Maine in addition to heading Americans for Workplace Opportunity, a coalition of groups that pushed for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the Senate last year.
Michaud said he supported the idea of bringing marriage equality to the ballot in Maine 2012 — despite what he said were persistent concerns among Democratic leadership at the legislature the issue would hamper Democrats at the ballot.
The Maine Democrat recalled a conversation he had with McTighe and then-Equality Maine executive director Betsy Smith before the decision was made to go forward.
“They were concerned where I might fall out on this particular issue, or they just wanted my perspective,” Michaud said. ”I remember telling both of them, ‘If not now, when? Because when is the right time? Because in 2014, you’ll probably have the same excuse. Well, we have the governor’s race. We have to win it back. It’s not the right time. So, when is the right time?’”
The gamble paid off. Democrats regained control of the legislature that year, and the marriage equality initiative passed by a 53-47 percent vote, making it the first state ever to approve marriage equality purely through voter-intiatied ballot initiative.
“And I’m very glad they went with the campaign when they went with it,” Michaud said. “The way it was dealt with was it did change the hearts and minds of individuals one by one, and they made the difference.”
Michaud sees opportunity for ENDA
Before Michaud could be elected governor, he’s set to complete his 10th term in office representing Maine’s 2nd congressional district in the U.S. House. One item that remains on his agenda is continued push for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
In 2007, Michaud was among the roughly two-dozen Democrats who voted against a version of ENDA that afforded protections only on the basis of sexual orientation after gender identity-related provisions were removed.
“It should be all-inclusive,” Michaud said. “I did vote against it because it was actually weaker than Maine’s law. I wasn’t going to vote for something that was weaker than Maine’s law. I wasn’t going to vote for something that was weaker than what Maine has already had on the books. Actually, Maine Equality encouraged a ‘no’ vote on the legislation.”
Michaud said he was among the members of the LGBT Equality Caucus who participated in a January meeting first reported by the Washington Blade with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in which ENDA was a topic.
Although gay Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) told the Blade that Boehner said there’s “no way,” ENDA would come up this session, Michaud offered a slightly different version of events that didn’t throw quite as much cold water on the legislation, saying a lame duck effort on the bill remains possible.
“He actually wanted some more information on it, and we’re going to get him the information,” Michaud said. “They might have already sent it over; I’m not sure yet. He said it was highly unlikely that it would happen before the election, so hopefully there is a leeway maybe after the election. Hopefully, we can take it up in the lame duck session.”
Joining other supporters of the bill who say ENDA has sufficient support to pass the Republican-controlled House, Michaud predicted the measure would pass on the floor — if only Republican leadership would allow the legislation to come up.
“When you look at the overwhelming support, I believe that they’ll get that from the Democratic caucus,” Michaud said. “We’ll definitely have Republican support. I feel comfortable in that regard. Clearly, the more advance notice, we can have on it, the more opportunities we’ll be able to convince our colleagues to support it.”
Michaud declined to comment further on the meeting because of its private nature other than to say Boehner was “very gracious to meet with us.” It was the first time Boehner met with the LGBT Equality Caucus. Michaud said that Boehner chose to meet with the caucus even before President Obama granted an audience with the lawmakers.
Meanwhile, the Maine Democrat is adding his voice to others calling on President Obama to take administrative action against LGBT workplace discrimination by signing an executive order.
“It starts that ball moving,” Michaud said. “Until we see what might happen on the House side, since the Senate already passed it. I think it’s a good step in the right direction because if we can’t get it done in Congress, at least by executive order we’ll have 20 to 25 percent of workers covered.”
Michaud said the LGBT Equality Caucus is working on gathering signatures for another letter to President Obama to encourage him to sign the executive order.
Torey Carter, chief operating officer of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said Michaud’s candidacy is significant.
“Mike Michaud is uniquely qualified to serve as the next governor of Maine,” Carter said. ”He is a visionary leader that is a strong voice for fairness, freedom and equality for all Mainers. As a member of Congress, he has been an unwavering supporter of LGBT issues, and if elected he would become the nation’s first out LGBT governor.”