June 20, 2012 at 4:48 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Money race underway in Maryland
Martin O'Malley, gay news, gay politics dc

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch are scheduled to co-host a June 26 fundraiser in Ocean City for Marylanders for Marriage Equality. Tickets for the event start at $1,000. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Marylanders for Marriage Equality is confident it can run a “winning campaign” to defeat a voter referendum seeking to kill Maryland’s same-sex marriage law on a budget of between $5 million and $7 million, according to the organization’s campaign manager, Josh Levin.

“We feel good about that budget,” Levin told the Blade last week. “We feel like we’ll be able to do the things we need to do thanks to the effort of our coalition and our partners who are going to be talking to voters, who are going to be helping us in ways that I’m not sure are always the case in other campaigns.”

Levin’s comments came at a time when virtually all of the state’s political observers believe opponents of the marriage equality law will obtain far more than the number of petition signatures they need to place the referendum on the ballot in the Nov. 6 election.

The referendum language, which the Maryland State Board of Elections won’t draft until August, is expected to ask voters to approve or overturn a law passed earlier this year by the Maryland General Assembly legalizing same-sex marriage. The law also allows churches and religious organizations to refuse to perform such marriages.

Both sides have begun raising and spending money to wage their respective campaigns for and against the same-sex marriage law. But Maryland’s election law doesn’t require the campaigns to publicly disclose the amount of money they have raised or spent until Oct. 12, when the first of three campaign finance reports for a state referendum is due to be filed, according to Jared DeMarinis, a spokesperson for the election board.

He said the second campaign finance report must be filed on Oct. 26 and the third on Nov. 27, 21 days after the election.

DeMarinis said the election law requires organizations seeking to place the marriage equality law on the ballot in a referendum to file finance reports during the petition gathering process, which began earlier this year and continues through June 30. Those groups were required to disclose the receipt and expenditure of funds linked solely to the petition process during the past several months.

In what may come as a surprise to advocates of campaign finance disclosure laws, Marylanders for Marriage Equality isn’t required to disclose the amount of money it raises and spends and the names of its first round of donors until Oct. 12. The identity of its donors that contribute money between Oct. 26 and Election Day on Nov. 6 won’t have to be disclosed until 21 days after the election.

When asked last week by the Blade how much the campaign has raised so far, Levin said, “I don’t think I’m going to comment on that one.”

Some LGBT rights advocates in Maryland and elsewhere have expressed concern that Marylanders for Marriage Equality will need as much as $10 million to $12 million to wage an effective campaign to defeat the referendum and allow the same-sex marriage law to take effect.

These advocates, most of whom spoke to the Blade on condition that they not be identified, said Maryland’s marriage equality campaign will be competing for big donors and other contributors with the marriage equality campaigns in Maine, Minnesota and Washington State, where similar marriage referendums will be on the ballot in November.

The big donors, both gay and LGBT-supportive allies, are also being lobbied heavily to make large contributions to President Obama’s re-election campaign, placing further strain on the pool of funds needed by the pro-same-sex marriage campaigns.

“I don’t see Maryland having a very easy time pulling $10 million out to run this,” said Andy Szekeres, a professional fundraiser from Denver, who’s gay.

Szekeres is the former partner in a Denver-based fundraising company that raised more than $37 million for various political campaigns over the past several years.

“I think they’re grossly underestimating the resources that they’re going to need,” he said of Marylanders for Marriage Equality.

According to Szekeres, who was hired last year to help the statewide LGBT group Equality Maryland boost its fundraising efforts, the marriage equality side in Maryland must purchase TV ads in the expensive Washington, D.C. and Baltimore media markets.

He said he sees no evidence so far that the campaign has begun to buy and reserve TV ad time now, when the cost is lower than it will be in September and October, when the referendum campaign heats up and the Obama campaign and Maryland congressional candidates flood the airways with TV commercials.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national marriage equality advocacy group Freedom to Marry, said his group is “deeply embedded” in the marriage referendum campaigns in Maine, Minnesota, and Washington State and is helping those campaigns raise money. He told the Blade that the money needed to win marriage equality in those three states “will well exceed $25 million.”

He said Maryland’s marriage equality campaign will need “$10 million plus” to successfully fend off the referendum seeking to kill the state’s same-sex marriage law.

Wolfson has declined to comment on why Freedom to Marry has not joined the coalition of groups that that formed Marylanders for Marriage Equality. Campaign finance reports filed in Maine, Minnesota, and Washington show that Freedom to Marry has contributed thousands of dollars to the marriage equality campaigns in those states.

Levin and other officials with Marylanders for Marriage Equality dispute Szekeres’ and Wolfson’s assessment of the campaign’s fundraising needs, saying they believe they will have the resources to run an aggressive and effective grassroots campaign throughout the state.

“I’m not worried,” said Levin. “We’ve got a lot of folks around the country who are working on this issue and we’ve got four states where it’s on the ballot. And I think that supporters around the country are going to look at all four states. Hopefully they’ll support all four.”

Levin pointed to a poll last month commissioned by the campaign and conducted by the firm Public Policy Polling showing support for the same-sex marriage law leading among likely voters in Maryland by a margin of 57 percent to 37 percent. The same poll showed the marriage equality side leading among black voters in the state by a margin of 55 percent to 36 percent.

The poll findings, released on May 24, showed a dramatic increase in support of same-sex marriage by black voters following President Obama’s announcement that he and first lady Michelle Obama believe gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to legally marry.

Although the Public Policy Polling poll was commissioned by Marylanders for Marriage Equality, officials with the group note that a separate ABC News-Washington Post poll released around the same time found that 59 percent of blacks across the country expressed support for same-sex marriage.

“I think we’ve opened some eyes and changed some minds about Maryland here in the last couple of months,” Levin said. “Our poll numbers are probably the best in the country of the states where we are looking at this issue on the ballot right now.”

He added, “I know that I’m learning from my fellow campaign managers in the other states about what’s working there. We’re talking. We’re trying to work together. It’s not a rivalry. It’s a partnership. We all want to move this forward.”

Marylanders for Marriage Equality spokesperson Kevin Nix also points out that the group’s coalition partners are especially influential and knowledgeable on Maryland politics. They include the NAACP of Maryland, the ACLU of Maryland, Equality Maryland, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) of Maryland, among other organizations.

LGBT advocates say the marriage equality side is likely to benefit from Maryland’s status as a solid Democratic state expected to vote strongly for Obama in the presidential election taking place at the same time as the marriage referendum. With polls showing that Democratic voters in general and Obama voters in particular tend to support same-sex marriage rights at higher levels than other voters, the presidential election will likely be a major boost to the campaign in favor of Maryland’s marriage equality law.

Polls conducted earlier this year also showed that as many as 30 percent of Maryland voters saying they plan to vote for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also support same-sex marriage.

LGBT advocates in Maryland are also hopeful that Gov. Martin O’Malley, who enjoys widespread popularity throughout the state, will follow through with his promise to campaign vigorously in support of the same-sex marriage law and help raise money for the campaign. O’Malley has been credited with playing a key role in persuading the legislature to pass the law.

O’Malley’s chief fundraising consultant, Colleen Martin Lauer of the fundraising firm Martin-Lauer Associates, is working with the campaign, Lauer told the Blade. She declined to provide details on what her firm is doing, deferring inquires to the campaign.

O’Malley and Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel County) are scheduled to co-host a June 26 fundraiser in Ocean City for Marylanders for Marriage Equality. According to the Washington Post, tickets for the event start at $1,000.

Szekeres said he’s rooting for the success of the Maryland campaign as well as the pro-marriage equality campaigns in Maine, Minnesota and Washington. But he said other states have had similarly strong coalitions, with polling numbers showing the same-sex marriage side ahead. He notes that same-sex marriage has lost in each of the 32 states that have had ballot measures on the issue.

The 2008 approval of California’s Proposition 8, which overturned that state’s gay marriage law, and the 2009 defeat of a same-sex marriage law approved by the Maine legislature that year were especially heartbreaking, Szekeres and others familiar with those ballot measures said.

California voters approved Proposition 8 by a margin of 52 to 48 percent following polling numbers showing the marriage equality side was ahead. Polls showed that Maine’s same-sex marriage law would survive the referendum vote shortly before voters rejected the law by a margin of 53 to 47 percent.

Opponents of a Maine same-sex marriage law passed by the state legislature initiated the 2009 referendum, which killed the law before it took effect. This year’s referendum in Maine was initiated by same-sex marriage supporters, who want Maine to become the first state to put a same-sex marriage law in place through a popular election.

“We lose these things 52 to 48 percent across the country,” said Szekeres. “I’ve been at these things and our polling showed we were much higher in Maine [in 2009] than we were. People lie to pollsters. They don’t want to be bigots to the pollsters but they are when they go vote.”

He and others familiar with same-sex marriage ballot campaigns have said TV ads by opponents that allege that gay marriage is harmful to children and the traditional family continue to succeed in persuading a majority of voters to turn against marriage equality.

“Again, if they think they can run this on a shoestring budget because 57 percent of the people six months out from the election tell pollsters they support us, that’s not going to happen,” said Szekeres in discussing the Maryland referendum. “There will be a lot of negative advertising and negative advertising works. And we just don’t seem to have an effective response.”

Nix said Marylanders for Marriage Equality retained the D.C.-based national advertising firm Dixon-Davis Media Group to prepare the campaign’s TV ads on behalf of the same-sex marriage law.

The firm’s website describes itself as a “full-service strategic communications company and advertising agency serving Democratic candidates, campaigns and causes.”

Nix said the campaign has also retained the Hart Research polling company to conduct internal polls to help the campaign develop the best possible messages for persuading voters to support marriage equality.

Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said he has observed a “shift in the electorate” that is likely to break the gay marriage losing streak on ballot measures.

“I think there’s a better than 50-50 chance that Maryland will become the first state to approve gay marriage in a referendum,” he said.

“One decisive event was when the NAACP endorsed [marriage equality] because African Americans in Maryland, especially those closely attached to churches, have traditionally been opposed to gay marriage and gay rights,” he said.

“But the NAACP defined this as a civil rights issue, which is similar to the kind of issues that African Americans have raised in the past,” he said. “And I think that introduced a kind of shift in the electorate that makes it more than likely that [same-sex marriage] will pass.”

Maryland political observer Michael J. Wilson, a Montgomery County resident and former executive director of the national group Americans for Democratic Action, said he too senses a shift in the direction of voters upholding the same-sex marriage law.

“I think there’s reason to be hopeful,” he said, adding that the ability of the marriage equality side to turn out their supporters at the polls will be a crucial factor in the outcome.

“In Maryland, if you carry Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County by a big enough margin, you win a statewide election,” Wilson said. “If you carry those big counties you can win the state, even if the other counties go 60 to 40 against you.”

Michael K. Lavers contributed to this report.

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

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