Jesse Connolly stared at his suitcase with a decision to make. The 31-year-old straight campaign manager for Maine’s No on 1 effort, fighting to preserve marriage equality in the state, was considering a quick fund-raising trip to Miami in September but decided instead to send an assistant. Out-of-state campaign dollars are vital, but Connolly, born and bred in the Pine Tree State, is intent on keeping his focus local.
If approved by Maine voters on November 3, Question 1 would repeal the state law enacted in May to legalize gay marriage, and deal the marriage equality movement another painful blow following the November 2008 passage of Proposition 8 in California.
But Maine is not California. Mainers are an ethnically homogenous group who collectively struggle through long winters in small, close-knit towns. Connolly says his main message to them is that gay people are already part of this club, not a separate group seeking inclusion. The No on 1 team is going door-to-door trying to persuade those on the fence and asking supporters to donate money. He uses real Mainers in advertising spots to sway a population he describes as familial. “Maine is a way of life,” Connolly says.
Stand for Marriage Maine, the pro–Question 1 campaign, is headed by Frank Schubert, the Sacramento political strategist behind Prop. 8’s success (his PR firm, Schubert Flint Public Affairs, received top honors at the American Association of Political Consultants’ conference in March). Schubert is attempting to reprise his West Coast win through familiar strategies -- including factually dubious ads that assert gay marriage will threaten church freedoms, alter school curricula, and challenge “traditional” families.
Connolly himself is a member of one of those traditional families targeted by Schubert -- he and his wife, Nicole, have a baby son. Connolly’s father, late state representative Larry Connolly, championed an unsuccessful 1977 bill to amend the Maine Human Rights Act by extending equal rights to gays and lesbians. “For me, [No on 1] is a continuation of his work,” Connolly says.
At his young age Connolly has already achieved a winning record and a place among the state’s political elite. In 2004 he helped Massachusetts senator John Kerry win Maine in both the Democratic presidential caucus and the general election. In 2005 he led the successful Maine Won’t Discriminate campaign, preserving the state law enacted that year that prohibited anti-LGBT discrimination. Connolly also managed the successful 2006 reelection campaign of Maine governor John Baldacci, who signed the state’s marriage equality bill into law this year.
Connolly is optimistic that Maine will hold on to marriage equality, even though a September poll showed the marriage ban leading slightly. It’s also unclear which campaign has more money (as of September, both Stand for Marriage and No on 1 weren’t releasing figures on their war chests). But the difference between winning and losing, Connolly says, is appealing to the state’s native beliefs, and his track record suggests he knows what they are.
“We have this really strong sense of fairness,” Connolly says. “We really just don’t believe that there should be one set of rules for some people and a separate, unequal set for others.”