Maine Moves Into High Gear

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com August 11 2009 12:00 AM ET

When Doug Kimmel and Ron Schwizer celebrate their wedding anniversary in Maine on August 19, they will be marking the day 40 years ago when Kimmel's former college pastor, Wally Toevs, wed them in the chapel at University of Colorado.

"When I was an undergraduate, he told me if I ever met someone that I wanted to spend my life with -- knowing that I was gay -- he would be happy to perform the ceremony," recalls Kimmel, who met Schwizer at graduate school in Chicago and returned to Colorado with him in 1969 to take Toevs up on his offer.

But the celebration will also serve as a reminder to about 100 guests and fellow Mainers of what's at stake when they go to the polls on November 3rd and decide whether to repeal Maine's same-sex marriage law, which was passed in May.

Kimmel and Schwizer have lived in Hancock, Maine, a town of approximately 2,500, since the 1980s, and have taken an active role in the community -- serving on city planning boards and participating in church leadership (their local United Church of Christ congregation voted to become open and affirming of LGBT people two years ago).

"It's a community that we have really become an integral part of since we moved up here," Kimmel says, noting that Hancock, which leans conservative, has voted pro-LGBT on every one of the four nondiscrimination measures that has come before it since 1995.

"I suspect that's partly because Ron and I are such a visible couple in this community, and everybody knows that gay people are just like everybody else and they deserve rights," he says.

Marriage equality opponents led by Stand for Marriage Maine turned in 100,000 signatures -- 45,000 more than necessary -- at the end of July to qualify for the ballot. If they are certified by the state, as everyone expects they will be, Maine's vote on a so-called "people's veto" of the marriage law will be the first such vote on the right of gay couples to marry since California's highly contentious Proposition 8 showdown, which banned same-sex marriage there.

The Maine picture is rife with both similarities and differences to California: Like Prop. 8, analysts expect the battle to be the most expensive referendum campaign held in Maine, though totaling closer to several million dollars rather than the $85 million spent in the Golden State; while it is also a popular vote, Mainers will be weighing in on a law enacted by their legislature rather than a decision rendered by their high court; and although the same company that led the successful fight to ban gay marriage in California -- Schubert Flint Public Affairs -- is also running the opposition's show in Maine, the landscape is a bit different, dominated less by air space than by word of mouth.

"Maine is a much smaller state, so we don't have to identify six million people, we have to identify 250,000 people -- 50% of the people who are predicted to vote in November," says Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine.

When the "No on 1/Protect Maine Equality" campaign began in July, Smith said they had already identified 25% -- or about 52,000 -- of the pro-gay marriage voters needed to win.

"One of the things that we know about Maine is that when we pass something through the legislature, we have to defend it at the polls," she says. "So we started [the legislative] campaign three-and-a-half years ago and we've been talking with Maine voters for three years." While both New Hampshire and Vermont recently legalized same-sex marriage, neither state's constitution affords the opportunity for a people's veto.

Though No on 1 has secured 60,000 pledges against the measure and in favor of preserving marriage equality, campaign manager Jesse Connolly is preparing to battle some of the very same messages about children and what will be taught in schools that Schubert Flint deployed in California.

"We are not underestimating them," he says. "It's going to be a close election -- every internal poll that I've seen shows it's very close."

Connolly, a 30-year-old straight ally with a wife and a young son, has a good track record in Maine politics. He ran Maine for Kerry/Edwards in 2004 and took all four electoral votes; he served as campaign manager to successfully defeat a 2005 people's veto that sought to remove gays and lesbians from the state's human rights code (gays had previously been added to the code twice by Maine's legislature and removed twice by its voters, in 1998 and 2000); and he managed Gov. John Baldacci's victorious reelection bid in 2006.

Connolly took a leave of absence from his job as chief of staff for Maine's speaker of the house, Hannah Pingree, in order to run the No on 1 campaign. His commitment to LGBT concerns run deep.

"Jesse's dad, State representative Larry Connolly, cosponsored the first piece of legislation for gay rights way back in 1977, long before anyone else thought we were worthy," wrote native Mainer Joe Sudbay at Americablog.com. "Larry died way too young in 1995 and Jesse is continuing his legacy."

Opponents of Maine's same-sex marriage law have the upper hand financially thus far, raising more than $343,000 compared to No on 1's $143,000, according to mid-July filings with the State Ethics Commission.

Four groups account for $341,000 of the $343,000 anti-gay marriage funds: the New Jersey-based National Organization for Marriage contributed $160,000; the Roman Catholic diocese of Portland anted up $100,000; the Knights of Columbus chipped in $50,000, and Focus on the Family Maine added $31,000. But the Stand for Marriage PAC has also spent a little over $293,000 to date, much of it on professional signature-gathering companies.

Marriage equality proponents had a total of 501 donors, according to a campaign spokesman, with the largest donation of $50,000 coming from Maine resident Diane Sammer, $25,000 from the Human Rights Campaign, $10,000 from the American Civil Liberties Union, and $10,000 from another state resident Jane Begert. An HRC spokesperson said the organization plans to chip in an additional $100,000 over the next couple months.

No on 1 finance director Andy Szekeres, who served as chief fund-raiser for Colorado representative Jared Polis, says people are a little fatigued coming on the heels of the Prop. 8 campaign.

"But all roads for marriage are running through Maine right now," he says. "If we want to make a statement to advance the gay rights movement forward across the country, Maine is a good place to start."