O’Malley: The Battle Is On In Maryland

By Julie Bolcer

Originally published on Advocate.com September 14 2012 1:10 PM ET

Governor Martin O’Malley headlined an out-of-state fundraiser for Maryland’s marriage equality referendum Thursday, where he asked supporters in New York City to help pass the measure and retain the law he signed this year.

Saying the effort in his state stands at a “critical juncture,” the governor urged attendees, including many New Yorkers with close connections to Maryland, to spread the word about the November ballot measure, Question 6.  The initiative is one of four related to marriage around the country, with votes also pending in Maine, Minnesota and Washington.

“Thank you for your support tonight, but please, this is what I’m asking of you,” O’Malley said as the sun set upon the rooftop bar Jimmy at the James Hotel in Soho. “When you leave here tonight, go on to your e-mails, go on to your network of friends. Write to other people and tell them the battle is on in Maryland, and we all need to get up for this fight. We are going to succeed only if we help one another.”

A history buff, the governor drew one of his trademark analogies to the War of 1812. He compared the task facing Marylanders and New Yorkers today to the work of the “black and white hands” that stitched the Star-Spangled Banner Flag in Baltimore two hundred years ago.

“The common thread that held that flag together then is the common thread that unites our work in New York and unites our work in Maryland now, and it is the thread of human dignity,” he said.

O’Malley acknowledged the “great work of Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo,” who spearheaded the passage of legislation in New York last year, an achievement credited with galvanizing momentum in other states. As head of the Democratic Governors Association, he joked, “This is a bipartisan event, and I guess I shouldn’t have said that.”

A sold-out crowd of around 200 people attended the fundraiser for the coalition, Marylanders for Marriage Equality. Tickets for the event ranged from $250 to $25,000, and some of those in attendance included actor Susan Sarandon, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, former first daughter Barbara Bush, NHL star Sean Avery, designer Thom Browne, actor Edward Norton, former Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman, MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, former Clinton LGBT advisor Richard Socarides, comedian Sandra Bernard, and Maryland Delegate Heather Mizeur, an openly lesbian lawmaker mentioned as a possible gubernatorial contender in 2014.

Conversation was fixed on the next seven and a half weeks as the referendum campaign prepares to kick into high hear, with TV advertisements to air soon. Polling favors the measure’s passage, but the Maryland Marriage Alliance, the opposition coalition financed by the National Organization for Marriage, is expected to repeat past patterns and spend heavily at the last minute. Neither side is required to report spending or fundraising until October, but advocates, who have not voluntarily disclosed their amounts to date, say their campaign needs between $5 and $7 million to win. Fundraisers like the one in New York help fuel the effort.

“We have marriage equality here in New York,” said the Baltimore-born actor Josh Charles, who organized the event with Brian Ellner, former senior strategist for the Human Rights Campaign in New York. “We need events like this to keep the story going, to keep it out there, to raise money against the other side that we know is going to start their campaign soon,” he said before introducing the governor.

Advocates hope to break a long losing streak at the ballot box by winning the four initiatives this November. Polls close first in Maryland, which could literally make the state the first where voters pass marriage equality.

“I want to be the state that wins, finally,” said Baltimore native and film director John Waters, who introduced Charles. “I want to be the first one to win. We’re going to win this election.”

O’Malley, who is often discussed as a 2016 presidential prospect, took care not to sound overconfident in an interview with The Advocate. 

“I feel very focused,” he said. “If we knew how the twists and turns of history turned out, none of our individual actions would be important. I feel very good about the people that I serve and I believe that our people are generous, and I believe that our people understand that we’re all in this together.”

The governor has already raised money outside Maryland for the effort, according to an aide, and he plans to maintain his push in the final weeks of the campaign. His wife Katie O’Malley, a Baltimore City District Court judge, joined him at the event in New York.

“I’m going to continue to be on the phone. I’m going to continue to speak to it,” he said. “I’m going to continue to raise money and I’m going to continue to lead my party forward around this issue.”

O’Malley notably did not mention marriage equality by name in his primetime speech last week at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. He said he offered, but convention organizers asked him to use his seven minutes in the “very tightly scripted” timeslot to “tee up” the keynote speaker, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro.

“I said ‘Look, I can talk about marriage equality, if you all would let me, I’d love to,’ and they said, ‘No, we’ve got that covered in other ways,’ and indeed, they did,” he said. “I didn’t say much about anything that we’ve done in Maryland in my remarks because I had a job to play. I had a role. They gave me an assignment.”

Maryland is a solidly Democratic state, and approximately one-quarter of the voters are African-American. Black voters are expected to turn out in high numbers to vote for President Obama, which makes their support crucial to the success of Question 6. O’Malley, a former mayor of Baltimore, a majority African-American city, said he believed the president’s announcement of support for marriage equality in May had been a “very positive development” in sparking conversations among African-American families.

“I think there are very few groups of people in the United States who are as fundamentally fair and understanding as African-American people are given their history, and yet at the same time, they are also a very religious people with a rock solid faith in God, and if they did not have that faith they wouldn’t have survived as a people,” he said. “And so these conversations are all about reconciling those fundamental beliefs, and I think the same evolution has happened among Catholic people,” he said.

While Roman Catholic Church leaders have been among the most outspoken opponents of marriage equality, the governors who have signed legislation in Maryland, New York, Washington, and Maine all identify as Catholic. Asked about that fact, O’Malley paused to reflect, then offered some closing thoughts on theology.

“There is a deep strain in Catholic thought since Thomas Aquinas of Catholic responsibility to contribute to the common good, and the common good is a pluralistic good,” he said. “It is a combination of many, many different faiths and many different people coming together, but the bedrock belief, I believe, of all Catholics who are involved in the civic life of their community is a belief in the dignity of every individual, and so it doesn’t surprise me that Catholic public servants would discern that.”