By Julie Bolcer
Originally published on Advocate.com September 25 2012 4:27 PM ET
Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley said that while he and advocates are “working every day, in every way” to pass a referendum to retain the new marriage equality law, the campaign needs to raise “another couple of million dollars” in the next six weeks to ensure success at the ballot this November, when the state could become the first to uphold marriage equality in a public vote.
The governor spoke Monday night in a conference call with reporters and bloggers. He joined representatives from Marylanders for Marriage Equality, the coalition working to pass the referendum known as Question 6.
“We have the ability to pass this in Maryland,” said the governor. “It is in keeping with the character of our state to protect rights equally under the law while also protecting religious liberty. But we do need to raise money here. We do need to raise another couple of million dollars, and if we are able to do that, I believe that we will pass this, and raising those dollars is critically important for our ability to be able to defend this at the ballot,” he said.
The Democratic governor signed the law passed by the legislature earlier this year, but the measure has not taken effect pending the outcome of the referendum brought by opponents.
Maryland is one of four states facing ballot initiatives related to marriage equality, with campaigns also underway in Maine, Minnesota and Washington.
During the 40-minute call, the governor outlined the status of the campaign and provided a realistic assessment of the opposition, the Maryland Marriage Alliance. He acknowledged that opponents, who are being financed by the National Organization for Marriage, “tend to have an easier time raising money” and anticipated they would spend a “colossal amount of money” in his state. Their campaign is expected to begin running TV ads soon based on the false messages that have aired in other states.
“We expect that the opponents will try to exploit divisions and try to pit African-American voters against gay and lesbian people in our state,” said O’Malley. “We expect that they will try to convince voters that somehow by passage of this law that every child in Maryland will somehow be taught that they need to be gay, and we know that their third strategy will be to try to convince voters that they’re being duped by the ballot language.”
On the other hand, the governor listed factors that make Maryland the state best positioned to pass a marriage equality referendum from his perspective. He said those assets include the “direct, clear” language of the ballot measure emphasizing religious freedom, the “courageous statements” of support from President Barack Obama, and the “skillful messaging” at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Maryland is a solidly Democratic state where about one-quarter of voters identify as African-American.
Polling from Hart Research Associates last month found that voters supported the referendum by 54% to 40%, with African-American support almost evenly divided at 44% in favor and 45% opposed. However, advocates expect the actual vote will be much closer.
“I think we can all expect that it will tighten up before Election Day,” said Josh Levin, campaign manager for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, who also spoke on the call. “If we win this thing by 14 points, I’m going to be shocked.”
While Democratic turnout will drive the outcome because of the state’s demographics, the campaign includes a Republican piece. Levin said that 30% of registered Republicans in Maryland support marriage equality, about double the rate measured in exit polls from other states. High-profile supporters include former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, a Maryland native who came out in 2010, in addition to Chip DiPaula, the chief of staff for former Governor Bob Ehrlich, and David Frum, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Frum will host a fundraising event for the coalition in the upcoming weeks, Levin said.
Neither side has voluntarily disclosed their fundraising totals, and Maryland law does not require them to make public reports until October. When asked Monday how much the coalition has raised, O’Malley deferred to Levin, who declined to answer the question, prompting the governor to respond in unspecific terms.
“I would say we are far along to our goal. We are beyond the 50-yard line, and we continue to move forward, not back” he said, with a coy reference to the line repeated during his primetime speech at the DNC.
Advocates have previously said they need between $5 and $7 million to execute a winning campaign in Maryland. By comparison, Washington United for Marriage announced that it has raised more than $7 million to pass Referendum 74, the ballot initiative to uphold the marriage equality law in that state. The total includes almost $1.8 million raised in August, whereas the opposition coalition, Preserve Marriage Washington, has raised less than $400,000 of its $4 million goal. Campaign finance disclosure laws and the cost of TV advertising vary from state to state, but the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore media markets involved with Maryland are some of the nation’s most expensive.
Asked how he planned to generate the additional $2 million for the Maryland campaign, O’Malley mentioned daily phone calls and appearances in which he encourages people to “go out and activate their networks.” Although he did not mention the event, the governor headlined an out-of-state fundraiser with famous Marylanders such as John Waters in New York City two weeks ago, and he also plans to attend a fundraiser next month with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who drew criticism from a state lawmaker for his marriage equality advocacy. Singer Adam Lambert will appear at a benefit for the coalition Tuesday night in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, the Maryland Marriage Alliance is expecting “several hundred people” to attend a fundraiser at a Catholic seminary Wednesday featuring Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, according to the Washington Post. Roman Catholic Church leaders have been among the most outspoken opponents of marriage equality.
The U.S. Census Bureau lists Maryland as the wealthiest state in terms of median household income, but the marriage campaign lacks a business coalition on par with the technology companies that have supported the issue in Washington, or the financial industry that fueled the passage of legislation in New York. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie donated $2.5 million to Washington United for Marriage, believed to be the largest-ever individual gift of its kind. Levin said the Maryland campaign has been driven by “grassroots and small dollar donors” to date.
“Let’s be honest, we’re not talking about California and we’re not talking about New York,” said O’Malley. “This is a very achievable goal provided the network of good-hearted people and advocates and citizens who care about this issue nationwide don’t become tired, don’t become demoralized by the fact that this has yet to pass.”
Marriage equality advocates hope to alter a long losing streak at the ballot this year. The Human Rights Campaign has invested $250,000 in each of the four states facing votes. Freedom to Marry, which had not invested in Maryland but directed $3 million to the other three states, announced last week that it had opened a political action committee in Maryland. Founder and president Evan Wolfson told the Baltimore Sun, "There is a clear path to victory if Maryland gets the resources it needs.”
Governor O’Malley expressed optimism that donors in Maryland and surrounding jurisdictions would find their “second wind” to support the campaign in his state, even as he acknowledged the factors posing a challenge to fundraising. Donors fatigue is common in a presidential election year, and the multiple ballot initiatives magnify that problem for LGBT and allied donors.
“Hey, if we knew how these things would turn out, it wouldn’t all be so exciting, would it?” said O’Malley. “So, there is a big variable here that we have in Maryland, and that is our ability to raise another couple of million dollars.”