Maryland's (Re) Commitment Problem

By Advocate Contributors

Originally published on Advocate.com May 17 2011 4:00 AM ET

 Marriage equality advocates in Maryland had many reasons to feel hopeful about the legislative session this year, not least because of lawmakers who promised to vote for a marriage equality bill. Memories of campaign pledges from lawmakers only magnified the disappointment when, in a shocking procedural move, the house of delegates voted in March to recommit the bill, which sent it back to committee for consideration and effectively killed its prospects until at least 2012.

“It was quite public and quite traumatic to have people take a walk on equality,” said Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland, a statewide advocacy group that helped elect some lawmakers who ended up backtracking.

One high-profile example was Del. Sam Arora, a newly elected Montgomery County Democrat and judiciary committee member who cosponsored the marriage bill, only to waver in his commitment, citing religious concerns after it passed the senate. He eventually voted to advance the bill from committee, but his inexplicable hand-wringing presaged a string of defections that contributed to advocates’ decision to delay a floor vote rather than let the bill fail. Arora, who campaigned hard on marriage equality, met with outrage from gay donors, including some who demanded their money back.

“Other than [having] people in the bushes around his house, whispering through his window that they were the voice of God, I don’t know how you change that,” said Sen. Richard Madaleno, a gay lawmaker and lead sponsor of the bill. “In that sense, this is shocking.”

“We do need to reconcile how do we hold someone accountable,” said Meneses-Sheets, noting the state legislative election is three years away. “We can’t say, ‘We’re going to oust you right away.’ ” Broken promises also played into the setback of the Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Act, which passed the house by a wide margin only to be yanked by leadership in the senate, where advocates believed they had secured enough votes. At least six Democratic supporters voted to send the transgender rights bill back to committee.

“Both of these bills ended their lives on motions to recommit this year,” said transgender advocate Dana Beyer. “But there is a huge difference because the marriage equality proponents asked that the bill be recommitted because they didn’t have the votes. But the gender identity bill proponents wanted the floor vote,” and they weren’t given the chance by the senate leadership.

As they rebuild, advocates take some comfort in progress. The bills had never cleared a committee before this year, let alone been passed by at least one chamber with bipartisan support.

“The fact is, we got really, really far,” said Beyer. “We did not lose this on a vote. We ran out the clock.”

It’s too early to predict when the bills would see debate and votes again, especially after a legislative session where lack of guarantees seemed to be the biggest lesson of all.

“We have lot of analysis to do,” said Meneses-Sheets. “We will be doing a lot of strategic planning. We’re going to have a lot of conversations as the analysis and planning process is going on.”