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Gay rights
referendum fails to inspire big-money campaigns

Gay rights
referendum fails to inspire big-money campaigns

With the election now only days away, the campaigns supporting and opposing Maine's gay rights law agree on one thing: Grassroots efforts to get out the vote this weekend will play a key role in the outcome on Tuesday. Three groups that led the referendum effort to scuttle the law are handing out 125,000 leaflets and posting 10,000 signs in yards. Maine Won't Discriminate, which opposes the referendum, has been concentrating on door-to-door campaigning, mailings, and phone calls. Despite polls showing 2-to-1 support for the law signed by Gov. John Baldacci, both campaigns think the race is closer than that. Bowdoin College political science professor Christian Potholm said 40% of Mainers support and 40% oppose gay rights. The question is which side can reach the remaining 20% and motivate them to vote in what has been a low-key campaign. "There's a certain amount of voter fatigue with the issue," said Potholm, noting two previous referendums on the issue in 1998 and 2000. The traditional harbingers of a major statewide campaign--radio and television ads and signs staked in people's yards--didn't appear until late. But both campaigns insist that doesn't mean people were not campaigning hard. "There has been an incredible amount of effort going on behind the scenes in organizing at the local level, getting people to make phone calls and go door to door. Hundreds of house parties have been held," said Ted O'Meara, an adviser to Maine Won't Discriminate. But he admitted that it was tough raising money as large national groups stayed on the sidelines for the most part. It was a money-driven decision to wait until two weeks before the election to begin airing television ads, he said. The spots feature gay Mainers who detail instances of discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere in an attempt to counter critics who question the extent of such bias. The repeal forces recently began airing ads on cable channels that say exposure to "homosexual lifestyles" poses a threat to children. Campaign finance reports show that four political action committees fighting to keep the gay rights law have raised nearly $1 million, a threshold that O'Meara identified as the minimum for running an effective statewide campaign. Two political action committees that want to scrap the law have raised a total of about $336,000, according to the reports. The gay rights law, adopted in March, expands the Maine Human Rights Act to make discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity illegal in employment, housing, credit, public accommodations, and education. All the other New England states have gay rights laws. But only Maine and Rhode Island have the "gender identification" language that protects transsexuals, transvestites, and those who've undergone sexual reassignment surgery. A church-led alliance including the Maine Grassroots Coalition, the Christian Civic League of Maine, and the Coalition for Marriage gathered more than 56,000 signatures to put the law to a statewide vote. Because this is an off-election year in which voter turnout is usually low, 40% would be a strong turnout. That makes it all the more important for both sides to get their supporters to the poll. Paul Madore of the Maine Grassroots Coalition said about 2,000 volunteers have been campaigning to scrap the law. Most of the campaigning has been behind the scenes because volunteers fear a backlash for speaking out. "The passion is still there. This is no less egregious a law because of what appears to be a decline in the passion," Madore said. "The passion is still there, and people are still concerned about it." Richard Maiman, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine, said a lack of passion is understandable. The gay rights issue has been debated to death since the first statewide campaign in 1998. For many, that train has left the station, he said. "If we were having a referendum on gay marriage, there would be passion, no question about it. But there's a sense that this issue isn't where it was anymore. As important as it is, it's yesterday's news. It's old business," he said. (AP)

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