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Maine's gay marriage battle has echoes of Prop. 8

A culture war over the state's same-sex marriage law is turning out to be a low-budget but potent sequel of California's.

October 20, 2009|Bob Drogin

PORTLAND, MAINE — Brandon Brawner spent a year training Los Angeles groups that opposed Proposition 8. Now the West Hollywood activist runs a phone bank here to block a repeal of Maine's new same-sex marriage law on election day.

"The tactics they use are fear and lies," Brawner, 29, said of his opponents.

Up the road in Yarmouth, Kym Souchet worked the phones to urge voters to reject gay marriage. The home-schooling mom said she was stunned at times at the response she heard.

"We're being called hateful bigots," Souchet, 45, said of her opponents. "I don't hate anyone."

Welcome to Proposition 8 redux. With activists, money and advisors pouring in from across the country, the Nov. 3 referendum battle here is the low-budget, but still potent, sequel of the culture wars that roiled California last year.

Maine voters will decide whether to repeal a law that redefines marriage as the "legally recognized union of two people" regardless of gender. The law is on hold pending the referendum. Most polls suggest the electorate is evenly divided on the issue.

Supporters of same-sex marriage hope to end more than 30 consecutive losses at ballot boxes across the nation and signal a shift in public opinion. Opponents say victory here will spur their efforts to overturn similar laws or court rulings in other states.

With only 1.3 million people, Maine has the same population as San Diego. Moreover, the state's logging and lobster towns, taciturn Down East manners and live-and-let-live politics bear little similarity to the daily tumult and ethnic mix in California.

But the battle still echoes Proposition 8 in key ways.

In particular, Schubert Flint Public Affairs, the Sacramento-based company that managed the campaign to ban gay marriage in California, is directing strategy and media operations for pro-repeal groups in Maine.

Marc Mutty, chairman of Stand for Marriage Maine, the pro-repeal political action group, said he hired Schubert Flint as campaign manager in June and the company had produced all the pro-repeal TV ads, radio spots, websites and other media. Many are nearly identical to those that proved effective in California.

"We put suspenders on instead of cuff links," Mutty said. "But the message is the same."

The referendum is "very much up for grabs," Frank Schubert, president of the public affairs firm, said in a telephone interview. "We're cautiously optimistic. It's certainly a very fierce fight."

Gov. John Baldacci, who signed the bill into law May 6, has thrown his political clout behind legalizing same-sex marriage after opposing it in the past.

The two-term Democrat changed his mind when he discovered state statutes contained "400 rights and responsibilities that are only available under marriage, not civil unions," he said in a telephone interview. "That's not fair, and it's got to be fixed."

State Atty. Gen. Janet Mills weighed in last week when she rejected claims that the new law would require "the teaching of homosexual marriage to young children in public schools," as pro-repeal ads and mailings consistently warn.

Similar claims became one of the most contentious issues during the Proposition 8 battle.

"It is very, very clear it will not be taught in the schools," Baldacci said. "It's a red herring of an issue."

Baldacci's former campaign manager, Jesse Connolly, runs No on 1/Protect Maine Equality, a political action group seeking to block a repeal. He said he planned his strategy after reviewing all the TV ads and other media that anti-gay-marriage groups used in California.

"Their entire playbook here is out of Prop. 8," he said.

Unlike his opponents, Connolly has invested heavily in paid staff, opened five offices around the state and drawn about 120 volunteers or staffers from out of state.

The group has used Virginia-based McMahon, Squier and Associates for TV ads and placement, and other out-of-state companies for political consulting and direct mailings.

Connolly's anti-repeal group has raised about $2.7 million, and Mutty's pro-repeal group has pulled in about $1.1 million, according to campaign financial reports released last week. Both groups raised about half their money from outside Maine.

Mutty said he had expected to raise more money from California and other states. As a result, he said, he has cut back on paid staff, trimmed his budget for direct mail and advertising, canceled several radio ads and scrapped a statewide bus tour.

"It's not surprising," said his co-chairman, Bob Emrich, pastor of the Emmanuel Bible Baptist Church in Plymouth, in northern Maine. "We've been playing catch-up from day one."

Most major newspapers in the state came out over the weekend against a repeal.

In some ways, Maine would seem an unlikely state to break traditional barriers to gay marriage. Over the last two decades, voters repeatedly rejected measures that would have extended antidiscrimination protection based on sexual orientation.

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