New York's lessons for Maryland on gay marriage

Our view: Momentum from Albany won't ensure success this year, but it does outline a path to marriage equality in the Free State

July 03, 2011

The passage late last month of a gay marriage bill in New York has renewed hope among advocates in Maryland who were disappointed by the narrow defeat of similar legislation here this year. New York's law doubled the number of people living in states where same-sex marriages are legal, it pushed President Barack Obama even closer to embracing gay marriage, and it proved that a gay marriage bill can even succeed in a legislative chamber controlled by Republicans. New York's vote, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo's quick signature of the bill into law, unquestionably added to a sense that the issue has momentum nationally.

But a sense of momentum doesn't necessarily translate into votes in Annapolis. A massive lobbying effort got a same-sex marriage bill through the state Senate this year, but the measure encountered unexpected difficulties in the House of Delegates, and the fact that lawmakers embraced the issue in a state capitol 300 miles away doesn't change that. Still, the path to success in New York does offer several lessons for Marylanders as they prepare to push for gay marriage again next year.

The governor

Gov. Martin O'Malley is getting a lot of taunting these days about how Governor Cuomo has suddenly vaulted to the top of the list of Democratic presidential contenders in 2016. Mr. Cuomo took ownership of the gay marriage bill and personally rounded up the votes to make it happen. In the wake of New York's vote, the Maryland governor sounded a little defensive about his stance on the issue, pointing out that he worked behind the scenes in the waning days of the effort to round up votes in the House of Delegates and saying he thought a more public effort "would have kicked it into the gutter of partisan division."

The Cuomo example suggests that isn't necessarily so. All of the votes the New York governor was lobbying for in the end were among Republicans.

The Cuomo case also shows the benefit of the governor, rather than gay rights activists, taking the lead. Mr. O'Malley said he made phone calls at advocates' direction this year to try to sway a dozen or so wavering votes. That's similar to the role Mr. Cuomo, then New York's attorney general, played in a previous, failed attempt to legalize gay marriage. This time around, he took charge and produced a more forceful, organized and strategic lobbying effort. There is no reason to believe the same wouldn't be true in Maryland. Governor O'Malley's chief legislative aide, Joseph C. Bryce, is the best in the business. With all due respect to Equality Maryland and the other advocacy groups that worked on this issue, the governor is delusional if he thinks they know better how to round up votes in Annapolis than Mr. Bryce does.

The other reason why it's critical that Mr. O'Malley take the lead in pushing for gay marriage is that he, uniquely, can reassure wavering legislators that they won't suffer political consequences for taking a vote that is controversial in their districts. But he can't do that with quiet, behind-the-scenes lobbying. He needs to give wavering lawmakers confidence that he will publicly back them up and campaign for them if they vote for gay marriage.

Mr. O'Malley has a quarter-million dollars in his state campaign account and the ability to raise more at will. He can't use the money for a run for federal office, but he can dole it out to whatever candidates he chooses in state and local races. Even more critically, he can help supportive lawmakers through the redistricting process, which will be occurring simultaneously with the gay marriage debate.

There is no reason for Mr. O'Malley not to directly engage. Previously in favor of civil unions, he is now out of the closet, so to speak, as a supporter of gay marriage. He can now choose whether he wants to be an effective one. There's no need to throw some imaginary competition with Governor Cuomo in his face to make him realize that.

The Republicans

In New York, four Republican senators voted for gay marriage. In Maryland, as many as three Republicans were on the fence in the House of Delegates, though the GOP caucus put pressure on its members to maintain a unified front against gay marriage, and none had committed to supporting the measure before it was pulled.

There's some hope among advocates that the mere fact of the Republican support in New York will crack the party's façade of unanimity here and elsewhere, and that the Republicans who voted for the bill in Albany might be enlisted to persuade a few Maryland Republicans. But we need not look so far afield; there are two Marylanders who can do the job.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who recently acknowledged publicly that he is gay, was a key lobbying force in New York. He is a native of Pikesville, and he needs to help the cause in his home state.

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