October 17, 2018
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Setbacks, then success: Maine’s ‘powerful role’ in the fight for same-sex marriage

In 2004, same-sex marriage was legal in only one state, and voters in several more states were moving to enshrine bans on same-sex marriage in their state constitutions.

Just a decade later, same-sex couples can marry in 35 states and Washington, D.C., the Supreme Court has invalidated a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and courts have struck down same-sex marriage bans in states across the nation — including many that approved them in 2004.

Marc Solomon has played a leading role in campaigns across the country to win marriage rights for same-sex couples and to protect those rights after they were won. The national campaign director for the organization Freedom to Marry, Solomon served on the executive committee of the 2012 campaign in Maine that ultimately became the first successful effort by same-sex marriage proponents to win marriage rights by popular referendum. He spent election night 2012 in Portland.

“Even though I had worked on the cause for more than a decade by then, I haven’t experienced anything more ecstatic than seeing the votes come in, city by city, outperforming how we had done the last time around and ultimately winning,” he said. “It was a big relief.”

Maine plays an important role in Solomon’s new book, “Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took on the Politicians and Pundits — and Won.” The book chronicles the fights to win marriage rights in Massachusetts and New York before focusing on 2012, when voters in Maine — along with Maryland, Minnesota and Washington — gave same-sex marriage proponents their first ballot victories after a long string of defeats.

Solomon spoke with the BDN recently about his book and Maine’s role in the movement to win same-sex marriage rights. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

How much can we owe today’s more common acceptance of same-sex marriage to a natural evolution of thought versus a very deliberate strategy to make same-sex marriage universally legal?

It happens to some degree in an organic way, but our campaign to secure the freedom to marry and to grow public support was all about having people, families and couples, talk about why marriage is important to them. And that took a lot of organizers and campaign work for us to do that. I think the reason so many people have come our way on the issue is because they’ve gotten to personally know a same-sex couple or they know of same-sex couples who want to marry for the same reasons they want to marry.

One point you make in the book is that the movement to make same-sex marriage legal would encounter its share of setbacks along with successes. What’s the best way to describe Maine’s role in the struggle to make same-sex marriage legal?

Maine has a powerful role because we, of course, lost first at the ballot, and we came back and won, and we had an extraordinarily robust campaign in the middle. Maine was the place where we had the most person-to-person, persuasive conversations on the issue of anyplace in the country. The work of going out and talking to voters at people’s doors and having real, honest, open conversations with them was extraordinarily powerful. The campaign in Maine talked to more than half the undecided voters, across the state, which is really unheard of, at their doors.

We also shifted the way we talked about marriage and the way we talked about the cause between the 2009 campaign and the 2012 campaign. In 2009, we were talking more about abstract notions of equality and in 2012, we were talking about why gay people wanted to marry.

After we lost in California on Prop. 8 [in 2008] and then in Maine in 2009, we spent a lot of time and resources looking into how we talk about marriage and on the messaging.

Were those setbacks critical to later success?

In retrospect, they were. We certainly didn’t want to lose. But it certainly caused us to look at how we were communicating and how we were making the case. It certainly caused us to recalibrate, no question about it.

Did you expect Maine voters would choose to make same-sex marriage legal just three years after they had voted the opposite way? Did you anticipate the tide would turn so quickly?

I did. It’s because there was so much work that organizers did on the ground in Maine between 2009 and 2012. By the time we made the decision to go to the ballot in 2012, we had polling showing we had solid majority support. I was always nervous about it because we had never won at the ballot before, but I had a lot of confidence in the campaign plan that the campaign put together.

What’s the path forward now?

The path forward is to get a national ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s what we’re pushing hard for.

For a while, there was an uninterrupted streak of courts ruling against states’ same-sex marriage bans. Now, the Sixth Circuit has upheld bans in four states. Is that conflicting ruling a blessing or a curse?

While I would never root for a loss, and it continues the hardship for gay couples in those four states, it also creates conditions where the Supreme Court is more likely to take up a case because that Circuit decision is in opposition to several other Circuit Court decisions. This does create the climate for the Supreme Court to take up a case and resolve it once and for all.

A decade ago, same-sex marriage could be a wedge issue in elections. To what extent is same-sex marriage still a wedge issue in politics?

It’s not a wedge issue. It’s anything but. It could be, maybe, on the other side. It’s a precondition for a serious Democrat who wants to be president or wants to be in the U.S. Senate. Except in a handful of a very conservative states, the Democrat has to support marriage equality.

Matthew Stone is BDN opinion page editor.

 


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