PORTLAND, Maine — Political endorsements generally come and go without much comment.
Not so with last week’s announcement that EqualityMaine, the state’s largest gay-rights advocacy group, would work to elect Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who recently came out as gay, as Maine’s next governor.
The announcement was immediately met with stern words from Eliot Cutler, the independent businessman and lawyer who’s making his second run for the Blaine House in 2014. In a long statement, Cutler, who says he is a longtime supporter of LGBT equality, called the endorsement “a partisan political decision, not a principled one.”
“Once again, another special interest group has abandoned its principles and denied its members an opportunity to hear from the candidates in a debate or forum and have a voice in their endorsement process,” Cutler wrote.
On Tuesday at Portland’s Aucocisco Gallery, former state Sen. Dennis Damon — the architect of Maine’s landmark 2009 marriage equality law, which was overturned by voters — and current Sen. Dick Woodbury, I-Yarmouth, held a news conference to decry EqualityMaine’s endorsement and voice their support for Cutler.
They, like many critics of EqualityMaine’s decision, drew attention to Michaud’s 19 votes against an amendment to Maine’s Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Those votes took place during Michaud’s tenure in the Maine Legislature, from 1981 to 1997, when the bill was ultimately passed and signed into law.
Michaud’s supporters have said that his position, like that of many other elected officials and a significant segment of Maine’s population, has evolved on the issue.
Damon said Cutler’s ideals, namely his support for equality, “are not values Eliot has ‘evolved’ to hold now. They are part of his DNA.”
Tuesday’s Portland news conference was just the latest salvo between the Michaud and Cutler campaigns and their supporters, who have sparred in newspaper OpEds, blog posts and social media, each trying to position their candidate as the fiercest warrior for LGBT rights. Republican Gov. Paul LePage, the third candidate in the three-way 2014 race, did not court EqualityMaine’s endorsement and has remained quiet on the subject.
Both candidates have attracted power players from Maine’s equality movement: EqualityMaine’s former longtime director, Betsy Smith, threw her hat in with Cutler and started an independent organization to help him get elected. Matt McTighe, who ran the successful same-sex marriage ballot initiative in 2012, is Michaud’s campaign manager. Another 2012 marriage campaign veteran, David Farmer, is a senior campaign adviser.
On the day of the EqualityMaine endorsement, Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said Cutler’s response was nothing more than a “bitter rant.” On Monday, the Michaud campaign trotted out Dale McCormick, who was the state’s first openly gay legislator, in a fundraising email.
Damon also crafted an OpEd published in Tuesday’s Bangor Daily News, in which he criticized EqualityMaine’s decision and Michaud’s “mixed” record.
Jane Clayton, president of the group’s board of directors, responded in kind with her own OpEd, explaining and defending EqualityMaine’s decision. Part of that defense matched the Michaud campaign’s repeated statements about the candidate’s evolution on LGBT equality since 1997. (Last year, Michaud earned a 95 percent score from the Human Rights Campaign, a leading national gay-rights group.)
Michaud’s campaign has played down the controversy, with staffers saying they were surprised that Cutler and his supporters were spending so much time on it.
“There are so many issues facing Maine people right now,” McTighe said Tuesday. “With the legislative session resuming this week, it’s a shame the Cutler camp is choosing to dwell on an endorsement they didn’t get.”
Mark Brewer, a University of Maine political scientist whose work focuses on partisan politics, said the fallout demonstrates the strength of EqualityMaine. While its endorsement doesn’t carry the on-the-ground support that comes with labor union support — which Michaud has also won — it’s still “a relatively big deal,” he said.
The group has a membership list of about 70,000 Mainers and engaged more than 10,000 volunteers during the successful same-sex marriage campaign in 2012. That could translate to a lot of ground cover in the 2014 gubernatorial election.
“This is probably one of the more important endorsements that Cutler or Michaud could get, given that they’re both competing heavily for people who under no circumstance would vote for Paul LePage,” he said.
Still, Brewer said ongoing focus on EqualityMaine’s decision by Cutler or his supporters could hurt the candidate’s image.
“There is a risk there of it sounding like sour grapes,” he said. “That’s where we are at this point. If I were advising Cutler, I’d be a little concerned about that.”
Crystal Canney, Cutler’s spokeswoman, said the candidate is already moving on, though she said she couldn’t control what the campaign’s supporters will do. Damon and Woodbury’s news conference Tuesday was not a campaign event, she said, though a campaign staffer did urge Damon to pen an OpEd.
“We’ve made our point about [Michaud’s] record, and we’re moving on,” she said Tuesday. “We will be looking closely at his record on a number of issues where he says he’s ‘evolved.’”
As for EqualityMaine, a spokesman said that while the group is proud to support Michaud, its endorsement is not a dismissal of Cutler’s pro-equality record.
“We made a point of thanking Mr. Cutler for his support,” said Ian Grady of EqualityMaine. “We felt that was important when we made our announcement. Eliot has been a supporter since 2009, and we appreciate that.”
According to Maine Ethics Commission records, Cutler and his wife, Melanie Cutler, donated $14,600 to the unsuccessful 2009 same-sex marriage campaign in Maine.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.