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Gay marriage supporters seek win in Maine

Legalization was shot down by voters three years ago, but shifting attitudes have backers feeling hopeful this time

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

From top to bottom: Teanna Thomas, 19, supports gay mariage in Maine; Craig Jones, 50, doesn’t care what people do; and Elizabeth Libby, 62, opposes legalization.

CORNISH, Maine — Three years ago, when this tiny town of antiques shops and farmland in western Maine joined the rest of the state in rejecting same-sex marriage, Teanna Thomas was too young to vote. From the sidelines, she challenged her parents, who opposed same-sex marriage.

Now 19, she will formally break with them on the issue on Nov. 6, with plans to support a ballot question allowing gay couples to marry.

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“You can’t help who you love,” said Thomas, a rehabilitation specialist who works with brain-injured people. “And you should be able to marry who you want.”

Gay marriage backers are relying on voters like Thomas to reverse their narrow 2009 loss, when Mainers by a 53 to 47 percent vote nullified a law passed six months earlier legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.

This time, supporters say, they have the edge, with younger voters more likely to turn out in a presidential election year, bringing their generation’s more open embrace of same-sex relationships, and evolved attitudes among some older voters.

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“A sitting president has come out and said he supports same-sex marriage,” said David Farmer, the spokesman for Mainers United for Marriage. “That’s a powerful indication of an overall switch.”

Polls, so far, suggest they are in the lead. One recent survey by the Pan Atlantic SMS Group showed 55 percent of voters in favor of gay marriage, 39 percent opposed, and 4.5 percent undecided.

Nationwide, gay marriage proponents have never prevailed at the ballot box on a question that would legalize same-sex marriage. But on Nov. 6, Maine, along with Maryland and Washington, could make history, with recent polls showing the pro-gay-marriage side ahead in those states as well.

If all were to embrace same-sex marriage, the tally of states where it is legal would rise to nine, in addition to the District of Columbia.

Opponents in Maine say the polls are likely inaccurate because supporters of same-sex marriage have framed the issue as one of fairness and equality, making respondents less likely to share their opinion and more likely to say they are undecided.

“Historically, without a doubt, an undecided vote is a vote for traditional marriage,” said Carroll Conley, cochairman of Protect Marriage Maine. The group’s internal polling shows a win for his side, he said.

Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, said the phenomenon is known by academics as the “social desirability effect.” “People know what the politically correct answer is and they are more likely to give that answer,” he said.

Still, Brewer added, “there has been real opinion change” in the short time since Maine’s 2009 vote. He noted that proponents have conducted a highly coordinated grass-roots canvassing effort — with supporters talking face-to-face with more than 200,000 Mainers in three years, according to Mainers United for Marriage.

“That kind of face-to-face interaction is fostering attitude change,” Brewer said.

Conley asserted, however, there is no evidence that approach is working. “We don’t like to use the word confident, but I’ll be surprised if we lose,” he said.

In addition to Maryland and Washington, where voters are set to weigh in on recent legislation approving gay marriage, voters in Minnesota will decide whether to support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Maine’s ballot question represents the first time that supporters of gay marriage — and not opponents — have brought the issue to voters. In the six states that permit it — Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont — it has been legislatively or judicially enacted.

The rejection of same-sex marriage by Mainers in 2009 was a major blow for supporters who were seeking to regain momentum after California voters rejected gay marriage in 2008. Expectations ran high that same-sex marriage would survive in Maine, where supporters thought they would benefit from more volunteers, more money, and a strong libertarian strain running through the electorate.

In towns like Cornish, which rejected gay marriage by nearly the same margin as voters across the state in 2009, push back against government still weighs heavily in the minds of some.

“The government has no business in the bedroom,” said Su Richards, a 57-year-old fiber artist from nearby South Hiram who was shopping for a mannequin in Cornish this week. She said she will vote for Mitt Romney, who opposes same-sex marriage, but will support the ballot question.

Craig Jones, a 50-year-old construction worker, said, “I don’t care what people do. To each his own.” Though, Jones said, he is still deciding how to vote on the ballot question.

Religion is expected to play a key role, as well. Elizabeth Libby, a 62-year-old who owns Uptown Boutique in Cornish, leans toward President Obama. But she parts way with him on same-sex marriage, in part because of her Catholic upbringing. “I’m old school,” she said

In contrast to 2009, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has been relatively quiet in the campaign. Three years ago, the diocese took up collections for opponents of same-sex marriage and loaned a staffer to the campaign. Maine is estimated to be 15 percent Catholic, many of them of French-Canadian origin.

Afterward, some parishioners expressed concern about the diocese’s role — particularly spending thousands of dollars on the campaign when the money was needed elsewhere, said Anne Underwood, cofounder of Catholics for Marriage Equality, which formed in response to the diocese’s 2009 efforts.

This year, the diocese has not loaned out staff, nor has it provided financial assistance to the campaign. Instead, it has held meetings around the state to “teach interested parties about the church’s belief that marriage is defined as the union of one man and one woman,” said David Guthro, a diocese spokesman.

The “church does not seek to impose a law or beliefs on anyone, but instead, to add its voice to the public debate concerning the push to redefine marriage,” Guthro said.

According to campaign finance filings, supporters of same-sex marriage so far have outraised their opponents: Mainers United for Marriage reported raising $3.4 million as of Sept. 30. That includes major contributions from Chris Hughes, a cofounder of Facebook, and his husband, as well as Paul Tagliabue, the former National Football League commissioner.

Protect Marriage Maine has raised $430,000 as of Sept. 30, including $250,000 from the National Organization for Marriage.

The money isn’t needed to persuade Fredrick Jones Sr. The 74-year-old retired ironworker was “put off” when his brother came out years ago. But when his two daughters married women, he changed his mind.

“I figured they’ve got their lives to live,” said Jones, who recently moved to Hiram from Wakefield, Mass., and is not yet registered to vote. “I’ve got mine.”

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sschweitzer@
globe.com
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