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In Maine, a gay-marriage conversation

In the future, when advocacy groups consider ways to win elections, rest assured they’ll be studying Maine.

In a year where gay marriage made unprecedented gains in the ballot box, Maine still managed to make history: On Election Day, it became the first state to pass same-sex marriage through a citizens' initiative petition, as opposed to a vote to uphold a law or reject a "defense of marriage" referendum.

And though the battle was partly waged in classic political terms — $4.3 million raised for TV ads and a sophisticated get-out-the-vote drive — the chief effort was an army of volunteers who waged a "persuasion campaign," a long, slow, painstaking statewide conversation about the meaning of marriage and family.


Increasingly, we spend our time in political echo chambers: talking to like-minded people, reading like-minded views, "unfriending" friends and relatives whose opinions offend us. So it's heartening to think about people making cold calls and talking calmly about tough subjects — without emotional baggage, and with the politeness we often reserve for strangers.

For gay marriage advocates, the process began after a ballot loss in 2009. The state legislature had passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage, but opponents quickly launched a ballot effort to repeal it. The repeal won with 53 percent.

So gay marriage supporters regrouped and decided to launch a petition campaign. Some didn't like the idea of putting civil rights to a vote. But a ballot petition had advantages, said David Farmer, communications director of Mainers United for Marriage, the key group behind the effort. Proponents could control the timing of the election, tying it to a presidential election year. Most importantly, they could take the time to talk to voters, one by one.

The conversation drive began in early 2010 and continued for nearly two years, enlisting thousands of volunteers who carried on 300,000 conversations by telephone and door-to-door.

These weren't the quick-hit, "knock and drop" experiences that mark many political campaigns, Farmer said. The average conversation lasted 22 minutes. Volunteers were trained to bring up connections to their own lives — to talk about marriage, not as a collection of rights and benefits, but as an emotional experience. Farmer started by talking about his wife and two kids. A college student might bring up her parents' marriage. Then the volunteer would ask: What is your marriage like? What does marriage mean to you?


Sarah Dowling, 54, a social worker from Freeport, told me about her "very first persuasion," a phone conversation with a 72-year-old Republican man. He declared himself opposed, but Dowling kept him talking. She asked him about his own marriage, 40 years long, his children and grandchildren. She told him about her family: her longtime partner Linda; Linda's grown children; the 11-year-old daughter they'd adopted together. Then the man asked Dowling whether she wanted her daughter to marry a man or a woman.

"I said we wanted her to grow up to be whomever God wanted her to be," Dowling recalled, and that she merely hoped her daughter's spouse would treat her with love and respect.

"He kind of paused," Dowling said, "and then he said to me, 'I guess it really is about love and commitment.' " She asked him again if he'd support gay marriage. He said he probably would.

In the course of 150 conversations, Dowling said, she discovered something surprising: Many people who initially cited the Bible and tradition had never actually talked about the issue. "And they really wanted to talk about it," she said.


That didn't mean they were willing to change; Farmer said the persuasion rate was roughly 1 in 4, which might mean someone moving from "no" to "undecided," or from "undecided" to "probably yes."

"We emphasized the idea that it's a civil conversation," he said. "It's meeting people where they are. It's making your best case."

That one-on-one contact is easier to pull off in a small state. And as Farmer points out, the process takes time and considerable effort. But it's worth thinking about how Maine's tactic could apply to a ballot drive for physician-assisted suicide, which narrowly lost in Massachusetts this year. Or medical marijuana. Or marijuana legalization.

Regardless of your gut reaction to those issues — regardless of how you'd ultimately vote — wouldn't you want to have a long, calm, heartfelt conversation about them? Even with a stranger?

Especially with a stranger?

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.