Saturday, February 11, 2012

Will Maryland Lead on Marriage Equality?

In a very emotional hearing last week folks testified in favor of and against marriage equality in Maryland.  Last year, after passing in the Senate, marriage equality legislation lacked the the 71 votes needed to pass in the House of Delegates. Since that time, much has happened. Marriage equality was legalized in New York, Washington state just legalized it as well, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that proposition 8 in California - which took away the right to same-sex marriage - was unconstitutional. 

The march of history is clear. Marriage equality will come to every state, it's only a matter of time. Public opinion has shifted considerably in recent years and the trend is clearly in favor of same sex marriage.  In 7 states, plus DC, same sex marriage is now legal. Voters in Minnesota, New Jersey, and North Carolina will soon consider the issue.  Maryland still has a chance to lead on this issue, to set an example for other states.

I reiterate something I wrote last year on the day same-sex marriage died in the House of Delegates:
Today, I simply want to ask every member of the House of Delegates to look forward, beyond this vote, beyond 2012 or 2014. Look 20 years into the future, a future where same-sex marriage is legal everywhere - a likely scenario given the dramatic changes in public opinion on the issue. Future generations will look to this era in American history with the same confusion and embarrassment that our generation looks to the era of segregation and anti-miscegenation laws. That future generation will wonder how intolerance, hate, and bigotry could have so defined our public policy with regard to gender preference, much the same as we wonder how we ever believed that the color of one's skin should determine one's rights.

Many members of the General Assembly will have children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren among that future generation. I ask those members, what will you say when your child or grandchild ask what role you played in the fight for equality? Will you be able to say that you stood at the vanguard of the battle, that you cast a vote for equality that rippled across other states and set a new standard for tolerance? Or, will you lower your voice and your head and explain that when the time came to stand and be counted -- to lead -- you simply weren't up to the task?

Twenty years from now, will you be proud of the vote you'll cast?
Just over 45 years ago the Democratic party was divided over the issue of civil rights and the question of black equality. Democrats dominated national politics and party leaders and even presidents had tried to ignore the issue of civil rights out fear it would tear the Democratic coalition apart. In the end, President Johnson and committed activists in the House and Senate pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And guess what? It shattered the Democratic party coalition. The party lost its national dominance. It lost the White House in 1968, 72, 80, 84, 88, 2000 and 2004. It lost its hold on Congress.

But would anyone argue today that it was the wrong choice to make? African-American voter registration skyrocketed in the South. African-American representation in Congress and state and local office grew considerably. It was simply the right choice to make.

Democrats in Maryland are faced with a similar test of their character. Yes, legalizing same-sex marriage will likely fracture your coalition and perhaps challenge your dominance of state politics. But it's still the right thing, the only acceptable thing, to do. I have been a frequent critic of Martin O'Malley, but his decision to champion this issue, even if it means dividing his party, is to be commended. I only hope that Democrats in the General Assembly will follow his example and lead on this issue.

I hasten to add, in 1964 a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans was crucial to securing passage of the Civil Rights Act over the objection of conservative southern Democrats - but it was the Democratic party that paid the price politically and Republicans that claimed the subsequent allegiance of angry southern whites. Governor O'Malley has recently made overtures to Republicans in the House of Delegates seeking the support of a few party moderates. It would be great if Republican votes helped ensure final passage - but one must ask, why would Republicans consider helping a Governor who has made a habit of referring to them as right-wing, dinosaur, tea party extremists? O'Malley may soon learn that there is a price to be paid for harsh rhetoric. It may help his party raise money and it may raise his national profile, but it undermines coalition building and legislating.