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Gay marriage supporters seized victory after tough start

ElectionsMarriageFamilySame-Sex Marriage

The two Baptist pastors didn't know a soul at Gov. Martin O'Malley's big breakfast for supporters of his same-sex marriage bill back in January.

Neither had ever been in a room with so many openly gay people.

"It was a different moment," said the Rev. Donte Hickman Sr., pastor of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore. He had attended the breakfast in Annapolis with a colleague, the Rev. Delman Coates, who leads a megachurch in Prince George's County.

They listened. Observed. And at the news conference that followed, stood to the side.

They left intrigued by the proposed legislation, but unsure of how much of a role they wanted to play in Maryland's marriage debate.

Ten months later, the two had become the highest-profile pitchmen for Question 6, appearing in nearly identical commercials that played on television for three-quarters of the campaign. In Baltimore — during some stretches — the average person saw the commercials 10 times a week.

Voters' approval of Maryland's same-sex marriage law last week can be traced in part to the decision by Hickman, 41, and Coates, 39, to lend their names, faces and reputations to a campaign on an issue that remains highly controversial in their community.

According to Marylanders for Marriage Equality, the campaign for same-sex marriage, the pastors' comfort in distinguishing between church and civil law was persuasive not only to blacks, but to white voters.

Equally important was the success of Marylanders for Marriage Equality in raising the $6 million needed to keep Hickman and Coates on the air and the rest of the campaign humming.

Before the campaign could raise that money, it had to endure an internal shake-up and win over skeptical donors who saw better-organized efforts in Washington state and Maine.

On Tuesday, Maryland voters across a broad geographical and political spectrum voted 52 percent to 48 percent to legalize same-sex marriage. The six Maryland jurisdictions that voted in favor of the measure were five majority-white counties and majority-black Baltimore. Two of the counties supported Republican Mitt Romney for president.

"Hickman and Coates, their courage and their voices cannot be underestimated," O'Malley said in an interview after the election. "They were very, very important to changing the dialogue of fear to a much more positive dialogue of hope."

While raising money was a challenge, O'Malley said, "we refused to give in."

"You have to get a lot of noes before you got the yes," he said.

But to the alarm of supporters, those "noes" were still coming strong in August. The campaign didn't have enough money to fund even a few days on television.

"There was never a moment when it was easy," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which put nearly $2 million into the Maryland fight.

National trends, of course, played an important role in the victory. Opinion polls have shown growing support for same-sex marriage, and the backing of President Barack Obama — who announced in May that he had "evolved" on the issue, and later endorsed the Maryland measure specifically — might have led black voters in particular to take another look.

Votes in Maryland, Maine and Washington state last week marked the first time that same-sex marriage had been approved at the ballot box. Voters in Minnesota, meanwhile, rejected a proposed ban on gay marriage there.

Supporters hope the victories will influence the Supreme Court, which is expected to take up a same-sex marriage case this month, and believe they could help sway votes in other Democratic-leaning states such as Hawaii, Illinois and Rhode Island.

But none of that was in the minds of Hickman or Coates as they wrestled with the idea of supporting same-sex marriage and how vocal they should be. Their journey started in the church.

Coates, the Harvard-educated pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, was growing uncomfortable with how colleagues were talking about homosexuality when same-sex marriage become a hot topic in 2011 because of legislative debate on the issue.

"Listening to the tone and the rhetoric they were using, that rhetoric did not reflect my views," he said. "I did not want my silence to be interpreted by anyone as an endorsement of that position."

He also had a personal connection to the question. Growing up, Coates enjoyed a close bond with a relative who suddenly stopped coming to family events when they both went off to college.

"He disappeared," Coates said.

He eventually learned that the relative was gay and HIV-positive. Nobody in the family wanted to talk about it.

"I wrestled with that code of silence that many families have when somebody is different," he said. "I didn't want the church to be that way."

Hickman, of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, also started thinking about same-sex marriage in 2011, after O'Malley said he would make legalization a priority.

"People were saying pastors will be locked up for resisting a same-sex ceremony," he recalled. "I said we should get a better understanding of what it was."

Hickman and Coates — longtime friends — conferred and decided they wanted to be part of the debate in some way.

Hickman, who knew O'Malley from his years as mayor of Baltimore, called the governor's office.

The response: Come to Annapolis. The governor wants to have lunch with you.

From there, Hickman and Coates began inching toward what would eventually be a historic campaign. They discussed religious freedom with O'Malley. They liked the way he talked about it.

O'Malley invited the men back to the governor's mansion the next day, for the breakfast and launch of the legislative battle.

A gay-rights activist approached Hickman and thanked him for his support.

"I said, 'I don't support same-sex marriage. I support your right to get married in a courthouse,'" Hickman recalled.

He says the man understood the distinction he was drawing, and that helped Hickman get closer.

The governor's office asked whether Hickman and Coates would testify at a House of Delegates hearing on the bill. They chewed over the implications together. How would the church respond? The broader faith community? Was this a step too far?

In the end they agreed. Hickman, seated at a table with O'Malley and Coates, explained his thinking to lawmakers: "Let the church be the church, the state be the state and God be the judge."

The General Assembly approved the legislation and O'Malley signed it in March.

Opponents responded by petitioning the measure to referendum. The law was suspended and put on the ballot, where voters would have the final say.

Other states had legalized same-sex marriage through legislation or via court case. In more than 30 tries, none had ever approved it by popular vote.

So began the referendum campaign. In late September, the campaign asked Hickman and Coates each to tape a television commercial.

"I said, 'Haven't we done enough?'" Hickman said. Coates persuaded him.

In separate ads, the ministers look directly into the camera. In Hickman's spot, he says: "I support this law because it does not force any church to perform a same-sex marriage if it's against their beliefs."

In Coates' ad, he says: "I would not want someone denying my rights based upon their religious views; therefore, I should not deny others' based upon mine."

A team of consultants tested the commercials with focus groups and found they had a crossover hit. Black people liked it. White people liked it. Women liked it.

"They needed to be authentic, and they were authentic," said O'Malley pollster Fred Yang, who worked for Marylanders for Marriage Equality.

The group now had a campaign quiver full of commercials, but there was another problem: Supporters weren't raising the money needed to buy television time.

At the beginning of August, the campaign had only $400,000 in the bank — not enough to buy even a single week on the air. Campaign manager Josh Levin said he "sounded the alarm bell."

It rang in the governor's mansion.

"We just stayed at it," O'Malley said.

He tapped longtime ally Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, to take over strategic decision-making for a campaign that was being pulled in a number of different directions.

A 64-year old lesbian from a small town in Kansas, McIntosh came of age in an era when most gays stayed quiet about their sexual orientation and hoped nobody would notice. She has risen in the General Assembly to chair the powerful Environmental Matters Committee and has a brisk, businesslike style. She shows little emotion, no ego.

The campaign's paid staff was slimmed from 24 to 16. McIntosh convened a bipartisan, all-volunteer "kitchen cabinet" to serve as a steering committee.

McIntosh began working on the question of why some national gay-rights groups were ignoring Maryland. To many out-of-staters, she learned, Maryland was a latecomer to the issue — and a disorganized one at that.

First, the state had had difficulty getting the law passed. An attempt in 2011 was pulled from the House floor when Democratic leaders were unable to muster enough votes. Then there was a history of organizational problems in its main statewide gay-rights group. And now, with the question on the ballot, advocates had little time to prepare a campaign.

And to an outside observer, the demographic picture didn't look propitious, either. There was the large African-American electorate that was traditionally hostile to gay marriage. And a significant number of Roman Catholics, with a powerful and politically active conference of bishops.

After 32 straight losses at the polls, the national groups thought victory was finally within their grasp. Elsewhere.

Maine, where a same-sex marriage campaign had been working for three years to organize and persuade voters, was attractive. Voters in Washington state had proved their willingness to support gay rights by approving a 2009 measure legalizing domestic partnerships.

In Maryland, Griffin said, "we were still convincing people until the very end."

Freedom to Marry, one of the country's most important gay-rights advocacy groups, was not listing Maryland as a battleground state. The omission, supporters here believed, was scaring off the big national money.

Something had to be done to make the state more attractive to outside donors, McIntosh believed. Far more money would have to be raised locally.

She turned to an unlikely ally: Chip DiPaula. In Maryland, he's best known for helping to elect the state's first Republican governor in a generation when he orchestrated the 2002 victory of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

His national contacts, though, came from helping put a different Republican in office. He was CEO of the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia that nominated George W. Bush for president.

He's also gay — and wanted to see same-sex marriage pass in Maryland.

"National supporters are sophisticated," DiPaula said. "They want to invest their money with precision to secure victory."

With McIntosh's blessing, DiPaula designed a Hail Mary. On Labor Day weekend he spent hours composing a personal appeal to Evan Wolfson, the head of Freedom to Marry.

The message: We can win this. I know because I managed an unlikely campaign before in Maryland. We won then, and we will win this time, too.

It worked. Freedom to Marry added Maryland to the list.

"We took the lead on raising early money for three of the four states and left others to do the same in Maryland," Wolfson said in an interview. "When it became clear that others had not stepped up, Freedom to Marry stepped up again. We always thought Maryland could do it."

Coupled with positive polling numbers, better local fundraising, and personal appeals from O'Malley, the freeze among national donors began to thaw. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg gave $250,000. Republican donor Paul Singer gave $250,000. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue gave $100,000. Brad Pitt gave $25,000.

Freedom to Marry gave $115,000.

In the end, Marylanders for Marriage Equality spent about $6 million, about half what supporters spent in Washington state and Minnesota. Only Maine, a state with less than a quarter of Maryland's population, spent less.

On Oct. 9, a day after opponents began airing their commercials, Marylanders for Marriage Equality debuted its advertising campaign with the message from the two black pastors.

The group spent about $800,000 a week on television time, and Hickman and Coates remained on the air for most of the campaign.

Backlash came swiftly. And it was personal, Coates said.

"It's been tough with some peers and colleagues," he said. "Statements that I'm not a true preacher. I'm not part of the church. A range of judgments and attacks."

He says critics predicted that Coates and Hickman would destroy their ministries.

Since word of the campaign spread, both pastors have had to add services on Sunday to accommodate increased demand.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

twitter.com/annielinskey

In a previous version of this article, a single reference to spending by Marylanders for Marriage Equality called the group by an incorrect name.

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