— In one corner, comedian Sandra Bernhard, wearing a sparkly black skirt, chatted with a longtime fan. In another, Broadway producer Paul Boskind made a pitch to Susan Sarandon. Somebody shouted that Josh Charles had just arrived.
"This is a hip crowd, this is chic," said Richard Socarides, a lawyer and gay rights activist who did a stint in the Clinton White House. "This is a crowd for a movie premiere, not a ballot initiative in Maryland, of all places."
The occasion Thursday evening was a big-ticket fundraiser atop a SoHo hotel to support the campaign to uphold Maryland's same-sex marriage law, which goes to voters in November. About 200 guests paid between $250 and $25,000 to mingle for two hours with celebrities, munching on shrimp and caviar hors d'oeuvres.
Donors from across the country are expected to use their checkbooks to weigh in on Maryland's same-sex marriage referendum. Groups supporting same-sex marriage are making a concerted effort to raise more money nationally to help break a string of defeats at ballot boxes in other states. Opponents of same-sex marriage have long relied on a national fundraising network of religious conservatives, among others, and continue to do so.
Thursday's event on behalf of Marylanders for Marriage Equality was organized by Brian Ellner, a gay rights activist who lives here, and Charles, the actor who grew up in Baltimore.
The National Organization for Marriage held its own more low-key fundraising event two weeks ago in Manhattan. Opponents have tended to spend less money than gay marriage supporters — but until now, at least, have used larger percentages of out-of-state cash.
"When you have a ballot initiative on an issue of national discussion, like gay marriage, it is not surprising that there would be money raised on both sides from out-of-state," said Viveca Novak, a spokeswoman with the Center for Responsive Politics. "This is something that is bigger than the state of Maryland."
Same-sex proponents have lost every time a state same sex marriage law has gone before voters — 32 out of 32 referendums, most recently in North Carolina in May.
Momentum to break that pattern in heavily Democrat Maryland is building, supporters say, pointing to President Barack Obama's May statement supporting same-sex marriage and a similar plank in the Democratic Party platform approved this month. And with the momentum comes a wider network of potential donors that they are eager to tap.
Three states besides Maryland have gay marriage questions on the ballot this fall: Maine, Minnesota and Washington.
Maryland took its place on the national stage in February when the General Assembly approved a law to legalize same-sex marriage here. Opponents quickly gathered enough signatures to trigger the November referendum.
If voters uphold the law, Maryland would join six other states and the District of Columbia in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Thirty-eight states limit marriage to a man and a woman by statute or constitutional amendment.
Thursday's soiree in Manhattan raised money only for the Maryland campaign — one of string of fundraisers being held beyond the state's borders. Gov. Martin O'Malley, who attended as a guest with his wife, Katie, helped to organize earlier events in Connecticut, San Francisco and New Hampshire.
"It has become a lot easier for people to come out," observed Sarandon, who said she feels families of gay children have been incredibly effective in changing minds in recent years. "Everyone knows someone who is gay," she said.
Derek McCoy, the executive director of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, took aim at the glitter associated with Thursday's event in New York. "Those folks are trying to celebritize this issue," McCoy said.
He sent out an emailed plea for cash Tuesday, writing: "Backed by Hollywood donors, homosexual activists are already proclaiming victory. … They are taking their fundraising out of state where they can attract major donors."
McCoy said out-of-state fundraising for opponents of Maryland's law will be handled mostly by their partner, the National Organization for Marriage, a group that works around the country. Frank Schubert, the group's California-based political director, said most voters "innately" agree that marriage is between a man and a woman. "It is what is in their hearts to begin with," Schubert said.
But this year, he said, poses new challenges. "We are handicapped by the sheer number of fights that we have," Schubert said. He said previous efforts have been "one fight at a time."
"There is a limit to how much can be raised," Schubert said. "When you are spread this thin, it is very difficult."
He said he believes the group is fighting head winds politically this year. He described all four states with referendums as "deep blue" and expected to support Obama in the fall. "These are tough places to fight," he said.
Conversely, gay marriage supporters say they are seeing a groundswell of people who want to be involved, and think there is a path to victory. "Now there are more people who see [upholding such laws] as realistic," said Mark Solomon, who has raised money for same-sex marriage campaigns for the past 10 years.
The first official peek at each side's donors to the Maryland campaign will come in reports due Oct. 12, though opponents had to give some hints about their funding sources in the spring when they launched their effort to trigger the referendum.
Papers filed with the state Board of Elections showed that two-thirds of their roughly 600 checks came from out-of-state, most from small donors.
When contacted by a reporter, several said they gave because of a broad-based Internet appeal to defeat same-sex marriage laws nationally. "I just believe in the cause where ever it is," said Dianne Graham of Coggon, Iowa, who was listed as donating $6.50 to the Maryland effort.
Graham, who was reached by telephone, said she donated $25 online — and received receipts showing the gift was split among the four different states. "I would presume it is going to all of the places where they are voting on this issue," Graham said.