Choosing from a slate of three Democratic candidates who have all been friendly to its cause, Maryland's largest gay rights organization on Monday endorsed Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown for governor.
Equality Maryland interviewed Brown and each of his two Democratic opponents -- Attorney General Douglas Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur -- and decided Brown and his running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, would be the "most effective" allies in Annapolis, said Executive Director Carrie Evans.
"It is leadership and experience and relationships with other groups and individuals that are going to help Equality Maryland," Evans said.
Brown backed same-sex marriage last year, and the support of his boss, Gov. Martin O'Malley, was seen as critical to passing the law, which voters later upheld in a referendum vote.
"We've made great progress over the past seven years, achieving marriage equality and strengthening domestic violence services for LGBT residents, while working to ban discrimination based on gender identity," he said in a statement Monday.
He and Ulman, he said, "are committed to maintaining Maryland's position on the right side of history at the forefront of the fight for equality, and we support all Marylanders and their families."
Despite that support, the endorsement decision was not easy, as Brown, Gansler and Mizeur all have "very comparable" records of supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, Evans said.
Gansler, as Attorney General, took an early stance in support of same-sex marriage when he declared in 2010 that Maryland would recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, before such marriages were legal in Maryland.
Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat, is openly gay and married to a woman, and would be the first openly gay governor to be elected in the country.
Given the widespread support, Evans said that through the endorsement process, she knew members of Maryland's LGBT population would be watching Equality Maryland's actions closely, particularly when it came to Mizeur's candidacy.
However, Equality Maryland is "not the Victory Fund," Evans said, referring to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which supports the election of gay and lesbian candidates nationwide.
"Our goal is to elect fair-minded individuals," Evans said. "That is regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity."
With Brown and Ulman in Annapolis, Equality Maryland will have well-connected leaders to partner with on its top priorities, she said.
The organization has endorsed candidates since 2006, always with an eye toward advancing legislation that supports equality for LGBT Marylanders, such as last year's bill legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.
Support for such legislation has ballooned in Annapolis, and across the country, in recent years, a reality Equality Maryland gave a nod to in its endorsement of Brown.
In a statement, Tim Williams, chair of Equality Maryland's political action committee, said it is "remarkable" that 7 years after Equality Maryland began issuing endorsements, "we have come to a point where all three Democratic candidates for Governor are enthusiastically supportive of LGBT issues."
Both Gansler and Mizeur backed same-sex marriage, with Mizeur offering personal testimony to her General Assembly colleagues about her own marriage and her desire for it to be recognized in her home state.
Mizeur and Gansler have also publicly courted the gay community, including by participating in last summer's Baltimore Pride parade, the largest in the state. Their running mates for lieutenant governor have also been supportive of gay rights.
Gansler's running mate, Del. Jolene Ivey, a Prince George's Democrat, also backed same-sex marriage, and on Monday released a statement saying both she and Gansler "have been and will continue to be champions for the LGBT community."
"Doug Gansler did not hide behind a closed door until someone knocked and asked for help; he was the first statewide official to support marriage equality, he got out there and will continue to do so, whether or not he gets a PAC endorsement," Ivey said.
Gansler, she said, will "take the political risks that are needed to move issues like marriage equality from the impossible to the inevitable. "
Mizeur's running mate, the Rev. Delman Coates, a senior pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, also supported same-sex marriage, breaking with more conservative clergy to do so.
In a statement Monday, Mizeur called Equality Maryland's endorsement of Brown "a puzzling choice, given our records."
"No one in this race has done more for the LGBT community than the Mizeur-Coates ticket," she said. "I'm not sure what more we could have done to earn their support."
Ulman, who is Brown's running mate, also supported same-sex marriage.
Ulman also signed a law in his home county banning discrimination based on gender identity and expression, which took effect last year. Howard joined Montgomery County, home to both Gansler and Mizeur, and Baltimore City in prohibiting such discrimination.
In a statement Monday, Ulman noted that record, saying Howard County has "led the way in ensuring equality for all residents" in Maryland.
"Fighting for full rights and opportunity for LGBT Marylanders has been a priority for Anthony Brown and me, and I'm excited to partner with him and Equality Maryland to continue working to ensure full equality for all Marylanders," he said.
Evans said Equality Maryland's top priority now is passage of the Fairness for all Marylanders Act, which would ban discrimination based on gender identity or expression in housing, employment and public accommodations in Maryland.
Equality Maryland also made endorsements on Monday in 36 other races in Maryland. All of the candidates it endorsed are Democrats, and all are incumbents who backed same-sex marriage, Evans said.
The endorsements were based on answers to questionaires that Equality Maryland sent to candidates. More endorsements of incumbents will follow, as more candidates complete the questionaires and return them to the organization, Evans said.
The organization has yet to decide if it will weigh in on races where a supportive incumbent is not seeking reelection, Evans said.
A full list of the organization's endorsements is available here.