O'Malley explains evolution of stance on same-sex marriage at Sun forum

Gov. Martin O'Malley gave his most detailed explanation to date for the evolution of his stance on gay marriage, at the inaugural Baltimore Sun Newsmaker Forum Wednesday evening.

Until last year — when he said he would sign a gay marriage bill if passed by the General Assembly — O'Malley had been a public supporter of civil unions.

During the hour-long conversation in front of roughly 120 people, the governor said that his long-held private belief in civil marriage for same-sex couples was sacrificed for political goals. When running for governor in 2006, he said, he decided to publicly support civil unions because at the time most Marylanders supported a distinct form of union for gay couples.

"I was mayor of the city of Baltimore then and my political advisers and friends went absolutely nuts and said 'There is no such term as "civil marriage" … if you use the term "civil marriage" you are going to jeopardize whatever hope we have to defeat the current officeholder and make the sort of strides, in any number of areas, that [then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is] opposed to on these things," O'Malley said.

In July, O'Malley announced that he would throw his support behind a bill to legalize marriage for same-sex couples in Maryland. When asked at the announcement why he changed his position on the issue, O'Malley declined to elaborate, except to say that growing up in the Catholic Church influenced his early thinking on the topic.

Wednesday night, he said, "So I stuck pretty much to civil unions, believing honestly that that was the place where a public consensus could be forged that could move us forward. ... I have since seen that this debate is moving much more quickly."

O'Malley's same-sex marriage legislation passed a joint House of Delegates panel this week and is scheduled for debate in the full chamber Thursday.

"We're still moving toward the consensus of 71 votes on marriage equality," he said. "If it weren't to pass, I don't see this issue going away."

O'Malley also said the legislation offers adequate protection for religious freedom.

Sister Jeannine Gramick, a marriage equality supporter who traveled from Prince George's County to hear O'Malley speak, said: "I'm proud of him for being a Catholic and for witnessing real Catholic values. … I'm so glad he's supporting the marriage equality bill."

In addition to discussing same-sex marriage, O'Malley advocated for several of his legislative priorities after he was prompted by Maryland Voices editor Andrew A. Green with questions culled from the audience and online participants.

The governor defended his desire to change the flat-rate "flush tax" to a use-based fee structure for household water consumption and said that an increase in the gasoline tax does not demand a parallel increase in the cost to use public transit. When asked about installing table games at Maryland's slots casinos, O'Malley said: "I'm not barking up that tree."

"I'm glad he read the State of the State speech again for me," Dennis McIver of Northeast Baltimore said after the hourlong event. "It was, essentially, a rehashing of what he said two weeks ago."

O'Malley also said that he thought fracking — a process of using pressurized fluid to extract natural gas from shale — may have a future in Maryland, but not at the expense of the state's rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay. The state needs to develop the "gold standard" for making the process environmentally sound, he said, before pursuing it as an option.

Robbie Palmisano, a 14-year-old from Baltimore County who attended the forum with his father, praised O'Malley's presentation.

"I thought he did a really good job of promoting education and renewable energy reform," said the Hereford High School student, who added that he was looking forward to telling his government class about the experience.

Wednesday's event with O'Malley was the first in a series The Baltimore Sun has planned for this year. Future newsmakers and dates have not been announced.