After soul searching, swing votes make difference for same-sex marriage

A former math teacher. A firefighter. A lawyer. A small-business woman. A full-time doctoral student. A congressional aide.

When the legislative session started in January, the six delegates from different cliques in Maryland's clubby General Assembly had this in common: None would have called himself or herself a supporter of Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

Yet all cast votes Friday in favor of the measure, providing the margin needed to pass the bill, 72-67, in the House of Delegates, which had rejected a similar measure 11 months ago.

Some never let on that they were wavering. Those who did faced the same formidable political and social forces that managed to scuttle the measure last year, including a strong and organized lobby from some of the state's most influential church leaders. One lawmaker, a Catholic, received a phone call from Rome from Cardinal-designate Edwin F. O'Brien, who was elevated to that rank Saturday. All confronted the threat of being unseated by opponents of gay marriage when the delegates face re-election campaigns in 2014.

But this time the faith-driven opposition didn't carry the day. Instead, lawmakers say, they were swayed by the emotional stories of gay couples. Some delegates wanted to be assured that churches would never be forced by the state to preform same-sex marriages. Several were convinced that voters would get the final say. Their decisions pushed the vote count past the 71 needed to pass the measure.

Like many legislators, Dels. A. Wade Kach, Robert A. Costa, Tiffany T. Alston, Pamela G. Beidle, John A. Olszewski Jr. and John L. Bohanan Jr. struggled with the decision. They were among the last to declare support for the bill; three flipped their votes last week.

Jubilant supporters are looking to the next step — a vote in the Maryland Senate, which approved a similar measure last year and is likely to do so again. If the bill passes, it is expected to be petitioned to referendum and go before the voters in November. Opinion polls show they are evenly split on the issue.

Seven states — Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Washington — along with the District of Columbia, have approved gay nuptials. Same-sex marriage measures could be on the November ballot in Maine and Washington state.

Hours before Maryland's House approved the bill, a same-sex marriage bill was vetoed in New Jersey by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, an O'Malley rival.

But Friday, the national spotlight was focused on Maryland's 141-member House, where O'Malley aides said they were not sure they had the votes until the final count was read aloud. For nearly a year, a tight group of supporters had fanned out to talk with any and every delegate they thought they could move.

"It was a grind until the end," said Joseph Bryce, O'Malley's top legislative aide, who in July was tasked with pulling the votes together. In the final weeks, he had said they were within "striking distance," but they went into the day of the vote with no margin for error.

Even as the measure went to a final House vote, he was not sure. Delegates were lobbying on the floor until the final moments.

The state's black churches played a key role in the opposition. And as votes slipped away last week, they suggested that the defections were more about politics than conscience.

"There is no question there were unscrupulous practices," said the Rev. Derek McCoy, executive director of the Maryland Marriage Alliance. "Oh, absolutely. Deals were being cut for certain amendments and certain concessions."

Lawmakers interviewed for this article denied that they were given anything for their votes. They said they took time to think about personal stories from gay and lesbian couples they met during hearings or in private meetings. Others wanted changes to the bill and worked with O'Malley's aides to find the right balance.

One — Alston — still opposes same-sex marriages and pledged to help organize a referendum against the measure. But she said she wants the state to move past the issue.

Another, Bohanan, did not change his view until the evening before the vote.

In the end, they seemed relieved.

"I'm glad this is over," said Kach, as he walked out of the State House. One of two Republican lawmakers to change his vote from last year, no one came under more pressure. When the Baltimore County delegate announced his position Thursday, he received threats. State troopers followed him around the State House for the day.

Kach had voted against the bill in committee two days earlier, but even then had reservations. He'd showed up late to the nearly 11-hour committee hearing on the bill, thinking he'd be able to duck in and out of it at will. As fate would have it, his seat was at the end of a long horseshoe, within earshot of some of the gay couples in the audience.

"I got to hear them speak and hear them talk to one another," Kach said. "And I just found it so revealing. The relationships between the same-sex couples that were up there. The love and dedication they had to one another."

But Kach was concerned when a children's book called "King & King," about a same-sex couple, was passed around as an example of how youngsters could be taught about the issue in classrooms.

"I was shocked at the grade level that it was apparently printed to appeal to," Kach said. He said he would not want his child to read such a book, but as a former math teacher, that he was comforted by the fact that Maryland parents can pull their children from sex education classes.

Kach also spoke of pressure he found distasteful from some within his party.

"I'm hearing from some Republicans that we can't let Governor O'Malley have this bill because it will be a feather in his cap," Kach said. "That is no way to govern or to legislate. We must do is what we think is right and what we think will be a greater benefit to the state of Maryland."

Costa, another Republican, also supported the bill. The Anne Arundel firefighter made his decision public Tuesday, shortly before he voted yes in committee.

"If this is a sin, let God decide, not the state," Costa, 53, said Friday. He was considered a possible yes vote last year, but did not tell colleagues what he would do.

Kach and Costa caught Annapolis off guard early in the week, but the other surprise was Alston, a Prince George's County Democrat. She walked briskly out of the State House on Friday night and declined to comment for this article.

Like Kach, she had voted against the bill in committee Tuesday night. Unlike Kach, she spoke passionately about it.

"I will vote against it on the floor," she said that night. "I made a commitment to my constituents."

But on Thursday when Democratic leaders realized they were one vote short — Del. Veronica L. Turner, a yes vote, had been rushed to the hospital on Wednesday — supporters looked to Alston, a 34-year-old lawyer.

A freshman lawmaker, she's had more trouble than any in her class. In September, she was charged by the state prosecutor's office with using campaign funds to pay for her wedding expenses, including a dress. Another round of charges came in December — using state money to pay the salary of an employee in her law practice.

During Friday's debate, House Speaker Michael E. Busch stepped from the rostrum and met with Alston as delegates spoke on the floor. Waiting for her to come out of the meeting was Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican who was a leading opponent of the bill. He put an arm around her shoulder and whispered in her ear.

She returned to her seat and shocked the chamber by offering a change to the bill that was considered friendly. Implementation of the law would be stayed in the case of a legal dispute over signatures calling for a referendum. Also, she added a clause that she felt strengthens protections for religious institutions.

Even as she changed her vote, she made it clear that her stance on the issue hadn't changed. "My religion still tells me that marriage is between a man and a woman," Alston said on the floor.

She wanted the issue to go to referendum. And she said she wanted the General Assembly — which has been consumed for two years by the same-sex marriage debate — to move on to other topics. "It is time for us to move beyond this issue," she said on the floor.

Olszewski, 29, a second-term Baltimore County Democrat, took a different approach. A devoted Methodist, he was worried about churches that did not want to preform same-sex marriages. Would they be protected? Would such protections stand up in court?

He says he met "scores" of times with O'Malley aides and lawyers to better understand the bill. On the floor Friday, he said the governor's measure "goes above and beyond" to protect the right of religious institutions to decide what is right for them.

Olszewski, who is seeking a doctorate in public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said he was "dumbfounded" that gay couples could not marry but convicted rapists and murders can. And, he noted, the Scriptures do not allow those who are divorced to remarry, but society — and state law — permit it.

"To go another day denying full rights to all Marylanders would be a disgrace," he said.

A single personal story crystallized the support of Beidle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. The 60-year-old businesswoman said she was torn last year on the vote. But on Thursday a gay constituent who was meeting with the delegate as part of a group pushing a different topic pulled Beidle aside.

The constituent, whom Beidle would not identify, is gay with two children and in a domestic partnership. An Anne Arundel charter school had admitted one child but was demanding a marriage certificate to enroll the second.

"They were asked for a marriage certificate, and they couldn't possibly produce it," Beidle said.

That day, the lawmaker, who rarely speaks on the floor, stood up during the Democratic caucus meeting and told the story.

After a week of shocks, emotions and drama, a Democrat from Southern Maryland provided a final jolt.

Bohanan had made it clear to everyone who would listen. The governor. The speaker. His vote was no.

On Thursday night, the lawmaker sat with Del. Heather R. Mizeur on a couch off the House floor. They were locked in an intense discussion that was interrupted when the chamber's bells rang to call members for a vote on an amendment.

Bohanan said it was the first real discussion he'd had about the issue with the lawmaker.

"I thought what made sense was going straight to referendum," Bohanan said. "Let the people of Maryland decide."

But Bohanan said one factor in his decision was that "it became clear" that the bill would be sent to the people. "It is essentially the same thing," he said. "The people of Maryland will get a say in this."

Bohanan made his final decision Thursday night. He went home and drafted a note to the speaker, explaining that he planned to change his vote. It made him number 71.

"I hadn't had any crazy dreams," he said. "I still felt good about the decision." At 6 a.m. Friday, Bohanan sent a text message to the speaker, informing him of the decision.

But the speaker only saw the note about 3:30 p.m., after he had worked throughout the day to nail down votes.

A few hours later, O'Malley's Civil Marriage Protection Act passed in the Maryland House of Delegates by 72 votes to 67.

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