Maryland lawmakers under national pressure on marriage bill

Del. A. Wade Kach, left, a Baltimore County Republican, listens to Del. Ron George before the start of the session Thursday on the floor of the House of Delegates.
Del. A. Wade Kach, left, a Baltimore County Republican, listens to Del. Ron George before the start of the session Thursday on the floor of the House of Delegates.

As a handful of undecided Maryland delegates wrestle over their position on same-sex marriage, they've received calls from national leaders trying to move them one way or another on the bill.

Prominent figures dialing Maryland area codes include New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman and Cardinal-elect Edwin F. O'Brien — who called from Rome — according to delegates who've received messages from them and sources familiar with the calls.

The push from both sides demonstrates the extent to which Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill to legalize same-sex marriage has thrust Maryland's legislature onto the national stage. Should the General Assembly pass the bill, Maryland would likely become the eighth state to legalize gay marriages.

New Jersey's legislature passed a measure Thursday, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie has vowed to veto it.

The Civil Marriage Protection Act introduced by O'Malley could be voted on as early as Friday, though the bill's fate is uncertain. Thursday morning's voting session in the House of Delegates was postponed unexpectedly, and lawmakers had girded for a late night. But when the House reconvened for a rare second session later in the day, the body passed one friendly amendment, then recessed until noon Friday.

Adding to the drama of the topsy-turvy day: News spread that Del. Veronica Turner, a yes vote, had been rushed to the hospital and was in the emergency room. Her illness was given as a reason for delaying the floor debate.

The focus is on the 141-member House of Delegates, where a similar measure failed last year. The Maryland Senate approved the bill last year and is expected to do so again.

Over the course of the day, O'Malley gained three more yes votes in the House — at least two of whom received high-profile lobbying calls.

Del. John Olszewski, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he was satisfied with the religious protections and will support the bill.

Del. Pam Beidle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who is Catholic, also said she's decided to support it even though the decision disappointed O'Brien, who'd called her about her vote.

By far the biggest boost came in the morning when Republican Del. Wade Kach, who was considered a sure-fire no vote, threw his support behind O'Malley's bill. Kach had voted against the bill two days earlier in committee.

The Baltimore County delegate said he reached his decision after mulling the testimony he'd heard during a nearly 11-hour hearing on the bill last week and watching how same-sex couples supported one another. "I thought to myself, if my constituents were here, they'd have a different perspective on the issue," Kach said. "I'm sure of it."

He also became the target of a last-minute lobby effort, and said his voice mail was full of messages from important people, including Mehlman, Bloomberg and an offer to talk with former Vice President Dick Cheney, whom Kach regards as a "great man." All three are recognized for their support of gay rights issues.

Like all of the delegates interviewed, Kach said the out-of-state calls didn't have an impact on his decision making. As of Thursday morning, he had not returned any of them. "I'm more interested in talking to my constituents and my colleagues here," said Kach. "I just didn't call them back."

After announcing his position, the state police offered to provide Kach protection, aides to the delegate said. He accepted and was accompanied by a trooper in the State House on Thursday.

O'Malley met with Bloomberg when he was in New York City in late January for a Democratic Governors Association fundraiser. The two discussed same-sex marriage, and O'Malley's staff has stayed in touch with Bloomberg's people on the issue.

Mehlman, who is gay and who supported the New York effort to legalize same-sex marriage, phoned "several" Republican lawmakers, along with putting out calls to lawmakers in Washington state, which just passed a same-sex marriage bill, and New Jersey.

In an interview, Mehlman said that he gives a similar talk to each lawmaker, stressing his view that same-sex marriage is consistent with GOP beliefs: promoting freedom, family values and, he said, the golden rule. "Do unto others as you would have them do onto you," he said.

One topic Mehlman does not cover: cash. The high-profile Republican has an enviable roll of contributors including New York billionaires who can pour money into races. "I do not get into money," Mehlman said. "That would not be appropriate."

Mehlman said that he made calls to Maryland last year, too.

A high-profile person who made calls against the bill this year and last is O'Brien. This year the archbishop placed his calls from Rome, where he is to be elevated to cardinal Saturday.

"I think it has a tremendous influence on faithful Catholics to hear from a cardinal on this issue," said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

Several calls were placed to Republican Del. Patrick Hogan, who was undecided until Wednesday. Hogan said he spoke with the cardinal-elect a few weeks ago and got another called this week that he did not return.

Hogan said his decision to oppose the bill was made largely because he'd already committed to his constituents that he would vote no.

Kevin Kelly, a Western Maryland Democrat, also got a call from O'Brien. Kelly, a Catholic, was surprised because he's never wavered in his stance against the bill. "He just called to thank me. To thank me for standing firm," Kelly said. "It was better than a call saying that you've been excommunicated."

The delegate was tickled that the call came from the Holy See. "I've never gotten a call from the Vatican before," Kelly said. "I was impressed."

The fate of the bill remains in flux, with some delegates speculating that the delays are a sign of weakness that the votes are not there.

Traditional lobbying was also taking place yesterday. O'Malley has been pulling delegates out of committee for talks.

Thursday night, Del. Heather Mizeur, one of seven openly gay delegates, sat on a couch in the House lounge in deep discussion with Del. John Bohanan, a Southern Maryland Democrat who is opposing the bill.

In other parts of the State House complex, a host of mostly African-American faith leaders held a news conference to deride House leadership for moving the bill. The leaders also spoke in favor of the one amendment adopted Thursday, which would move the effective date from October 2012 to January 2013.

The reason: Some delegates, including Kach, who offered the amendment, want to be sure the measure could go to referendum in November before taking effect.

After speaking at a news conference, the faith leaders fanned out in the House office complex, dropping in on their lawmakers to urge opposition to the bill.