For Martin O'Malley, the fight to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland came down to one word: dignity.
Maryland's Democratic governor will sign legislation Thursday making his state the eighth in the nation to allow gay couples to marry, one week after the measure narrowly cleared the state Legislature.
O’Malley’s signature won’t change anything immediately. Even as he is set to sign the law, opponents are in the midst of a petition drive to force a statewide referendum this fall, and the new law would not take effect until January, after the referendum date in November.
If the measure gets on the ballot, as is expected, O'Malley said in an interview that he believes Maryland voters will uphold the law.
"More so than equal rights, more so than fairness, more so than justice or injustice, the word that allowed us to move forward was really dignity: The dignity of every home, the dignity of a job, the dignity of work, the dignity of every family, the dignity of every individual," he said. "When we succeed, if this goes to a referendum, I believe it will be because of that evolution of the public discourse."
O'Malley views his state's consideration of the gay marriage bill in the context of the discussion of social issues that are again part of the political conversation, particularly in the Republican race for president. He sees the push to legalize gay marriage as a matter of civil rights, one that is increasingly a litmus test for Democrats.
"There are others on social issues who want to turn the clock back, whether it's on taking away workers' rights to freely associate and to organize and to bargain collectively, to rolling back women's rights," he said. "Progressive leaders always try to take action on the forward edge of that movement, movement toward greater respect for the equal rights of all."
O'Malley, who chairs the Democratic Governors Assn. and is serving his second term in Maryland, described the "intense" conversations with colleagues even in his own party as the measure came to a vote.
"We've been together 9 out of 10 tough issues, but on this one some of them -- as much as they wanted to, as much as they'd like to be helpful in the broadest sense -- they just could not bring themselves to cast this vote," he said. "Fortunately there were others that did" -- including some Republicans.
Similar legislation failed to pass the Legislature in 2011. In response, O'Malley said lawmakers strengthened religious freedom protections, which "for a state like ours that was founded on the principle of religious freedom, gave people more room to breathe."
O'Malley has been mentioned as one of the rising Democratic stars who might seek the presidency in 2016. He'll be signing gay marriage into law months after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a similarly ambitious politician, did the same.
O'Malley for the moment is sidestepping talk of higher office.
"It's at once flattering, encouraging, annoying and not helpful," he said. "These should be the most productive years I have to give to the people of my state. We've accomplished things during the middle of a recession that we'd never accomplished before as a state. ... So hey, I'm totally absorbed and I'm very focused on what needs to happen in these years ahead."