Maine's gay marriage battle has echoes of Prop. 8

Brandon Brawner spent a year training Los Angeles groups that opposed Proposition 8. Now the West Hollywood activist runs a phone bank here to block a repeal of Maine's new same-sex marriage law on election day.

"The tactics they use are fear and lies," Brawner, 29, said of his opponents.

Up the road in Yarmouth, Kym Souchet worked the phones to urge voters to reject gay marriage. The home-schooling mom said she was stunned at times at the response she heard.

"We're being called hateful bigots," Souchet, 45, said of her opponents. "I don't hate anyone."

Welcome to Proposition 8 redux. With activists, money and advisors pouring in from across the country, the Nov. 3 referendum battle here is the low-budget, but still potent, sequel of the culture wars that roiled California last year.

Maine voters will decide whether to repeal a law that redefines marriage as the "legally recognized union of two people" regardless of gender. The law is on hold pending the referendum. Most polls suggest the electorate is evenly divided on the issue.

Supporters of same-sex marriage hope to end more than 30 consecutive losses at ballot boxes across the nation and signal a shift in public opinion. Opponents say victory here will spur their efforts to overturn similar laws or court rulings in other states.

With only 1.3 million people, Maine has the same population as San Diego. Moreover, the state's logging and lobster towns, taciturn Down East manners and live-and-let-live politics bear little similarity to the daily tumult and ethnic mix in California.

But the battle still echoes Proposition 8 in key ways.

In particular, Schubert Flint Public Affairs, the Sacramento-based company that managed the campaign to ban gay marriage in California, is directing strategy and media operations for pro-repeal groups in Maine.

Marc Mutty, chairman of Stand for Marriage Maine, the pro-repeal political action group, said he hired Schubert Flint as campaign manager in June and the company had produced all the pro-repeal TV ads, radio spots, websites and other media. Many are nearly identical to those that proved effective in California.

"We put suspenders on instead of cuff links," Mutty said. "But the message is the same."

The referendum is "very much up for grabs," Frank Schubert, president of the public affairs firm, said in a telephone interview. "We're cautiously optimistic. It's certainly a very fierce fight."

Gov. John Baldacci, who signed the bill into law May 6, has thrown his political clout behind legalizing same-sex marriage after opposing it in the past.

The two-term Democrat changed his mind when he discovered state statutes contained "400 rights and responsibilities that are only available under marriage, not civil unions," he said in a telephone interview. "That's not fair, and it's got to be fixed."

State Atty. Gen. Janet Mills weighed in last week when she rejected claims that the new law would require "the teaching of homosexual marriage to young children in public schools," as pro-repeal ads and mailings consistently warn.

Similar claims became one of the most contentious issues during the Proposition 8 battle.

"It is very, very clear it will not be taught in the schools," Baldacci said. "It's a red herring of an issue."

Baldacci's former campaign manager, Jesse Connolly, runs No on 1/Protect Maine Equality, a political action group seeking to block a repeal. He said he planned his strategy after reviewing all the TV ads and other media that anti-gay-marriage groups used in California.

"Their entire playbook here is out of Prop. 8," he said.

Unlike his opponents, Connolly has invested heavily in paid staff, opened five offices around the state and drawn about 120 volunteers or staffers from out of state.

The group has used Virginia-based McMahon, Squier and Associates for TV ads and placement, and other out-of-state companies for political consulting and direct mailings.

Connolly's anti-repeal group has raised about $2.7 million, and Mutty's pro-repeal group has pulled in about $1.1 million, according to campaign financial reports released last week. Both groups raised about half their money from outside Maine.

Mutty said he had expected to raise more money from California and other states. As a result, he said, he has cut back on paid staff, trimmed his budget for direct mail and advertising, canceled several radio ads and scrapped a statewide bus tour.

"It's not surprising," said his co-chairman, Bob Emrich, pastor of the Emmanuel Bible Baptist Church in Plymouth, in northern Maine. "We've been playing catch-up from day one."

Most major newspapers in the state came out over the weekend against a repeal.

In some ways, Maine would seem an unlikely state to break traditional barriers to gay marriage. Over the last two decades, voters repeatedly rejected measures that would have extended antidiscrimination protection based on sexual orientation.

But in 2005, voters approved a referendum granting the protections for the first time in housing, employment and other areas.

"A few years ago, this wouldn't be close," said Jon Hinck, a state representative from Portland who supports the gay marriage law. "But people's attitudes are changing. Now we've got a real chance."

The simmering culture war, at times, has a religious cast.

The Catholic Diocese of Portland has led the repeal effort, contributing money and staff. Churches across the state have devoted sermons, passed out pamphlets and collected donations for repeal.

On the other side, nearly 1,000 people filled the pews at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland on Thursday night to hear the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.

"Could any of us have ever dreamt we would be together like this?" he asked. America, he said, "has undergone a revolution, one family at a time."

The opposing sides have scheduled half a dozen TV debates in the final weeks. But organizers are focusing on urging supporters to vote early, or getting them to the polls on election day.

At night, the battle goes to the phone banks.

In Mutty's pro-repeal office, a storefront in the Portland suburb of Yarmouth, 10 people made nonstop calls early Wednesday night, stopping only to munch pizza and guzzle Cokes.

Automated calls over the weekend had helped identify possible supporters across the state, and the group was trying to reach them all.

"We're talking about completely changing the building blocks of our society," said volunteer Miriam Conners, 55. "There is no family without mom and dad."

Over at Connolly's anti-repeal shop, a corner office building in Portland, five state senators and five state representatives were competing to see who could raise the most money over the phone. By 9 p.m., they had pulled in nearly $14,000.

"This is a small state," said state Senate Majority Leader Phil Bartlett, one of the callers. "You can literally reach out and touch your supporters."

Across the street, Brawner, the West Hollywood activist, was supervising 22 callers at an anti-repeal phone bank in a dingy office above a carpet store.

Brawner flew to Portland to volunteer for a week, and then extended his stay for two more weeks after making a deal with his employer -- a company that produces entertainment and advertising for China -- to work online during the day. The campaign arranged for a local family to put him up.

"They make muffins and eggs for me every morning," he said, shaking his head in amazement. "I cannot see anyone in Los Angeles doing that."

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bob.drogin@latimes.com

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