Maine gay marriage petition drive off to fast start

The effort to put the issue of gay marriage before Maine voters is underway. When the Maine Legislature and Gov. John Baldacci approved gay marriage in May, opponents were required to gather petition signatures in order to force a “people’s ballot” to bring the issue before voters. By law, petitions need to be in the hands of the Secretary of State’s office 90 days after the adjournment of the legislative session, which was last Friday. That puts the deadline at Sept. 10. The only detraction for traditional marriage supporters is that the September deadline would not put the issue before voters until June 2010, during legislative primary elections. Ideally, opponents would like to get the issue before voters this November at the same time as other tax issues likely to draw a larger turnout. That would require petitions with 55,087 valid signatures of registered voters to be in the hands of the Secretary of State by Aug. 1. It’s a tall order, but one that is feasible if early momentum continues, Bob Emrich said. Emrich, a pastor, is the founder of The Jeremiah Project, a conservative non-profit. To date, he said between 10,000 and 12,000 signatures have been collected since late May. The goal, he said, is to get about 80,000 signatures before the petitions are handed in to account for potential duplications and errors. “We are off to a good start,” Emrich said. “The level of interest and level of intensity is remarkable. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The challenge is to get the level of action into the right number of signatures.” Other than being at a time with higher turnout, putting the issue to voters in November has other advantages. “For one thing it’s still fresh in people’s minds and they’re still motivated,” he said. “It’s also a shorter period of time and would require less money for a shorter campaign.” The financial aspect is where Mike Heath comes in. He is the executive director of the Maine Family Policy Council (MFPC). The organization has a political action committee raising campaign funds regardless of when the voting might take place. “We’re working on fund-raising to contribute to the support the campaign that’s coming,” he said. “We’re aware of the resources were going to need.” The MFPC is not handing out petitions itself, but is directing supporters on its Website to Marc Mutty from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Emrich, and the Maine Marriage Institute as sources for petitions. Heath said gambling expansion and medical marijuana are other hot-button issues the MFPC is rallying against. He said the state’s Republican Party has been fractured by its unwillingness to take the gay marriage issue seriously and GOP senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe voting with Democratic Party blocs more often than most of their more conservative colleagues. “Gay marriage is an issue that the Maine state Republicans have not taken seriously for the last two decades and now it has become a major issue,” he said. Keeping it a major issue in front of voters is easier than expected for Emrich because of people more concerned about legislative excesses than strong feelings about gay marriage. “We’ve had a number of people contact us about petitions who are ambivalent about (gay marriage) but are upset at how the governor and the legislature pushed this through,” Emrich said. “If this was an issue that was going to end up as a referendum, which it is, why didn’t they just put it to the voters to begin with? That has a lot of people upset.” With 500 and 600 people Emrich is aware of distributing, it now becomes a race against the clock. He said he would like to get petitions back by mid-July to get them certified by individual town clerks before sending them on to the Secretary of State. “We’re off to a good start,” he said. “We shall see what happens.” There are also broad national implications. Gay marriage supporters are hoping Maine becomes a bellwether as the first state where voters directly approve. The other five states where gay marriage is legal – Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut – all approved of it through legislatures or the courts. “It’s already becoming a national issue,” Emrich said. “Proponents of same-sex marriage would like to see Maine be the first state where it was approved directly by the voters. Our goal is to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Links: Maine Jeremiah Project: Maine Family Policy Center: Maine Marriage Initiative:

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