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Praying for time

Three words of advice for supporters of the gay-rights bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor John Baldacci last week:

Hire Dennis Bailey.

Or Edith Leary. Or somebody like them.

Okay, thatís more than three words, but since when is this a math column? And as long as Iím over my limit, here are three more:

Do it now.

The alternative to signing up Bailey, Leary, or another top political operative is obvious: a third loss at the polls.

If pro-gay-rights forces dither away the next three months, then sometime before the first of July, the leaders of the religious right will parade into the secretary of stateís office in Augusta with well over the 51,000 signatures required to force a referendum on a peopleís veto of the civil rights law. The legislation will be suspended, while a vicious campaign is waged. Another defeat by the voters would end, perhaps forever, efforts in Maine to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Christian Civic League of Maine has already been campaigning for months via its daily email newsletter. After the gay-rights bill passed the House on March 29, league executive director Michael Heath cranked up his fanatic-o-meter to 11.

"Homosexual activists, led by their governor, slam dunked public morality," Heath wrote, claiming the Legislature had "voted to create special legal protections for men who wear dresses into the ladies bathroom and get sex-change operations," and had "legally guaranteed that sexual predators will be teaching Maine school children."

While Heath has never been reticent about playing the pervert card, donít be fooled into thinking thatíll be the focus of his campaign. Heís already laid the groundwork for turning this vote into a referendum on same-sex marriage.

"Never before in Maine history have a people been forced to go to such extraordinary lengths to defend a basic truth," he wrote. "Marriage is between one man and one woman."

The league has almost no money and less credibility, a result of Heathís fruitless attempt last year to reveal the identities of homosexuals hidden away in state government. The leagueís political connections with the mainstream religious community are, at best, frayed. No state political leaders, no matter how conservative, are foolish enough to publicly ally themselves with Heath, even if they agree with the leagueís position.

So who cares what wacky stuff this bunch spews out?

Supporters of gay rights should care, because, as Heath and his friends did so successfully in two previous referendums on the issue, they have already started to define the campaign in terms that work to their advantage.

While the billís supporters bemoan the evils of discrimination, the league will be hammering away at the affront to God of allowing boys to walk down the aisle with boys and girls to engage in the rites of holy matrimony with girls. Never mind that a clause was added to the gay-rights measure during floor debate that clearly states the legislation has no impact on marriage laws. Pay no attention to the fact that in Massachusetts and Vermont, legal unions between same-sex couples didnít happen because the states had civil-rights laws for gays and lesbians, but because of constitutional considerations.

Damn the facts. Heath knows he has a winner here, and heís going with it.

Gay-rights advocates are already positioning themselves to follow the same pattern established in their unsuccessful campaigns of 1998 and 2000. Theyíll start out on the defensive, move on to the irrelevant, and end up shocked when the results are announced on election night. Theyíll waste the first part of the campaign trying to convince voters what the bill is not. By the time they get around to discussing what it is, Heath will have succeeded in linking gay rights and same-sex marriage in the publicís mind, rendering inconsequential the pro-civil-rightersí endless sob stories about victims of homophobia.

The marriage issue has to be nullified early, even before Heath turns in the petitions needed to force a public vote. Doing that requires more than blather and whining. It requires a pro.

Which brings us back to Bailey, Leary, or some other political expert with experience turning poll numbers around. Bailey made a governor out of semi-unknown TV talk-show host Angus King. He demolished initially popular plans for slot machines at Scarborough Downs and a casino in Sanford, the latter with Learyís help. On her own, Leary flipped voter perceptions of the bear-baiting ban on last yearís ballot. After all that, dealing with kooks obsessed with other peopleís sex lives ought to be easy.

But even Bailey, Leary, and their ilk need time to work their magic. By July, Heathís efforts to subvert the real issue will likely have done so much damage to the gay-rights cause that no sorcerer could conjure up a counter-spell.

This campaign will be all about who controls the clock.

The time to act is now.

Itís never too late to email me at ishmaelia@gwi.net

The Politics and Other Mistakes archive.

Issue Date: April 8 - 14, 2005
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