Trusting voters in the same-sex marriage campaign

Trust the voters.

It’s hard to do when you are involved in campaigns. After all, your livelihood depends on being the person who can deliver success at the ballot box for candidates or issues, to finding the right strategy, themes and plan to win.

But it’s one of the biggest lessons that Gov. John Baldacci passed along to me during my time in his office, even in the face of votes that didn’t always go our way.

And it was one of the guiding philosophies behind the campaign to allow same-sex couples in Maine to receive marriage licenses.

Maine made history this year by becoming the first state to launch a citizen’s initiative and place a ballot question before voters to allow same-sex marriage. The state made history again last week when Maine voted Yes on Question 1 and became the first state to allow same-sex marriage by popular vote.

I am proud to have served the campaign as communications director, and I’m proud of my home state and its voters.

For more than two years, the coalition that became Mainers United for Marriage conducted the most far reaching and expansive grassroots campaign in recent memory.

First, the coalition collected more than 105,000 signatures to place a question on the ballot. Along with each of those signatures came a conversation about why marriage matters to all Maine families.

At the same time, staff and volunteers began having one-on-one personal conversations with Maine voters, both at their doors and on the telephone.

By the time Election Day came around, the campaign had had nearly 300,000 conversations, including an extensive get-out-the-vote drive in the final days before Nov. 6.

With each one came personal stories about marriage. The campaign’s strategy, based on hard data and anecdotal evidence alike, was to meet voters where they were and to spend the time with them to help them understand why same-sex couples want to marry.

In a typical campaign, a door-knock conversation from a candidate might last five minutes. It’s an introduction, a hello, a get-to-know-you encounter.

The marriage campaign was different. The average conversation lasted nearly 25 minutes. Some stretched on for an hour or more.

One at a time, we reached out to Maine voters.

Even as we moved from the early stages of the campaign into the summer and fall, and the intensity increased, we stuck with the plan about how to best make our case. We always believed that if we talked honestly and personally with voters, they would be more inclined to hear us.

Millions of dollars flowed into Maine this year, with negative attack ads targeting President Barack Obama, former Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen.-elect Angus King, Secretary of State Charlie Summers and a host of candidates for the state House and Senate.

You couldn’t turn on the TV without being bombarded by Karl Rove and other political assassins.

The one exception: Mainers United for Marriage.

The campaign exclusively ran television and radio ads that featured real Maine people, talking in their own words about why they were supporting marriage for same-sex couples.

Opponents of marriage did their best to scare voters with their misleading and false TV and radio ads, but their message was drowned out in the cacophony of negativity filling the airwaves. Maine voters had heard those tall tales before, and this time they didn’t believe them.

Meanwhile, Harlan Gardner and his family from Machias, Paul and Jeanette Rediker from Fort Fairfield, Stacey Fitts from Pittsfield, Will and Arlene Brewstervolunteer firefighters and many others stood up.

Their honesty. Their authenticity. Their voices made the difference. And soon, loving and committed same-sex couples in Maine will be able to marry because they were willing to tell the stories about their lives, their families and their friends.

In 2009, after the Legislature passed and Baldacci signed a law allowing same-sex couples to marry, opponents of marriage launched what was ultimately a successful people’s veto.

Marriage for same-sex couples was repealed, 53-47. It was heartbreaking for scores of families.

Just three short years later, Maine voters changed their minds with a mirror-image vote.

Attitudes about gay families are changing in the United States, but it remains a sad fact that the ballot initiative process has been used to target them more than any other group.

As Matt McTighe, the campaign manager for Mainers United, said during the campaign, this year we have turned a weapon that has been used against gay families into a tool for change and progress.

Thousands of lives will be better, more stable and more secure because Maine voters said yes.

And for hundreds of thousands of families, living in states where voters have said no, there is new hope and proof that voters can change their hearts and their minds.

Trust the voters.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. He was communications director for Mainers United for Marriage this year. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.comFollow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.