Bilal is the kind of voter the religious right would clone en masse—if they believed in human cloning. On Monday, the Washington Post’s new national poll found a mammoth swing in black support for gay marriage. Pre-Obama, in November, 58 percent of African Americans called it “unacceptable.” Post-Obama, the number fell to 37 percent.
But just transpose those numbers to Maryland. Ninety-four percent of African Americans went for Obama-Biden in 2008. There’s a gulf here, black voters are picking their sides on the issue, and gay marriage foes are figuring out how to use it.
The tactics change from state to state, demographic to demographic. Last week, in New York, gay marriage foes successfully hounded State Sen. James Alesi into temporary retirement. (“I’m not dead yet,” he says.) He’d provided one of the four Republican votes for the state’s gay marriage law. He started stumping at Republican and Conservative Party events again. The support had dried up, completely, as it had for another one of his colleagues two months earlier.
“At the end of the day I did not want to be a Republican candidate that voted for marriage and lost,” he says. “I wanted to be a Republican who voted for marriage and won. I probably could have won the general election, but I couldn't get on the ballot. And even if I had, it would have handed the marriage equality people a loss in a Republican primary.”
There’s a ratchet effect here—it gets harder every year to hold back the advocates of gay marriage. Four years ago, social conservatives didn’t have to worry about Republicans getting behind same-sex unions. Now, they have to primary them when they stray. Has Barack Obama moved the needle with black voters? Maybe. Maryland is where they will figure it out.
Before I got back to the church in Baltimore, I toured more of the sites where the Maryland Marriage Alliance—tied loosely to NOM—was getting its numbers. In Bel Air, three volunteers—two white, one black—parked outside a Maryland Vehicle Association office with plastic tubs full of petitions. Paul Feryus did most of the talking, boiling down the legalese about HB438 and “petitioning to refer the bill” into a short pitch.
“Have you seen the petition on marriage and Maryland families?” he asked.
I stuck around for 45 minutes. The first 30 were slow. This was Harford County, Baltimore exurbs that gave John McCain 58 percent of the vote. They’d been asked to collect a few thousand signatures, and try to get them in by May 31. They were 75 percent or so of the way there, despite the stream of younger motorists walking by and declining to sign. “You can see whether folks are interested or not pretty quickly,” said Feryus, as a shaggy-haired kid with a Phish shirt glowered and ignored the petition table.
Things soon picked up, but the signatories were all white. “I’m out of state as of yesterday,” said a middle-aged voter. “I’m still registered here, though.” Feryus assured him he could sign. One voter scribbled down his information and asked what else they had. “Anti-tax? Anything? Anything you’ve got against Marty [Martin O’Malley, the Democratic governor].”
That’s part of the anti-gay marriage coalition. I met the rest of it at Rising Sun First Baptist. On the way to the training room, I passed two paintings of an African Jesus Christ, and a choir room where the icebreaker conversation was all about (gay?) marriage. (“CNN tried to talk to me,” grumbled one parishioner.) Before the meeting, we had a visitor: Pastor and State Del. Emmett C. Burns, one of the most outspoken advocates of the referendum.
Once he left, Lopes-Ruffin walked us through an hour of petition do’s and don’ts, sharing the goals of the drive. They needed 57,000 signatures, but they wanted to hand in 150,000 as a show of strength—and they had 33,000 so far. They wanted 1,000 organizations, of all different faiths, to organize against it. They were shooting for 42 organizations, at least, in every county. Many would be centered around churches.
The presentation ended with an inspirational image, a sun-bleached highway heading somewhere pleasant.
“This is only the first step,” said our trainer. “In November, we’ve got to get the souls to the polls!”