After Mooney's defeat, a new day for gay marriage in Maryland

February 17, 2011 - 07:59 PM
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For years, efforts to get same-sex marriage on the books in Maryland stopped in one place. Though the bills may have had promising levels of support in Annapolis and across the state, they had to make it through a key Senate panel, the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

And it was there that they died. But today, the political math in Maryland is different. A measure giving gays and lesbians the right to marry scored a convincing committee in JPR. Thursday's 7-4 vote sends the bill to the Senate floor, where approval is looking more likely by the hour.

What changed?

The seeds of change were sewn last fall, when three-term Republican Sen. Alex Mooney lost his seat to former Frederick Mayor Ron Young (D). Josh Kurtz, a former Gazette reporter who now writes a column for Center Maryland, says of Mooney, "He was always the stumbling block in committee - and now he's gone."

Indeed. Coming out of last year's elections, Senate President Mike Miller decided to change the committee's lineup. He filled Mooney's seat with a Democrat, and he switched Sen. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's Democrat who opposed gay marriage, to another committee.

Today we saw just how significant those changes were. The marriage equality movement, which could never get that sixth, crucial vote in the past, found seven supporters this time.

Even Mooney concedes his loss to Young "was definitely a key" moment in the left's long push for marriage equality. But why did he lose in a year that so favored Republicans?

Observers say he fell from grace with members of his own party. Mooney acknowledges "a communication problem" with his core backers, adding, "The biggest thing I had to overcome was the anti-incumbent mood, especially among Republicans -- a whole 'mad at the world' kind of thing."

Signs of that disaffection were evident in last year's GOP primary. Although Mooney was unopposed, 2,000 Republicans chose to cast no vote rather than vote for him.

His loss was not a surprise to former Frederick mayor Jennifer Dougherty (D), who told the Gazette last year, "Alex... became what he hated the most -- a career politician who only showed up at election time. He ignored the City of Frederick and took credit for projects he opposed... and finally the voters [caught] on."

There were other factors as well. People who follow Frederick politics closely cite the following:

-- His district has seen a surge in new residents, and the newcomers are less Republican. (President Bush carried District 3 in 2004; Barack Obama won it in 2008.)

 -- Democrats made huge enrollment gains in 2008, as Barack Obama supporters registered for the first time.

-- Young made a big effort to turn out his supporters during the six-day early voting period. He beat Mooney 61%-39% among early voters. The Election Day numbers were much closer.

-- Mooney was targeted by Sen. Miller, who believed the GOP lawmaker was too partisan.

-- The Young name in Frederick is becoming like the Kennedys in Massachusetts. There are now four Youngs in elective office in the county. Wife Karen is an Alderman in Frederick City, son Brad is chairman of the county school board, and son Blaine is a county commissioner. Analysts say voters who come out to support one Young end up pulling the lever for others.

In hindsight, it's clear that Mooney wore out his welcome. Although his wins in 1998 and 2002 were huge (12 percent and 10 percent, respectively), his 2006 race was much closer -- a 1,700-vote win over Democratic activist Candy Greenway.

Now he says, "a lot of people in Frederick are acting very surprised, and lobbying Young to not vote for [gay marriage], even though he said he was for it during a radio debate.But people chose to overlook that."

The bill legalizing same-sex marriage heads to the floor with excellent chances for a narrow win, especially given the news that Sen. Jim Rosapepe, who represents the College Park area, is now telling constituents he's on board. The House of Delegates, thought to be the more liberal of the two chambers, has scheduled a vote in anticipation of Senate passage.

But without Alex Mooney's stunning loss, none of this would have happened. As Mooney himself noted, "elections have consequences."

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