Opponents and supporters of gay marriage are laying the groundwork for a tough summer political campaign that experts say will put Maine in the national spotlight.
Organizers of an effort to overturn a new law legalizing same-sex marriage in Maine have hired the California public relations firm that ran the successful Proposition 8 campaign to overturn same-sex marriage there.
Supporters of the law have hired a seasoned Maine political strategist who ran the successful Maine Won't Discriminate campaign in 2005. That campaign fought a people's veto of Maine's gay-rights law.
Maine became the fifth state to legalize gay marriage in May. Opponents, led by the Catholic Church and other clergy, immediately began campaigning for a people's veto, which would ask voters to overturn the law.
Organizers of the veto effort are attempting to collect 55,087 signatures of registered Maine voters to put the question on the ballot. The same-sex marriage law will take effect 90 days after the Legislature's June 13 adjournment unless the veto effort collects enough signatures before then, which would put the law on hold.
At least five political action committees have been formed to help raise funds to support the people's veto effort. Two have been formed to oppose the veto.
According to the latest filings with the state Ethics Commission, most haven't raised money. But StandForMarriageMaine.com has raised $60,000 from the National Organization for Marriage. The next filing deadline is July 15.
StandForMarriageMaine is the lead group in the veto effort, said Marc Mutty, public affairs director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and one of the officers of the PAC.
Filings with the state Ethics Commission show that the group has spent $45,000 hiring a professional signature-gathering company, National Petition Management Inc. of Michigan, to aid in the people's veto effort. Mutty said volunteers also are collecting signatures.
"We're on target, we're moving along," said Mutty. "It's very early in the game."
Wet weather has set back signature gathering, said Mutty, and the group has had a hard time finding appropriate venues to float petitions. Some signature gatherers have been harassed, and some signatures were stolen, he said.
Mutty said the diocese has included inserts on the veto effort in church bulletins, and will be collecting signatures in churches - in the narthex, the public area in the back of the church.
Mutty said organizers want a people's veto question to appear on the November ballot, which would require petitions to be submitted by early August so the signatures can be certified on time.
Mutty also said opponents have hired Schubert Flint Public Affairs to run the campaign. Schubert Flint ran Prop 8 in California - a hard-fought, hugely expensive campaign.
The primary group opposing gay marriage in California spent $39 million on the Prop 8 campaign last year, according to the California Secretary of State's Office. The top supporting group spent $43 million.
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In past gay-rights referendums in Maine, each side has spent roughly $1 million. Both sides expect spending in this year's battle to be more in the range of $4 million to $6 million.
The hiring of a proven California firm to run the Maine campaign speaks volumes, according to Amy Fried, a political scientist at the University of Maine.
"It shows that the national organizations opposed to marriage equality see Maine as an important place to take a stand," said Fried. "It will be getting national attention; this will be watched around the country."
Fried suggested that hiring Schubert Flint might backfire, however.
"People in Maine do not like what they might see as outside interference," Fried said. "We have our own political culture, we have a high degree of civility, a high degree of civic engagement."
Same-sex marriage supporters aren't surprised that their opponents have brought on Schubert Flint, said Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, the state's largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered advocacy group.
"We have been preparing from the very beginning for this to be a campaign that has national implications," said Smith.
Smith is one of the directors of the lead PAC organized to fight the veto attempt, Maine Freedom to Marry.
Smith said fundraising was going to be critical to the campaign.
"Have we raised millions of dollars so far? No," said Smith. "Do we need to? Yes. The opposition is bringing that kind of money to Maine."
Smith said that a number of supporters helped get the same-sex marriage bill passed through Augusta, and those people feel an ownership of the law and want to work to defend it.
Maine Freedom to Marry also announced Wednesday that it has hired political strategist Jesse Connolly to run the campaign to fight a people's veto.
Connolly ran the Maine Won't Discriminate campaign in 2005. He has since worked for Maine Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree as her chief of staff, and took an unpaid leave of absence this week to work on the gay marriage campaign.
Connolly said Maine Freedom to Marry was changing from a successful legislative campaign to a field campaign. People will be knocking on doors, making phone calls and asking Maine residents to support gay marriage.
"We need to show folks that the Legislature and the governor passed this law and signed this law," said Connolly. "And the Legislature and the governor heard from tens of thousands of Maine citizens that understood what marriage equality meant for them."