Maine Gov. Paul LePage stridently opposed last November’s referendum that legalized same-sex marriage in his state and later used a crude reference to sodomy to criticize an adversary.
Now LePage, a Republican, in danger of losing his job next year to an opponent who revealed his homosexuality Monday in a newspaper article.
The declaration by Rep. Michael Michaud, Democrat, a leading contender in the 2014 election for governor, keeps Maine — better known for lobster, vacation spots and sober politics — in the vanguard of America’s swift cultural shift. In 2010, residents elected LePage, a tea party favorite who promised to tell President Obama to “go to hell.” Two years later, same-sex marriage won by popular vote. Next year, the state may elect the first openly gay governor.
Michaud, 58, who represents Maine’s most rural district, made his sexual preference known Monday in an op-ed piece he sent to the state’s three largest newspapers. In it, he accused opponents of engaging in a whisper campaign against him.
“They want people to question whether I am gay,” he wrote. “Yes, I am. But why should it matter?” Local media reported that he told his mother only hours before the article was published.
A Michaud victory would be another in a mounting list of successes for the gay-rights movement, including one Monday when the U.S. Senate passed a measure banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
This year, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that kept the federal government from providing benefits to same-sex couples. The number of states allowing gay marriage has more than doubled in the past year to 14, including New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie, R, declined to fight a court ruling allowing it.
“The country is moving forward in acceptance toward our community in an extraordinarily rapid way,” said Marc Solomon, the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, a New York- based gay-rights organization. “There is some real pride a lot of people have in showing that America is an open and accepting place.”
Michaud’s disclosure makes him the seventh openly gay House member. The Senate’s Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., is gay. Among local officials, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who leads the country’s fourth-biggest city, is a lesbian. If he wins, Michaud could be the first openly homosexual person elected to governor in the U.S.
In Maryland, where Rep. Heather Mizeur, D, is an openly gay candidate for governor, the Democratic establishment is rallying behind Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.
In Michaud’s campaign, being gay could be an asset rather than a liability, according to political analysts. He’s well known and liked in the northern reaches of the state, which he has represented for a decade, yet he has had trouble generating enthusiasm from Democrats in Portland and southern counties.
“Mike is seen as a fairly conservative guy,” said Dennis Bailey, who was a spokesman for Sen. Angus King, a political independent, when King was governor. “In the southern district, where voters tend to be more liberal, Mike was viewed with some suspicion. This helps secure those voters.”
Losing traditional supporters in the north isn’t a large concern because of the depth of Michaud’s popularity in his district, Bailey said. Besides, he said, rumors that Michaud was gay had long circulated in state politics.
LePage, 65, won in 2010 with 38 percent of the vote in a five-way race. The governor dropped in voter surveys after a summer of verbal misfires, including alluding to sodomy while criticizing state Sen. Troy Jackson, a Democrat who opposed him during a budget battle.
“Senator Jackson claims to be for the people, but he’s the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline,” LePage told a local television station.
Next year’s ballot will have three major candidates. LePage is running, as is Eliot Cutler, an independent. Cutler, 67, came in second in 2010, taking 36 percent of the vote.
An August survey by Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, N.C., had Michaud with 39 percent, LePage with 35 percent and Cutler with 18 percent, with a 3.2 percentage point margin of error. Obama, a Democrat, won the state twice.
“Cutler had been trying to run to Michaud’s left and show that Michaud is inadequately progressive on social issues,” said Amy Fried, who teaches politics at the University of Maine in Orono. “This announcement undercuts that.”
Cutler’s campaign said in a statement that Michaud’s declaration “has no bearing whatsoever on a candidate’s qualifications to be governor.”
Brent Littlefield, a political adviser to LePage, had no comment.
Analysts said Michaud would lose any advantage if his campaign dwells on the issue.
“He is not going to be the ‘gay candidate,’” said Bailey, the president of Savvy Inc., a political consulting firm in Portland. “He will work very hard to be the mill worker from northern Maine. His intent is to get this out early and be done with it. I don’t think Mike will be raising the rainbow flag anytime soon.”
Another benefit for Michaud could be fundraising. The measure to approve same-sex marriage in Maine drew $8.8 million from groups backing gay rights, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a Helena, Mont.-based nonprofit that tracks spending on ballot questions. The 2012 initiative won with 51 percent of the vote, overturning a ban backed by 53 percent of voters in 2009.
Support from national gay-rights groups came quickly.
“We applaud congressman Michaud and look forward to working with him in the future,” said Chuck Wolfe, chief executive officer of the Washington-based Gay &Lesbian Victory Fund.
The group raised $4 million last year for gay and lesbian candidates, according to Jeff Spitko, a spokesman.