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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Gay marriage battle could rage on at the polls in November

CONCORD – The New Hampshire House of Representatives has spoken, killing legislation to repeal the state’s 2-year-old law legalizing marriage for gay and lesbian couples last week.

But this fight is far from over. It now shifts to the ballot box, where the four candidates for governor present a stark choice: Two Republicans back repeal, and two Democrats are sworn to veto any such effort.

The National Organization for Marriage and the local Cornerstone Action New Hampshire combined during the 2010 elections to spend more than $1.5 million to try to defeat Gov. John Lynch and elect a historic Republican super-majority.

As far as ousting Lynch, the groups failed.

Kevin Smith, of Litchfield, a GOP candidate for governor looking to replace the retiring Lynch, ran Cornerstone Action before becoming a candidate.

On Thursday, Smith said helping to create jobs and bring New Hampshire out of a sluggish recession would be his top priority.

“I am singularly focused on creating jobs and making state government more efficient,” Smith said. “I’ve made it very clear that if the next Legislature were to send a repeal of same-sex marriage to my desk, I would gladly sign it.”

The other GOP candidate, front-runner Ovide Lamontagne, of Manchester, was a guest star at a rally against same-sex marriage in front of the Statehouse last month.

“If Gov. Lynch prevents a return to traditional marriage, you can count on me to aggressively work to make this happen once I’m governor,” Lamontagne told the crowd.

Both Democrats seeking to replace Lynch – former Majority Leader Maggie Hassan, of Exeter, and former Sen. Jackie Cilley, D-Barrington – have vowed to block any attempt to repeal same-sex marriage.

Hassan said she’s proud of her role in passing the same-sex marriage law and would fight tenaciously as the next chief executive to block any attempt to change it.

“In 2009, we answered the civil rights call of our time by making marriage equality a reality for each and every New Hampshire citizen,’’ Hassan said in a statement. “I sincerely thank each legislator who stood up for equality and stood up for what is right.

“I strongly oppose any repeal of marriage equality. As governor, just as I did in the state Senate, I will fight for equality for all.”

Many conservative Republicans who oppose same-sex marriage said the lopsided 211-116 vote to kill the bill, HB 437, masks stronger support for traditional marriage in the body.

Rep. Dan Itse, R-Fremont, said he believes a different approach that junks an unpopular nonbinding referendum idea and preserves civil unions for gay and lesbian couples in the future could emerge even stronger next year.

“With a new governor, a new Legislature and a new strategy, this issue can come back with renewed strength in 2013,” Itse said.

The late-breaking campaign of bill sponsor Rep. David Bates, R-Windham, to pursue the referendum doomed the bill on Wednesday, Itse said.

“I love David and how hard he worked for this, but he shot himself in the foot with that referendum,” Itse said.

House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, came down from the rostrum so he could vote for repeal of same-sex marriage.

But the referendum idea divided the GOP caucus, as 10 chairmen and subcommittee chairmen in the House opposed it, including former House Speaker Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett; Deputy Majority Leader Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson; Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Rowe, R- Amherst; and Ways and Means Chairman Steve Stepanek, R-Amherst.

A little-noticed vote revealed how strong the bill could have been with the referendum issue off the table.

An unrecorded vote to divide the question and sever the referendum from the same-sex marriage debate failed by only six votes, 179-173.

The same-sex marriage lobby had been doing phone banking in the weeks leading up to the vote, and one internal count had them winning the day by only six votes.

Once the referendum and all other amendments failed, the House was left with a badly flawed original bill that didn’t offer civil unions for newly united gay and lesbian couples.

This led to the lopsided outcome.

Meanwhile, the national groups have already begun weighing in with efforts to influence the image of the Legislature that returns in 2013.

The Freedom to Marry campaign announced a Win More States Fund with the goal to raise at least $3 million in five battleground states, including New Hampshire.

“There are many challenges and opportunities tapping donors this election year, and by maximizing donations strategically through the Win More States Fund, contributors and state campaigns will get the added bang for the buck of Freedom to Marry’s team and the lessons learned from prior battles,” said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of the group. “Our bipartisan victory in New Hampshire shows we know the winning recipe.”

National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown said his organization has no intention of giving up after last week’s vote.

“Because of the vote, we now have a target list,” Brown said. “Both Ovide Lamontagne and Kevin Smith support traditional marriage. We will be very involved in the general election.”

Meanwhile, internal discussions have begun among the National Organization for Marriage, Cornerstone and like-minded socially conservative groups about how to protect their legislators who backed repeal of same-sex marriage and add to their numbers in the November election.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashua telegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@KLandrigan).