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Why being gay isn't the 'Maine' issue for Democrat Mike Michaud

Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud is in striking distance of becoming the country’s first openly gay person elected governor. But that's not why he's in the race.

PORTLAND, Maine -- After crossing the Piscataqua River and into Maine, where Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud is making a promising play for governor, visitors are greeted by a sign bearing the state’s slogan: “The way life should be.”

It’s a fitting sentiment, particularly on a Saturday afternoon in June when thousands recently gathered on the cobblestone streets of Portland -- about as quaint a New England town as can be -- to celebrate gay and lesbian equality. The jubilant atmosphere was partly because Michaud, 59, a grand marshal that day at the Portland Pride Festival, stands a chance at unseating the deeply unpopular Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, whose list of head-scratchers includes telling the NAACP to “kiss [his] butt,” and comparing the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo.

It also was because Michaud stands a chance at becoming the first openly gay person elected governor in the United States.

“This race for governor is historic,” Michaud said before a sea of cheering supporters, many of whom he had embraced while bounding up the parade route in his Maine-made New Balances.

If elected, he continued, “I will have a seat at the table, so I can look at my colleagues in the eye and talk about LGBT issues; talk about equality.”

"I’m running for governor to make Maine a better place to raise a family, to work, and to be able to retire."'

In many ways, Maine has already led the way on equality. In 2005, voters enacted a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Seven years later, in 2012, Pine Tree State voters became the first in the nation to approve same-sex marriage at the ballot box.

But even though Michaud’s election would cement those achievements and add another notch to the state’s rainbow belt, the six-term U.S. lawmaker would be the first to tell you that’s not why he’s in the race.

“I’m running for governor to make Maine a better place to raise a family, to work, and to be able to retire,” he explained in a recent interview with msnbc, downplaying the significance of his sexual orientation.

In fact, Michaud’s climbing popularity may exemplify a new “way that life should be” for LGBT individuals -- a life where equality isn’t the defining struggle, and a country where LGBT issues may one day seem like non-issues. If he can pull that off, it may just be the biggest win yet for the equality movement.

Whisper Campaigns

The late San Francisco supervisor and gay rights hero Harvey Milk once said he never considered himself a candidate; that the real candidate was the movement he represented. In no way could the same be said of Michaud, historic though his candidacy may be for the gay rights movement. For Michaud, being gay was almost a footnote in his career, something he never thought necessary to bring up until pressed.

After the pride festival, Michaud told msnbc he was “very pleased” to have been grand marshal (or “mahshal,” as he pronounces it,) especially as a first-time invitee. But at this point last year, he had never publicly declared that he was gay.

Michaud reluctantly came out in an op-ed published in the Bangor Daily News last November, citing “whisper campaigns, insinuations and push-polls” that some of his opponents were using against him.

“It never was an issue in any of the campaigns before,” said Michaud, who was first elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1980. “My feeling was it’s personal. It’s a personal decision. But if that was going to drag down the campaign or continue to pop up, I figured, well, let’s address it head on. Yes I am. But what does it matter? I am who I am, and that’s not why I’m running for governor.”

Michaud’s declaration quickly netted him the endorsement of EqualityMaine, the state’s leading gay rights organization, over rival candidate Eliot Cutler, an independent who has deep ties to the group. Betsy Smith, EqualityMaine's former director, is running a campaign effort to get Cutler elected.

Some of those tensions were on display at the Pride parade, where Cutler and his cadre of supporters marched toward the back.

“I was asked to be grand marshal a year or two ago -- couldn’t do it because of a wedding, I believe, I think that that was it,” said Cutler to msnbc, dismissing a question about whether he was disappointed to be walking behind Michaud. “I’m happy to be marching and holding the flag.”

Earlier in the year, Cutler’s campaign responded to EqualityMaine’s snub with an attack on Michaud’s voting record while in the state legislature -- “19 consecutive votes against equal rights for the LGBT community,” roared Crystal Canney, a spokeswoman for the Cutler campaign.

If that rebuke had any impact, you wouldn’t know it from watching the Pride parade or the latest polls. A recent University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found Michaud leading incumbent Gov. LePage 40 to 36 percent, with Cutler trailing in third at 15 percent.

“He’s cherry picking my record [from] about three decades ago,” said Michaud of Cutler’s attacks. “I have evolved on some of these issues.”

Running on my record

Much of that evolution occurred after Michaud was elected to Congress in 2002.

"I am who I am, and that’s not why I’m running for governor."'

According to Project Vote Smart, Michaud responded “yes” in 2004 to a question on whether marriage should be between a man and a woman. But he also voted “no” that year to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. In 2007, Michaud voted against a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA,) which would have banned workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But LGBT advocates have forgiven him for that one, since the ’07 bill, which died in the Senate, did not include transgender protections.

The Human Rights Campaign pointed to Michaud’s “stellar record” on LGBT equality when giving him the organization’s endorsement.

The latest group to throw its support behind Michaud was the political fundraising arm of Maine’s Planned Parenthood, even though he had once opposed abortion rights. Again, Cutler was not pleased, calling out Michaud's "28 years of anti-choice votes" in a statement.

In his own defense, Michaud said reproductive rights marked another area where he had “evolved.”

“When I first got elected to the legislature, I was 24 years old at the time,” he said. “Back then, my focus had been jobs, the economy, the environment, and really helping people in northern Maine. And during my time in the legislature, no one actually really ever talked to me about the choice issue.”

It wasn’t until after arriving in Congress, he said, that women began to tell him their personal stories.

“After hearing those stories, really, I thought about it, and the government should not be in the position of telling a woman whether she can or cannot have an abortion,” said Michaud. “So I’m very pleased to get Planned Parenthood’s endorsement. It means a lot to me, and the fact that they can respect an individual’s evolution over time is really heartwarming.”

As governor, Michaud said he would veto any attempt to alter the Maine Reproductive Privacy Act, which codifies Roe v. Wade provisions into state law. NARAL Pro-Choice America has also given the congressman a 100% rating for his voting record over the last four years.

Recently, both LePage and Cutler have tried to tar his campaign with the current crisis surrounding the Department of Veterans Affairs. They argue that as ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Michaud should have done more to address long delays for veterans seeking medical care at VA systems around the country.

But that line of attack, Michaud insists, misrepresents his role as a committee member and ignores the fact that some VA facilities were “gaming the system." (According to the VA's inspector general, officials may have used "secret" lists to mask the number of veterans waiting for doctors appointments at a VA hospital in Phoenix, the facility which sparked the current controversy.) Michaud accused his opponents of using veterans as “political pawns.”

Does not make a bit of difference

Part of Michaud’s power as a politician has to do with the fact that he seems as comfortable, if not more, walking into a room full of mustachioed union leaders as he does gladhanding with bare-midriff parade-goers. The union world, after all, has played a far bigger role in his life.

Growing up in Medway, Maine, Michaud always knew he’d work in the mill, where both his dad and grandfather worked for four decades apiece. After graduating high school, Michaud began his 29-year career at the Great Northern Paper Company, where he continued to work part-time while serving in the Maine Legislature.

Attendees at the AFL-CIO annual COPE Convention very much see Michaud, whom many call “Mike” or “Mikey,” as one of their own.

“We need somebody like Mike in there instead of LePage; he’s for the working man,” Rock Alley, president of the Maine Lobstering Union, told msnbc. “He grew up as a working-class man. He still pays his union dues, still holds his union card. That says a lot.”

As for Michaud’s sexual orientation, Alley shrugged: “Does not make a bit of difference to me or any of my brothers and sisters that belong to IMLU Local.”

It was a view repeated several times over the course of the reception, where Michaud was making the rounds. At no point during his remarks prior did the congressmen ever mention being gay or what it would mean to the country for him to be elected governor.

Jay Wadleigh, president of Local S6 at Bath Iron Works, probably had the shortest response of the night when asked if it meant anything to him: “Nah, not really. Not anything.”

Life as it should be

Even if it doesn’t mean much to certain Mainers, electing the country’s first openly gay governor would add momentum to a fast-moving wave of LGBT advancements around the country.

In the past year, marriage equality has come to ten states, bringing the total number where gay and lesbian couples can wed to 20, plus the District of Columbia. Federal judges have also struck down same-sex marriage bans in Idaho, Oklahoma, Virginia, Michigan, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin, though their decisions are on hold pending appeals.

Every one of the remaining bans on same-sex marriage is currently facing a legal challenge. And no ban has survived in federal court since the Supreme Court brought an end to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA,) exactly one year ago.

Not that marriage is much on Michaud’s mind.

“Right now, I’m just focused on my job,” he said. “I represent the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi… It’s a lot of driving. But I enjoy my job, and I give it 110%. So as far as my personal life, there’s not much there except just working all the time.”

To be clear, Michaud would not be the country’s first gay governor, but the first who was openly gay at the time of his election. In 2004, former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, then married to a woman, came out after admitting to an extramarital affair with a male staffer. He resigned shortly thereafter.

“I think it’s huge,” said Steven Thai of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a group working to elect openly LGBT leaders, of Michaud’s candidacy. “It shows that a blue collar worker from Maine can be gay and can also represent the people in a powerful way.”

LGBT kids who are bullied, Thai continued, can watch that and think, “If Mike Michaud can make it to the governor’s mansion in Maine, maybe I can make it to tomorrow.”

Reflecting on the one-year DOMA anniversary, Michaud said the ruling was “extremely important” in elevating marriage equality to a top-tier issue. Still, he said, he can’t help but hope for the day when no one has to worry about who they can and cannot marry -- when the very issue of marriage equality resembles something more of a non-issue.

At that point, “It’s just going to be life as it should be,” said Michaud, paraphrasing Maine’s slogan, whether he meant to or not.