Cutler, Michaud, progress and the trickiness of voting records (and a lack thereof)

Yesterday EqualityMaine endorsed the Gubernatorial bid of Mike Michaud. In her blog, BDN Reporter Rebekah Metzler has done a pretty great job of breaking down the rationale of the endorsement process, which she calls “largely a political game.” She also explains why “even in a state like Maine where officials without a partisan affiliation have been met with success,” the process of campaigning remains difficult for independents like Cutler:

But it shouldn’t be a surprise that even though [Cutler] garnered the support of former leader Betsy Smith, he still lost out on the group’s endorsement. Setting aside the fact that Michaud, if he wins, would be the first openly gay candidate to win a gubernatorial race in the country, EqualityMaine and the Maine Democratic Party have a lot of overlap, from overall philosophy to any number of coordinated campaign efforts. Why would they risk causing a rift?

Cutler wasn’t very happy about the endorsement. His campaign issued a statement that led with the attack, “This was a partisan political decision, not a principled one.” They proceeded to highlight the fact that Cutler has donated tens of thousands of dollars to EqualityMaine and the Mainers United for Marriage campaigns, and that Michaud’s state Legislative and Senatorial record shows that his voting record was spotty on LGBT issues through 1997.

I know a lot of activists who are very much appreciative of Cutler’s long-time philosophical and financial support of LGBT issues. I also know a lot of activists who feel as though the scope of EqualityMaine is relatively limited and that it does not go far enough to address some of the most pressing issues in the LGBT community. For this reason, the group’s endorsement of Michaud might not mean much. These things said, Cutler’s statement was poorly framed and self-serving. It read like, “Nearly two decades ago, Michaud was casting undesirable votes. I, however, have been giving these issues boatloads of money.”

Yes, while Michaud was in the closet and figuring his situation out, Cutler was giving money. In other words, instead of formulating a voting record, Cutler gave money. While appreciated by many, myself included, Cutler and his team could have done a better job of framing their message in a way that didn’t make them sound like catty, sore losers. The fact is—and people understand this more than they did in 2010—that financial support is helpful but a voting record, while damning in particular lights, can also be indicative of evolution on particular issues. For this evolution towards progress, politicians should be celebrated, not damned, particularly by candidates who have the luxury of holding no record at all.

There is also some degree of insensitivity to pointing a finger and suggesting, “That long-time closeted former mill worker and politician has a spotty voting record on gay rights.”

Yeah, I wonder why a politicianthe one who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in the Catholic, conservative North Woods of Maine and for decades struggled with his sexuality so intensely that he did not publicly acknowledge it until he was nearly 60-years-oldhad a hard time figuring out how to position himself when it came to public stances on gay rights.

To quote Jo Bennett, the no-nonsense business woman portrayed by Kathy Bates in The Office:

“When Mama was working as a prison guard and something went missing, she’d ask one question: What do we do when we find the guilty party? And if they said, “Come down on him with that swift hammer of justice!”, innocent. A clear conscience don’t need no mercy. But if they said “Officer Bessie, well they may have had a reason, blah blah blah blah”, well nine times out of ten, that’s the anus they’d check.

“But I gave lot’s of money to a political organization that is partisan and unprincipled!”

I digress.

None of which is to suggest that Michaud’s early voting record is something that does not merit discussion, or that for whatever the reason those votes were cast they are not worth examining. But the rich, straight guy with no voting record should probably think a little more carefully about optics when wagging a judgmental finger at the long-time working class gay elected official and the gay rights group that supports him.

Not to again mention that chastising politicians for having evolving positions on particularly difficult issues over the course of several decades is a zero sum game.

Cutler had the advantage of having no voting record in 2010, a year that glamorized “anyone but those presently in charge.” I ran for the Statehouse as an independent that year and dozens of people asked, “Are you in now?” And when I said no, they told me they’d be voting for me. 2014 is going to be a little trickier for the uninitiated. I have already heard people ask why Cutler said no to the opportunity to fight for the rights of the LGBT community as a Maine State Senator by running in the 2011 special election and giving independents a choice other than the partisans who ran. His lack of experience as an elected official is going to be more difficult to justify this time around.

On a related note, longtime Portland LGBT (and many other progressive issues) activist and Michaud supporter Jill Barkley posted the following statement to fellow members of the activist community on Facebook, and I found it well-stated and asked her if I could re-post it here:

I love you all. I am really a-okay about who you’re supporting for Governor, even though it’s super clear who has my vote (and it’s pretty clear about who can beat LePage).

However, we just worked together tirelessly for 3 years (and more) convincing people to “change their hearts and minds” on the issue of marriage equality  elected officials, voters, our friends and family. If the whole point is for people to evolve, why are we spending today arguing about 19 votes that someone took in the Maine legislature when they’ve had a perfect LGBT voting record since becoming a member of congress?

When I went to work coordinating Republicans United for Marriage, I was proud to stand beside elected officials, party leaders and voters who courageously spoke out in support of equality. Many of these individuals had evolved on the issue  others acknowledged their support openly for the first time. Some people in our community expressed anger at the idea that I would openly embrace anyone who was once against us. Was it hard? Yes. But it remains the best work I’ve ever done.

This is our work, folks.

We don’t have to hide or overlook times when people have hurt us, but we do have to decide how to move forward together. When I read the information below, I felt thankful for Mike Michaud’s leadership on issues that matter so much to me  and the fact that he felt he could come out and run as an openly gay man because of all the work we’ve done together.

It takes all of us to make a difference people who have been walking the path since the beginning and those we’ve picked up along the way. People I love dearly were not with me when I came out many years ago, and sometimes, that still stings. But if I can forgive them and my life can be better as a result, I’m certain I can forgive a voting record I don’t fully understand.

Regardless of where you’re at in this race, let’s not throw away our values  values that have brought us to victory again and again.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.