There are times politicians are bold and then there are times when less bold politicians seem more so because of their more cautious and reluctant colleagues. Sen. Susan Collins publicly supporting same-sex marriage in 2014 represents the latter.
Collins has indeed been a friend to the LGBT community on the national stage, particularly working on the Republican side of the aisle. But given Maine’s popular opinion on many of the issues she’s worked on – the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (yet to pass) and ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (passed) – she’s largely been safely in the mainstream.
And while gay marriage has been an issue that’s seen public opinion shift rapidly, both on the national stage and in Maine, Collins has stayed on the sidelines. Though in Maine, it’s been up for serious debate in Maine since 2009, when Augusta lawmakers sent a bill to then-Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, who signed it into law (and later repealed by referendum). Collins stayed out of it.
Of course, Collins was a U.S. senator then, as she has been since 1996. She used the time-honored excuse that has bedeviled reporters on many issues: gay marriage is a state issue and not a national one, so she declined to weigh in.
And the longer she championed LGBT causes and when the Supreme Court weighed in against the Defense of Marriage Act – the federal law that allowed states to ignore gay marriages from other states if they wished – the more awkward and tortured her answers were regarding gay marriage. Her loyal staff would patiently outline just how and why none of the answers were inconsistent with each other – or for gay rights. As time went on, it became harder and harder to cope with the fact that if Collins wasn’t saying she supported something, it kept her in the camp that opposed it.
Flash forward to the present. Collins’ Democratic Senate challenger Shenna Bellows, a former leader of the campaign to legalize marriage in Maine and former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, was beside herself (at least on Twitter) when the Human Rights Campaign endorsed (for the second time) Collins for re-election.
But that’s politics. From the HRC’s perspective, the race is in the bag and Collins is going to win. She’s already been one of their most friendly GOP senators. There’s no point in endorsing losing opponent and angering an ally you will continue to want to work with.
It appears though, in the course of formalizing the endorsement, HRC successfully lobbied her on the marriage front. So now Collins is the fourth Republican senator to support gay marriage, alongside Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Why now? There’s no GOP primary to worry about. And as Collins put it to the Bangor Daily News, “Nearly 44 percent of Americans live in a state where same-sex couples can be legally married, and I believe this number will only continue to grow.”
In other words, the writing’s on the wall, guys. This ship has sailed. Not a seminal moment in gay rights bravery, but a moment for Collins nonetheless.
As for the Senate race, the HRC endorsement and Collins’ announcement will change nothing. She’s still headed for a landslide victory. But maybe her former colleague and Democratic candidate for governor Mike Michaud, who if elected would be the first openly gay candidate to do so, and other gay Mainers will appreciate her – finally – clear position on the issue and take comfort that she supports them, if at long last.