- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 26, 2011

Maryland’s leading gay-rights organization is fighting to rebound from reported infighting and financial woes after the failure in this year’s General Assembly of a much-publicized bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

The board of directors of Equality Maryland fired its executive director, whom one board member publicly accused of mismanaging the nonprofit’s finances to the point that officials announced in late May the group could fold if it didn’t receive $2,000 in new donations by the end of June.

Officials said last week they have fulfilled the June fundraising goal but are still planning “month to month” as they try to boost fundraising and overcome criticism of their efforts during the legislative session.

The group plans to announce on Monday a strategic plan for the remainder of the year.

“We are getting through June, so now we’re working on establishing a more durable fundraising program,” said Patrick Wojahn, who serves on the board of the Equality Maryland Foundation, the group’s public education wing.

The group — founded in 1990 as “Free State Justice” — appeared headed for its finest hour in February, when the Senate passed a bill legalizing gay marriage with surprising ease, sending it to the traditionally more-liberal House.

However, support soon unraveled as several House Democrats wavered and at least two withdrew their support under heavy pressure from constituents.

Democratic leaders eventually sent the bill back to committee rather than have it lose in a floor vote, prompting some activists and officials to wonder if the group, which had led lobbying efforts to pass the bill, had done enough to solidify Democratic support — particularly in largely black districts in Baltimore and Prince George’s County.

“It just seemed as though they completely dropped the ball,” said Todd Eberly, acting director of the St. Mary’s College Center for the Study of Democracy, adding that the group seemed caught off guard by an “upstart movement” of Republicans and black-church leaders that surfaced during the House debate.

The group also suffered a more quiet defeat in the session’s final days when a bill fighting transgender discrimination failed to pass the Senate.

Equality Maryland officials have publicly defended their efforts, citing the narrow defeat on the gay marriage bill as progress. Prior to this year, the assembly had never cast a vote on gay marriage or civil unions.

Mr. Wojahn said the group was perhaps too focused on lobbying for the bill and neglected its fundraising responsibilities.

According to campaign finance records, the group donated more than $5,000 to state Democrats in the weeks before the session — mostly in $250 installments — giving to several legislators who were notably undecided on gay marriage or hailed from majority-black Baltimore districts where residents largely opposed the bill.

After the session, the group fired executive director Morgan Meneses-Sheets, whom then-board president Charles Butler accused of mismanaging the group’s finances.

Mr. Butler has since resigned and is one of several board members and group officials to quit or be laid off since the executive director’s dismissal.

His comments were made in a May 25 report in the Washington Blade, which quoted anonymous sources accusing Ms. Meneses-Sheets of making several spending and hiring decisions within notifying the board.

Ms. Meneses-Sheets did not return a call from The Washington Times seeking comment but has publicly denied the allegations.

Spending records for 2010 were not immediately available, but the group spent $274,000 in 2009 on salaries and other expenses, according to tax records. It reported $139,000 in revenue and ended the year $25,000 in debt.

The group spent $315,000 and took in $255,000 in 2008 — an election year — but ended that year with a $110,000 fund balance.

Lynne Bowman has since taken over as interim executive director and, despite the turmoil, Mr. Wojahn said he believes the group “absolutely will be at the forefront” of future gay rights legislation.

But restoring Equality Maryland’s finances and legislative clout could prove easier said than done, Mr. Eberly said.

He said the high-profile defeat on gay marriage could discourage past donors and that state Democrats might already have their hands full with another highly controversial bill — the Dream Act, which passed this year but is facing an ongoing petition drive and likely 2012 referendum.

Mr. Eberly said Democratic legislators might be reluctant to fight for gay marriage next year, as it could also potentially go to referendum and give opposing Republicans yet another reason to turn out in droves on Election Day 2012.

Democrats “may try to avoid it because they don’t want it to be on the ballot as another critical issue,” he said.

While Equality Maryland likely faces an uphill battle, other lobbyists have said a single unsuccessful year is unlikely to kill its major initiatives.

Vincent DeMarco, a health advocate and lobbyist who successfully fought this year for an increase in the state alcohol sales tax, said lobbyists can spend years fighting for support of a bill, often with the goal of making it an election-year issue.

Mr. DeMarco said that even if a high-stakes bill fails during the first year of a four-year term, as gay marriage did, the battle seldom ends there.

“You’ve just got to keep fighting and keep fighting,” he said. “When you have their commitment through the election cycle, you can hold them to it.”

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