LEWISTON — A group that successfully advocated for gay marriage in 2012 has endorsed the only gay candidate in the race for Maine governor.

EqualityMaine announced Thursday its endorsement of U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. The Democrat is seeking his party’s nomination in a race against incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and independent candidate Eliot Cutler.

Ali Vander Zanden, EqualityMaine’s political director, said in a prepared statement that Michaud would stand up for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mainers and their rights, “and will also work to put our state back on track by finding solutions that will benefit all the people of Maine. From making health care more affordable to putting Maine’s students first and growing our economy, Mike is the best candidate to move Maine forward.”

Cutler’s campaign said the endorsement was puzzling given Michaud’s voting record on gay rights legislation during his years in the Maine Legislature. Cutler’s campaign offered a detailed list of 19 votes Michaud cast between 1981 and 1997.

“This was a partisan political decision, not a principled one,” Cutler’s campaign spokeswoman, Crystal Canney, said. “Eliot Cutler and his family have stood side by side with the LGBT community for decades as outspoken advocates and supporters.”

Cutler has been a major donor to EqualityMaine and its causes in the past. In 2009, he and his wife contributed $14,600 to efforts to uphold a law legalizing same-sex marriage, according to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

“Mike Michaud’s voting record in the Maine Legislature — 19 consecutive votes against equal rights for the LGBT community — speaks for itself,” Canney said. “EqualityMaine cannot take away Eliot Cutler’s record on these issues, any more than they can create a new record for Mike Michaud.”

Michaud’s campaign has downplayed the lawmaker’s record in the Maine Legislature, saying he, like many politicians, has evolved on the issues over time. Staffers point to his record in D.C., where he has earned a near-perfect approval rating from the Human Rights Campaign for his votes on issues of LGBT equality.

David Farmer, a senior adviser with the Michaud campaign, told the Bangor Daily News on Thursday that the lawmaker co-sponsored the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and Respect for Marriage Act in the U.S. House, and joined other federal lawmakers in filing an amicus brief on the Defense of Marriage Act as it was being debated at the U.S. Supreme Court, among other high-profile stands in support of gay rights.

“Eliot Cutler’s response, I think, shows his true colors,” Farmer said. “He’s a Washington lawyer, and if he doesn’t get what he wants, he attacks. Cutler has been a prominent supporter (of gay rights causes) since 2009, and most of that has been financial. As someone who has worked on these campaigns, I can say those contributions are critically important, but …the record (Cutler) has doesn’t include any tough votes on the issues, ever.”

Vander Zanden on Thursday defended her organization’s endorsement.

“Eliot Cutler has been a generous and outspoken supporter of LGBT rights since 2009 and we appreciate that support,” Vander Zanden said during a late-morning Thursday news conference in Portland. “Since 1998, (Michaud) has been a stalwart supporter of equal rights for all Mainers … and we could not have asked for a better advocate in Congress.”

Vander Zanden said EqualityMaine hopes to revive the 8,000-plus volunteers it marshaled during the 2012 referendum campaign to legalize same-sex marriage to help push Michaud into the Blaine House.

Speaking as “a lesbian who grew up in a small Maine town,” she said the chance to elect an LGBT “role model” to such a prominent political office was too important to pass up.

LePage’s top political consultant offered a 10-word statement in response to the endorsement.

“The governor’s focus is on creating jobs for all Mainers,” Brent Littlefield wrote in an email to the Sun Journal.

On social media sites, including Twitter, Michaud campaign spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt rebuffed Cutler’s complaints, noting that Michaud has a “nearly flawless congressional” voting record on gay rights.

But a national organization, That’s My Congress, which ranks the voting records of federal lawmakers, listed Michaud as having a “weakly liberal” record in Washington. He did not make the group’s scorecard for being, “good” or “bad” on LGBT issues.

“If you can’t find your representative’s name on either the honor roll or the dishonor roll, she or he belongs neither to the most open-minded nor the most bigoted wing of the House,” according to the website ranking the votes.

Michaud, who has served in public office for nearly 30 years, announced he was gay in November.  

Also in November, Betsy Smith, the former executive director of EqualityMaine, announced she was endorsing Cutler in 2014.

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