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Richard Madaleno: Showing the Way on Marriage Equality
On the divisive issue of same-sex marriage, the Maryland state senator may prove that the best politics is personal.
Maryland governor Martin O’Malley had just finished kicking off his 2010 reelection bid at Woodlea Gardens Park in Rockville when a six-year-old with barrettes in her hair spotted an opening. “Governor! Governor!” the young girl shouted as she ran to give the politician a hug. “Hi, Governor, how are you?”
Young Katie was a fan—and the governor returned her affection. Last summer when O’Malley saw Katie with her father at the statehouse in Annapolis, he invited her into his office to show her the Valentine she’d sent him that he kept in a desk drawer.
With an affable state senator for a dad, Katie and her little brother, Jackson, have gotten to know many public officials. Lieutenant governor Anthony Brown caught Jackson when he slipped on the marble steps of the state capitol last year. Senate president Mike Miller has attended a birthday party, moon bounce and all, at their Kensington home.
Katie and Jackson’s father, Montgomery County Democrat Richard S. Madaleno Jr., is known primarily as the Senate’s fiscal expert, a respected lawmaker with a mastery of the budget, a winning personality, and a passion for the Capitals hockey team.
But he’s spent the last several years lobbying the state’s leaders on a subject that has particular meaning for him and his family: same-sex marriage. The first openly gay state senator in Maryland, Madaleno lives with his partner of more than ten years, Mark Hodge, and the two African-American children they adopted as infants, Katie, now eight, and Jackson, five.
Madaleno marvels at the progress made on gay-rights issues in the nine years he’s been in the Maryland legislature. A decade ago, the state added sexual orientation to its antidiscrimination law. Now Maryland could be on the brink of passing a law allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed, joining six other states and the District of Columbia.
In the 2011 legislative session, to the surprise of many, the Maryland Senate—the more conservative of the state’s two legislative bodies—passed a same-sex-marriage bill, which faltered in the House of Delegates.
Madaleno teased Governor O’Malley: “I’d be happy for a civil union when you’re ready to convert your marriage to a civil union.”
For 2012, Governor O’Malley—who for years would consider only civil unions for gay couples—has signed on to be lead sponsor of the marriage-equality bill.
Many credit Madaleno, 46, a Silver Spring native, with helping move the issue so far. His speeches on the matter have been moving, colleagues say. But most persuasive, many add, has been his presence. Even conservative lawmakers have forged friendships with the legislator and his family over the years and have seen how his life—one of PTA meetings and homework and moon bounces in the front yard—looks much like their own.
“He’s been important in humanizing this issue for lots of the state’s leading elected officials,” says state senator Jamie Raskin, one of the bill’s chief supporters. “I don’t think we’d be where we are on this issue had Rich not been in the Senate. His presence meant this was not an abstract question of political philosophy but a matter of the rights of one of our members and his family.”
Miller, who has become a friend of Madaleno’s, voted against the same-sex-marriage bill last year. But he headed off a filibuster attempt, believing that the issue so important to his colleague deserved debate and a vote. “His being there, relating personal experiences, has helped his issue immeasurably,” says Miller.
Miller, a Democrat whose Catholic faith conflicts with same-sex marriage, says he knows Madaleno is “a very loving and caring parent,” so Miller thinks and prays about the issue often. “The relationship I have with Rich and his partner I couldn’t have imagined 30 years ago,” he says.
A colleague says Miller has told Madaleno: “People see you as a parent, they see you as a person. You have removed a mystery around it.”
If Madaleno’s family is unorthodox, his home life looks ordinary, from the minivan out front to the weekend scramble of kids’ activities to the Friday-night dinners out with the whole gang, including Madaleno’s parents and 90-year-old grandmother.
At their Kensington home one weekday evening, Madaleno is on the computer calling up an e-mail from Katie’s teacher about a field trip while Jackson hovers nearby, eager to get his hands on the keyboard and his favorite Disney site. The kids later dance to a Wii game in the family-room addition that Hodge designed and Madaleno’s father, a Bethesda contractor, built. Pete, a black collie/Italian-greyhound rescue dog, vies for attention, while Minnie, the cat, hides from a visitor.
Hodge, a nurse who manages Montgomery County’s tuberculosis-control program, makes dinner; later one of the dads will help Katie with homework. She snuggles on the sofa with Hodge (“Papa”) one minute, Madaleno (“Daddy”) the next. If a Caps game is on TV, Madaleno and Jackson cheer on the team with homemade thundersticks they devised out of plastic Fisher-Price golf clubs and toy medieval swords. Madaleno, who often wears a red Caps jacket, is such a fan that he once found himself explaining to his son that not all penguins were to be disliked, just the hockey-stick-wielding Pittsburgh variety.
Madaleno finds it interesting that even with two male parents—both sports fans and “pretty much guys,” as he says—Katie is still drawn to princess stuff and dress-up.
The children know several other nontraditional families. Across the street is a household with two dads and an adopted child; a straight white couple with two adopted African-American children lives a few doors down; and one of Katie’s school friends has two moms. It’s not strange to the kids, Madaleno says. If anything, Katie has more questions about being adopted than about having two fathers or parents of a different race.
But Madaleno worries about challenges ahead for the kids because of their unconventional family: “I’m sure there will come a time when teasing occurs as a result. But that’s also part of growing up.”
Madaleno says he’s received surprisingly few taunts or threats since becoming a public figure. During last year’s legislative session, his mail on the marriage bill was overwhelmingly supportive, though he later discovered that his staff screened out the more inflammatory correspondence. Occasionally, anti-gay-marriage protesters shouted at him outside the Capitol, but only once were the comments so provocative—they concerned his children—that he had to struggle not to react.
The debate on the Senate floor, he says, has for the most part been civil—far different from 15 years ago when his predecessor, Sharon Grosfeld, sponsored a same-sex-marriage bill and received so many death threats she was given police protection.
Still, it’s been a tougher discussion for Madaleno to be a part of than the most contentious school-funding or tax issue. “As respectful and dignified as the debate on the floor was, it still was difficult to sit and listen to your life being debated,” he says. “Thankfully, no one got into the stereotypes like the debate ten years ago when we heard about how the average life expectancy of gay men is 33, that we’re inherently more promiscuous. None of that came up. But still, this idea of the slippery slope to societal breakdown—even if no one is saying ‘you,’ you don’t appreciate being told your life is leading to the downfall of American civilization—especially from people who are already on their second marriages.”
Madaleno attended an all-boys high school, Georgetown Prep, so he was excited about the prospect of a coed dorm at Syracuse University and a “great awakening” in terms of girls.
“There wasn’t one,” he says.
It wasn’t easy coming to terms with being gay, especially in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic. “There’s a sense that you’re disappointing parents, family, friends,” he says, “because everyone has a certain set of expectations.”
Next: “When and how do you say to your child, ‘There are a lot of people who don’t like our family’?”
He had to rethink his aspirations. He’d majored in Soviet studies and history at Syracuse with hopes of entering the CIA. But at the time, he learned, the CIA generally denied security clearance to gay applicants, who were seen as vulnerable to blackmail.
Madaleno had grown more interested in politics and was elected student-government president at Syracuse. Not yet open about being gay, he lived in fear of being exposed by the campus paper or radio station: “Every day, I’d walk to the newspaper stand where the Daily Orange was and I’d be nervous about it—would there be a story that day?”
He hated living that way and vowed that if he ever ran for elected office again, he’d be honest about his personal life. It was an easy promise to make because such an occurrence seemed unlikely. As a gay person, he figured the most he could hope for was to be a staff person to an elected official.
After earning a master’s degree in public administration at Syracuse, he returned to Maryland in 1989 as a budget analyst for the Maryland General Assembly and later worked as a legislative analyst for then-Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan.
In 2001, having seen the procedures and personalities of the state legislature up close, he decided to run for a House of Delegates seat—and kept the vow he’d made to himself.
Though Baltimore delegate Maggie McIntosh had come out several months earlier—currently, there are seven openly gay House members—Madaleno was the first elected as an out gay person, thanking his partner among others in his campaign speeches.
He had told his parents he was gay only a few years earlier. His mother, Katherine, a vice president at a defense-contracting firm, took the news in stride. “Tell me something I don’t know,” she told her only child. His father, Richard, initially was devastated but has since become an accepting father—and “Pop Pop” to Katie and Jackson.
“I wrestle with this. When and how do you say to your child, ‘There are a lot of people who don’t like our family’?”
In 2006, after four years in the House, Madaleno decided to seek the Senate seat being vacated by Grosfeld, a spot once occupied by now-US representative Chris Van Hollen. By then, Madaleno had become so popular that he was the only Democrat to run for an open Maryland senate seat that year without a primary challenger.
Madaleno and Governor O’Malley have had many conversations over the years about Catholicism and marriage and justice and equality. When he took office in 2007, O’Malley believed that “civil unions” gave gay and lesbian couples adequate rights and was the consensus solution.
Madaleno worked to convince the governor that the concept of civil unions, while politically attractive, just didn’t work. A civil union, he argued, is valid only in the state in which it’s entered into, so companies that do multi-state business don’t always provide benefits to spouses of employees in civil unions.
“It hasn’t achieved what it was intended to do, and that is to provide the full range of benefits, just under a different title,” he says. “There is no separate-but-equal solution here, as there never was on other issues in our history.” Moreover, he says, a civil union is an inherently weaker structure, easier to get into and out of and lacking the sense of obligation, commitment, and stability that marriage provides.
Madaleno teased the governor: “I’d be happy for a civil union when you’re ready to convert your marriage to a civil union. You’re willing to grant me a lesser status than you enjoy under the law, so why don’t you volunteer to have the same lesser status?”
O’Malley just smiled. But last summer the governor made the leap Madaleno had been pressing for. O’Malley watched his counterpart in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo, successfully shepherd a same-sex-marriage bill through his state legislature. And O’Malley was struck by the groundswell of support for marriage equality in last year’s session in Annapolis. He said in an interview that key to the evolution in his thinking was “the ripening of the issue in the public consciousness.”
The governor also noted that he has several friends, such as Madaleno, who are gay and raising children, so he now views the issue “through the eyes of children of gay and lesbian parents.” More than one-quarter of same-sex couples in Maryland are raising children, according to 2010 US Census figures.
“All of us want the same thing for our kids, that they grow up in a committed and stable home where they’re protected equally under the law,” O’Malley says. “We can’t have one set of children enjoying lesser protection under the law because of the sexual orientation of their parents any more than we could for any other distinction.”
In last year’s session, some predominantly African-American churches mobilized to oppose same-sex marriage in the House. Though the bill allows religious groups to opt out of participating in or recognizing gay marriages, Maryland’s Catholic bishops are among those working to head off passage again this year. In a heated exchange of letters last summer, former Baltimore archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien urged O’Malley, a devout Catholic, to reconsider promoting “a goal that so deeply conflicts with your faith.”
Opponents of same-sex marriage fear that O’Malley’s support will push the bill over the goal line this year. Should it pass, they’ve vowed to petition the new law to referendum, as the state constitution allows, giving Maryland voters the final say in November.
A poll in October by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies showed the state to be evenly split on the subject, with 48 percent of Maryland voters favoring a law allowing same-sex marriages and 49 percent opposed.
Madaleno and Hodge, who met in 1999, had a wedding ceremony—though not an official one—in October 2001 at Bethesda’s Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, which Madaleno has long attended. Both wanted children, so they went through a ten-week seminar, “Maybe Baby,” at Whitman-Walker Clinic that outlined options available to gay men and women considering parenthood.
Finding foreign adoptions more difficult for gay couples, they pursued domestic adoption and, Madaleno says, were open to a variety of options: “If you’re a white couple who only wants a healthy white boy, complete with medical records of both parents, you can wait a very long time.”
Through a local agency, Adoptions Together, they brought infant Katie home in 2003 and Jackson four years later.
They haven’t yet discussed the debate over the status of their family with the children. Says Madaleno: “I wrestle with this. When and how do you say to your child, ‘There are a lot of people who don’t like our family’?”
Marriage license or no, Madaleno and Hodge are married in their own eyes and in the eyes of their children, who occasionally look at their parents’ wedding album. “To me, we had a wedding,” says Madaleno. “We had friends and family and stood up and made this commitment.”
Hodge has always attended spouse events for members of the legislature—he was even invited to gatherings during the administration of Republican governor Bob Ehrlich, who opposed same-sex marriage.
Because Maryland now recognizes same-gender marriages performed in other places, the couple has thought about making theirs legal, either in Vermont or just over the border in DC, where a law permitting gay marriages went into effect in 2010. They joke that they could have another wedding ceremony and receive another whole set of gifts.
But all they really want is the license. And they’re holding out for one from the state of Maryland.
This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.