News & Politics

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.

Richard Madaleno is an openly gay legislator�and a committed family man with a partner and two adopted children�whose presence in the Maryland Senate helps bring home the issues surrounding same-sex marriage. Photograph by Stephen Voss.

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’?”



Susan Baer

Susan Baer is a former Washingtonian editor and Baltimore Sun correspondent who has also written for CNN and the Washington Post. She can be reached at [email protected].