Martin O’Malley, in New York, on the hardest same-sex-marriage feat of all

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Dozens of the celebrities, big-money donors and political operatives who teamed up on the successful push for a gay-marriage bill in New York assembled for cocktails on Thursday night at Jimmy, the lush rooftop bar of the James Hotel in Soho, where they listened carefully to a governor whose name is not Andrew Cuomo.

“The movement you are a part of is not easy, it is hard,” said Martin O’Malley, the Democratic governor of Maryland.

He was discussing the referendum on the ballot this fall in his state that could strike down the marriage equality law he signed, which would take effect next January.

“There are many referenda that have gone down in defeat, but the night is darkest just before the dawn,” O'Malley said.  

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In fact, 2012 has been shaping up as something of a banner year for gay rights, with Barack Obama in May becoming the first American president to back marriage equality. But the referendum in Maryland on that state's same-sex-marriage law may be a different story, as illustrated most recently by what happened in North Carolina, an increasingly Democratic state that Obama carried in 2008, where the voters rejected both same-sex marriage and civil unions overwhelmingly this spring. Similarly, voters passed Proposition 8 in California the same day Obama carried the state by more than 20 points, and voters in Maine rejected same-sex-marriage a year later. Voters have yet to approve of same-sex-marriage in any statewide referendum.

("Maryland could be the first state where it actually wins,” filmmaker and Baltimore native John Waters told me at the event.)

Polls have showed a majority of Maryland voters in favor of the law, but that could change, as its opponents gear up to campaign against it between now and November.    

In an interview, O’Malley said that putting the question before the public is more difficult than steering it through historically gridlocked statehouses—contrasting the situation of progressive governors like him with the one that faced Cuomo, a potential rival in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries and a hero to same-sex-marriage advocates for pushing New York's landmark bill through Albany last year.  

“In order to move this issue forward, it has to succeed not only in court, not only in legislatures, but it has to succeed on the ballot,” O’Malley told me.  

Advocates believe New York's same-sex-marriage law and the president's subsequent statements of support made success in state referendums more likely.

“Now, not only is Obama clearly for marriage equality, but the whole party is, and we have the whole party apparatus,” said David Mixner, a prominent LGBT fund-raiser and activist from New York. “None of those things were true until a year ago. New York was sort of the turning point. It’s been a brutal decade, losing these things, but through that process the community has grown into a potent political force.”  

O'Malley agreed, in terms of the significance of what New York, and Cuomo, had done.

“We’re very grateful to the people of New York, the legislature of New York, and to Governor Cuomo,” he said. “Frankly, when New York passed marriage equality, it gave us a tremendous shot in the arm in Maryland, and within 48 hours we made our announcement that this was going to be a top legislative priority for us. And we got it done. It wasn’t easy. But clearly, New York’s leadership on this, Governor’s Cuomo’s leadership on this, was very important to the second wind it gave us in Maryland.”

The pro-gay-marriage movement is also benefiting from more cash from organizations like Tim Gill’s Action Fund that have poured resources into local races in states with marriage equality on the agenda, and from a tighter relationship with the Democratic Party, which made its support for gay marriage a centerpiece of the messaging at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.  

But unlike Democratic leaders and activists in Washington State who are facing a similar challenge to their new marriage equality law, O'Malley has no local business titans like Amazon's Jeff Bezos (who set a new record for giving to gay marriage efforts when he donated $2.5 million to that campaign in July) in his corner.  

“We’re still looking for a hero,” O’Malley said, with a smile on his face.