03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

From California to Maine: Lessons in Reliability and Perseverance

Last week, almost exactly one year after the California voters stripped same sex couples of their marriage freedoms, Maine, through a ballot initiative, followed suit. And once again, progressive advocates were stunned and disappointed. Despite the fact that these two states are the farthest apart of the 48 contiguous, they share some similarities that lead us to believe that they are part of the solution instead of the problem.

Both have been "blue" in recent memories, have relatively progressive laws, are part of reliably progressive regional voting blocks, and have two female senators. (While it's true that Maine's female Senators, Snowe and Collins, are both Republicans, it may also be true that the future of the country rests in their moderate hands.) And yet, when push came to shove, the voters of both Maine and California have acted to restrict marriage rights. So what's going on? Why have these states abandoned us and the progressive cause when we need them most?

I think it might be that we have abandoned them. Several progressive victories over the last few years, combined with adverse economic conditions, have perhaps caused us to put "check marks" next to states that we think we have "won." We've changed laws, improved education, and solidified reproductive rights. They're blue, they're ours, we move on.

But let's take a second to look back at history. In fact, California and Maine have voted for the same candidate in every presidential election since 1968. But it hasn't always been the Democrat. In the 10 elections since 1968, California and Maine went to the Republican candidate five times, from 1972 to 1988 and to the Democratic candidate five times, from 1992 to 2008. The "red state" vs. "blue state" dichotomy that dominates the current American political zeitgeist has caused a kind of amnesia making it seem as though the political and cultural battle lines that we face now have always existed. Because of our short memories, we forget that there were probably Republicans in 1992 standing around wondering how the reliably conservative states of California and Maine could have ever voted for Bill Clinton.

And without that memory, we may have counted our political chickens before they hatched. In some ways, this is understandable. There are not enough resources for us to be fully invested in all states, and we have to pursue programmatic and political opportunities in states where we think we can make the most difference. However, the defeats on same sex marriage in California and Maine reveal that we may have been too quick to move on to other targets. Because it is sexier and, in many ways, more rewarding to make progress than to maintain gains, we do not spend as much time consolidating and reinforcing the achievements we have made.

I think we need to take the lessons from these defeats to heart and redefine what it means for us to succeed in the long run. I think about this in the context of my organization's extended battle against abstinence-only-until-marriage funding. For over a decade we have been working with lawmakers, colleagues, educators, and public health officials on the state and federal level to ensure an end to these harmful and ineffective programs. And today, we are as close as we have ever been. Despite the last ditch efforts of some Republicans, it appears that federal funding will finally be halted and new, more comprehensive programs will be given a budget instead. Still, we would be foolish to think the battle is over and we cannot stop and rest. If we want to keep these programs out of our schools and communities permanently, we need to stay vigilant, permanently.

I miss the part where you can sit back, relax, sip champagne, and declare "our work here is done" as much as anyone, but in today's political landscape where Red states turn Blue, and voters in Blue states turn out in droves to overrule progressive lawmakers -- that moment just can't ever be.