PORTLAND, Maine — A Democratic candidate who reluctantly came out of the closet last year found himself serving as the grand marshal of Maine's biggest gay pride parade and festival Saturday and urged activists to continue fighting to eliminate discrimination and promote equality.
Mike Michaud, who would become the nation's first openly gay person to be elected governor if he unseats Republican Paul LePage in November, said it would be powerful for the gay community to have a seat at the table in discussions with governors across the country on equality issues.
"Maine has come a long ways and our nation has come a long ways, but there's still a long way to go," he said in an interview before he marched alongside a white convertible down the roughly milelong route in downtown Portland.
Gay rights activists say the six-term congressman's victory would be a key milestone in their movement toward equality, inspire other gay leaders to pursue public office and send a positive message to the community's youth.
When Michaud came out publicly last year, he said he didn't want to focus on his personal life in the three-person race with independent Eliot Cutler.
But his potentially historic candidacy has caught the eye of national groups like the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which has bundled $30,000 to $50,000 for his campaign.
During the parade, which drew thousands, Michaud shook hands and took pictures with supporters who chanted "We like Mike" as he walked in front of the "Loud and Proud" marching band.
He followed motorcyclists wearing rainbow wigs and feather boas and the parade's two other grand marshals — the coordinator at the University of Southern Maine's Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity and a transgender student who won a discrimination lawsuit after her school refused to let her use the girls' bathroom.
Aside from fundraising, observers say Michaud's sexual orientation will likely have other political importance in one of the first states to approve same-sex marriage at the ballot box in 2012.
It could turn away some deeply conservative and religious voters, but they likely wouldn't have supported the Democrat anyway, said Michael Cuzzi, a former Democratic campaign strategist.
Michaud has come under fire from his political foes for voting against anti-discrimination laws for gays and other pro-equality measures while in the state Legislature. His campaign said his position on the issues has evolved over the years and he's now strongly pro-equality.
That turnaround and his decision to come out could attract progressives who were not fans of his in earlier elections, said Sandy Maisel, political science professor at Colby College.
Michaud is headlining a group of several openly gay candidates around the country this year, including Heather Mizeur, who's seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Maryland. Meanwhile, three candidates are trying to become the first openly gay Republicans to be elected to Congress: Dan Innis in New Hampshire, Richard Tisei in Massachusetts and Carl DeMaio in California.
If elected, Michaud wouldn't be the first gay governor. New Jersey's Jim McGreevey had already been voted into office when he announced in 2004 that he was gay and admitted to an extramarital affair with a male staffer. He subsequently resigned.
Twenty-nine year-old Amber Hodgkins, who was watching the parade with her dog, said a victory for Michaud could improve Maine's image nationally as an inclusive community and provide a powerful example to young gay people across the country.
"You don't have to choose to be out or have a career," she said. "You can have it all.