Around 4 o’clock last Saturday afternoon, the central drama of Session 2011’s closing days finally reared its head on the House floor.
Shortly before the chamber recessed for dinner, GOP Rep. Mary Liz Holberg stood to announce the addition of a controversial constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage to the calendar for that evening’s proceedings. The announcement came just one day after a divisive opening prayer by outspoken anti-gay pastor Bradlee Dean at the start of Friday’s session. DFLers and some Republicans spoke up in outrage, and House Speaker Kurt Zellers made a solemn apology to members from the House floor.
The move also came after several days of uncertainty as to when — or if — the amendment would come to the floor in 2011. Several House Republicans believed the timing was dubious in view of the pending end of the session and the lack of progress in negotiations over the state’s $5 billion budget deficit. Rumors circulated that Zellers and Majority Leader Matt Dean were struggling to shore up the votes for its passage. The vote had the potential to be a political and public relations disaster, many sources said at the time: If it didn’t pass, the House looked weak behind a strong passage in the Senate less than two weeks before. If it did pass, Republicans risked looking like they lacked focus on the budget.
But sources say that pressures from longtime House GOP caucus donors and a widespread wish by amendment backers to launch their fundraising campaign early caused GOP leaders to push the dicey vote in 2011, a move that could imperil new members in swing districts who were dragooned into voting yes.
“Votes are taken when the votes are there,” one source observed. “But in this case, they really threw the suburban Republicans under the bus.”
‘A giant step backwards’
The mood was solemn on the floor. While the House chamber is usually a bustling place where members shuffle paper, cruise up and down the aisles, and engage in side conversations, everyone sat quietly and listened during the debate Saturday evening. House DFLers dominated the debate with personal stories of bullying and discrimination as the amendment’s backers remained silent. But two Republicans spoke ardently against the issue.
Freshman GOP Rep. John Kriesel, who has been vehemently opposed to the amendment from the get-go, stood and spoke about his time serving in Iraq, where he lost both his legs after a roadside bomb blew up the vehicle in which he was riding. “It woke me up; it changed me,” Kriesel said. “And as bad as that day sucked, I’ve learned a lot from it…This amendment doesn’t represent what I went to fight for.”
But perhaps the most powerful speech of the night came from two-term Red Wing Republican Rep. Tim Kelly, who said if the House had taken the vote Friday after the prayer incident, it would not have passed. “I cannot help but feel this is an assault on personal freedom and choice,” Kelly said. “If we put this amendment on the Constitution, we’re taking a giant step backwards.”
One DFL legislator, standing outside the House chamber during the debate, said the litany of DFL speeches was “not going to change anyone’s mind.”
“We should have voted after Kelly spoke,” the Democrat said. “We are just cementing their beliefs right now.”
Another longtime GOP operative echoed that sentiment, stating confidently that it would not have passed if they had voted right after Kelly’s speech. “It became an ‘us versus them’ thing as the Democrats went on and on,” the Republican said.
After five hours of heartfelt speeches delivered over the roar of protesters shouting and singing outside the chamber, the House passed the long-sought constitutional amendment on a 70-62 vote, with only four Republicans crossing over to vote against the legislation and two Democrats (Reps. Denise Dittrich and Lyle Koenen) casting votes in favor of the ballot initiative. Freshman Rep. Rich Murray of Albert Lea and longtime Mound Rep. Steve Smith joined Kelly and Kriesel as no votes on the GOP side.
Donors pressured Dean, Dean pressured members
After leaving the floor, Kelly said he had offered to step down from the House GOP Executive Committee for his stance, but Zellers declined his offer. “There was no arm-twisting, and nothing behind closed doors,” he added.
But other reports say plenty of arm-twisting was done, principally by Dean and his executive assistant, Bill Walsh. The efforts continued even as the debate proceeded. Another GOP operative said former legislators were using their influence to push for the amendment on Saturday evening, including former GOP House Rep. and 2012 U.S. Senate candidate Dan Severson, and even U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who authored the amendment during her time in the state Senate. Longtime former House GOP operative Gregg Peppin, who now runs his own strategy and lobbying shop, was signed to a one-week contract to lobby members to support the amendment.
The Dean-Walsh faction reportedly spent hours talking to members to persuade them to vote for the measure, especially what the source called the “soft” GOP members, a group said to include Reps. Rod Hamilton, Jenifer Loon, King Banaian, Andrea Kieffer and Denny McNamara.
“I don’t believe it was the right time to do it,” McNamara said on Monday. “We need to work on our budget issues. Granted, we had sent budget proposals to the governor, but they’re not resolved yet. You also have to question if we really should put something in the Constitution that is already in statute. I just don’t know that it was necessary to do, and I would rather [we had] not brought it up for a vote.”
McNamara ultimately voted for it, he said, because he respects the process. In their caucus meeting last Friday, he said there was a decision made not to bring it up following that morning’s prayer gaffe.
By Peppin’s account, the fact that the Senate had already passed the amendment put pressure on the House to do so, too. “Frankly, it’s probably best for both sides that the issue at the legislative level is settled this year, and the campaigns can begin,” he said.
He added that there was a lot of discussion internally about whether it should happen in 2011 or 2012, especially as the leadership started out the year touting a budget-first agenda. But ultimately the prospect of wealthy donors on the pro-gay marriage side persuaded them to go for this session, Peppin said. “[Pro-gay marriage campaigns] typically have many well-to-do donors nationwide,” he noted, “and while there are some wealthy anti-gay-marriage supporters, there are more $5 and $10 donors on that side, and that money will take time to gather.”
Donations played into the calculus of the amendment vote in another way, according to one source who monitored the amendment effort. House Republican caucus uber-funder Robert Cummins, the chief executive officer of Primera Technology, is a fervid backer of the amendment and a past donor to anti-gay-marriage initiatives. Since 2004, Cummins has contributed more than $408,000 to groups like Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage — now Minnesota Majority — and the Minnesota Family Council, and has thrown hundreds of thousands of dollars at the House GOP caucus campaign chest. In a June 2010 Capitol Report story, then-caucus treasurer Matt Dean said Cummins is much more involved than the average donor. He works directly with House leaders to recruit Republican candidates to run in each district. “He understands the importance of winning elections,” Dean said at the time.
“Promises must have been made to outside sources,” the source said, adding that the caucus was reportedly promised several million dollars for the 2012 elections from various groups if the amendment passed this session.
Peppin understands that the vote was likely difficult for freshmen to make, especially those who narrowly won in swing districts last fall or those who campaigned on fiscal issues, not social ones. That was the case for freshman Rep. Kurt Bills, a schoolteacher from Rosemount who ultimately voted for the legislation.
“I’ve been an economics teacher for 14 years,” Bills said. “So when I ran, I ran because of fiscal and economic elements, and I was prepared for that when I walked door to door. It’s tough to bring up social issues, especially as a public schoolteacher who teaches [students of] all political ideologies, races, genders, sexual preferences. I treat everyone the same, so it’s a very difficult thing to bring up and talk about.”