Some Republican legislators already agonizing over decision
For Branden Petersen, the past week has been, in his words, “unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.”
It all started when the 27-year-old Republican senator from Andover told the Star Tribune that he’s likely to support a DFL effort to legalize gay marriage in 2013, just months after voters rejected a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. He’s even considering co-sponsoring the legislation if that means he can make a few changes to the bill — particularly allowing religious groups the freedom to refuse to perform same-sex weddings if they choose.
Petersen is the first Republican legislator to express public support for making same-sex marriage legal in Minnesota, and the response has been overwhelming. Within hours his face was on national new sites like the Huffington Post and MSNBC, and he was the subject of an oppositional fundraising push by the conservative political fund A Stronger Minnesota. The group, run by former pro-amendment campaign manager Andy Parrish, accused Petersen of “straying from traditional Minnesota values.” Parrish insisted he would hold Republicans like Petersen “accountable.”
The most “challenging” feedback for Petersen, however, has been from Republicans in his own Senate District 35, which narrowly supported the amendment on Nov. 6. Petersen voted in favor of putting the amendment on the ballot as a House member two years ago.
“A lot of people I consider friends, people who have supported my campaign, people who I have worked with on issues, there are a lot of really tough conversations there,” Petersen said. “That’s what I’m thinking about the most — my district. It’s great that MSNBC thinks it’s a wonderful thing, but that’s not at all my priority. What I’m concerned about is what the people in my district are thinking.”
Some of Petersen’s Republican colleagues are facing the same dilemma as Democrats prep a likely late-session push on the bill. Late last week, Republican leaders of the two minority caucuses said that while they personally oppose a move to legalize gay marriage this session, they will not take any action against members who choose to vote yes. That has put pressure on many Republican lawmakers to do some soul-searching on the issue, especially those members who represent the 29 legislative districts that voted against the marriage ban amendment last fall.
Those lawmakers are weighing a shift in public opinion in favor of same-sex marriage against the likely political ramifications back home, where each GOP legislator must face the party activists who will decide whether to re-endorse them for election.
“There are always the political ramifications in these decisions, and that weighs on folks. For some, that will be a deciding factor, and for others it won’t,” said Republican operative Carl Kuhl, who worked with Minnesotans United for All Families during the campaign and is consulting on the effort to legalize gay marriage. “The electorate has changed so much over the last decade, demographically and on this specific issue, so it’s tough to say what the exact political ramifications will be. We were the first state in the nation to defeat such an amendment, and some people are still sorting out what that means.”
GOP lawmakers weigh in
Before Petersen’s announcement, chatter about gay marriage between Republicans was at a minimum. There have been no caucus-wide conversations about gay marriage, leaders said. “Honestly, it’s been quieter than you’d think,” said two-term Republican Woodbury Rep. Andrea Kieffer, who plans to make her decision on the issue after consulting her constituents.
Since the election, Kieffer has been more open about how difficult she found it to vote in favor of putting the constitutional amendment on the ballot two years ago. Now she says she supports a move to take discriminatory language out of law, but she also believes in defining the institution of marriage. “I’ve always said I want to preserve the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, because that is defining an institution,” she said. “We define a lot of institutions; we define childhood, we define adulthood.”
“Maybe we can call it civil unions, when two consenting adults want to be legally bound by something,” she said. “I want the law to be as blind as it possibly can, so to speak. We need to find some kind of solution, and what I’ve learned in government is not everyone will be happy, but I do think there is some middle ground.”
Republican Rep. Tim Kelly feels the same way. Kelly bucked his caucus two years ago when he voted against the marriage amendment on the floor, but he says he cannot support a bill to legalize gay marriage if it comes to the floor now. The reason is the same, he says: Lawmakers should be focused on the budget, not divisive social issues. GOP Rep. Denny McNamara told his colleagues that he didn’t want to take up gay marriage in 2011. “Well, look where we are now?” the six-term member from Hastings said. “I didn’t think we should have taken it up then, and I don’t think we should be taking it up now.”
One half of Republican Sen. Jeremy Miller’s Winona-area Senate district voted for the amendment and the other half voted against it. “I have not taken a stance yet. If I had to take a vote today, I guess I’d have to say I’m leaning toward a no vote,” Miller said this week. “I’ve been focused on the budget, jobs and the economy. Marriage is obviously an important issue and it’s a moral issue. I’m not sure it’s a legislative issue, but it’s something that’s important and is looking more and more likely to come up every day. I plan on talking to my constituents before I make a firm decision on it.”
While Petersen was elected on a Tea Party wave in 2010, he’s far younger than most of his colleagues, and he has a father-in-law who is openly gay. When it comes to his support for gay marriage, he says it’s simply about fair application of the law. “I actually believe as a Christian that marriage is between one man and one woman, that’s what I believe. But the question has always been different in a legal sense. We don’t always understand that same application in the law, and the question in the law is, what is just? And what is equal [protection] under the law?” Petersen said. “In a free society that is kind of the trade-off: You don’t always get to … have your morals reflected in every area of society, but you take that as a trade-off with the freedom you have to express yourself.”
Republicans consider the politics
The trouble for some Republicans is that they remain uncertain exactly what the defeat of the amendment meant. Proponents of gay marriage say it’s a sign that Minnesotans are ready for same-sex marriages, and Republicans risk looking out of touch if they continue to buck the issue.
“The public opinion is changing very rapidly. Some Republicans are seriously taking the time to consider this issue, and they are finding that the viewpoint that has been in the platform for a while is not actually the way a lot of Republicans feel anymore,” said Jake Loesch, a spokesman for Minnesotans United for All Families. Loesch is a Republican. “More and more activists and Republicans on the ground are saying, ‘We are Republicans because of X, Y and Z, but we are not Republicans because we think gay people shouldn’t get married.’”
Others say that’s reading too much into the vote. In their view, asking voters to etch a gay marriage ban into the constitution is different from asking them whether they believe in legalizing gay marriage.
And, they note, Republican lawmakers will always have to answer to a smaller, more conservative group of activists in their district when it’s time for endorsing conventions.
Former Republican Reps. John Kriesel and Rich Murray saw firsthand how intense the GOP response can be after both voted against putting the marriage amendment on the ballot. “That one vote was the vote I agonized over more than anything else,” said Murray, a business consultant in Albert Lea. “I caught a lot of flak from Republicans down here, and I caught a lot of flak from Republicans up there.”
Murray, who lost in an expensive race to DFL Rep. Shannon Savick last fall, said he’s not sure how he would vote on a bill legalizing gay marriage if he were still in the Legislature now, but he says legislators will have to vote their conscience — and take the heat for it.
“If you are in a safer Republican district and you vote [to legalize gay marriage], you are probably going to hear it back home at your BPOU,” he said. “But you have to vote you conscience and you have to live with it. I felt at ease as soon as I made the vote. I slept great that night.”
Kriesel, an Iraq war veteran who was the most publicly supportive Republican for gay marriage during the campaign, says many Republicans want to move on from the issue of gay marriage — if that means taking a vote, then so be it, he said.
“The best thing for the Republican Party would be to get this out of the way. This is the biggest black eye on the party — their unwillingness to let go of these divisive social issues,” he said. “It’s been a stain on the party in Minnesota.”