‘Compromise’ measure appears to have scant support so far in debate over same-sex marriage
Republican Rep. Tim Kelly is one of the last GOP legislators you’d expect to find on the bad side of gay marriage advocates. The three-term member from Red Wing is well-known for bucking his own caucus in 2011 as Republicans worked to pass a controversial constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. When it came time to campaign against the amendment, Kelly joined the board of Minnesotans United for All Families, the main group opposing the ballot initiative.
But that’s exactly where Kelly landed this week after rolling out a bill that would enshrine civil unions in state law instead. His proposal would insert “a civil contract between two parties” next to any instance of the word marriage in statute. It would also stand as a compromise position on the issue of gay marriage, according to Kelly, and thereby take “divisive social issues” off the table this session.
“After seeing the last two years and the battle we fought and the amount of money that we spent, [it] all revolved around one word, and that is marriage,” said Kelly, who was approached by Minnesotans United the start of session to co-sponsor the bill to legalize gay marriage. “This is a baby step.”
Kelly was quickly criticized by his former allies. Minnesotans United for All Families spokesman Jake Loesch said the move was an attempt to “legally classify committed gay and lesbian couples and their families as second-class citizens in our state.” Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook were soon flooded with attacks on Kelly and the co-sponsors of the proposal, who include Republican Reps. Andrea Keiffer, Pat Garofalo, Denny McNamara and Mary Franson. Rochester DFL Rep. Kim Norton has also signed on to the bill, and quickly felt blowback from members of her own caucus, particularly leadership.
On its face, Kelly’s bill is a long shot. It missed critical policy committee deadlines last month and is unlikely to get a hearing, but Kelly said that if necessary, he would consider bringing the measure up as a floor amendment to the gay marriage bill authored by DFL Rep. Karen Clark. For gay marriage advocates, that poses a potential threat. Four of the Republicans supporting civil unions said they will not vote in favor Clark’s gay marriage bill as currently written, highlighting the apparent absence of any GOP support for that bill in the House.
That leaves gay marriage advocates with little operating room in courting rural DFL votes for the bill: If no Republicans vote for the Clark bill, Democrats can only afford five no votes in their 73-member caucus. Some observers worry that skittish Democrats could flock to Kelly’s position when it comes time to vote.
“I’m not calling into question Rep. Kelly’s sincerity, but the fact is the bill on the table that everyone is talking about is marriage equality,” said DFL Rep. John Lesch, a supporter of gay marriage and chair of the House Civil Law Committee. “In order to kill that, an alternative needs to be offered and that’s exactly what this is. If this successfully derails marriage equality this year – I don’t think it will, I think we have the votes to pass it – but if it does, we will be back next year, and the year after that, and every year until this gets done.”
GOP reactions mixed
The critical question is how much support the Kelly proposal has among the House Republican caucus. In order to entice enough rural Democrats to detract and support civil unions, Kelly will have to convince a large majority of the Republican caucus to support his bill.
By Kelly’s account, he has “considerable” support among Republicans and hopes that will grow. At least for now, that support is coming from people who many perceived to be “soft” votes on the gay marriage issue. Kieffer has openly talked about her personal ambivalence over gay marriage, and said the Kelly bill is the only version she will vote for this session.
“This discussion has started, we asked the voters to decide, and we’ve gotten some feedback,” Kieffer said. “I spoke with Rep. Clark about two months ago, and I told her I could not vote for her bill the way it is right now.” GOP Rep. Pat Garofalo agreed: “I have seen when half of the state fights half of the state, and it isn’t pretty.”
But other Republicans are unsure how they feel about civil unions, and some are outright opposed. GOP Rep. Jim Abeler said he’s still thinking about his position on Kelly’s bill, and plans to talk to his constituents before making any firm decisions. GOP Rep. Greg Davids is firmly opposed. “I’ll be voting no on civil unions. I think marriage is between a man and a woman and that’s it, we just should leave it alone,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think the proposal has broad support within the House Republican caucus.
GOP House Majority Leader Kurt Daudt could not be reached for comment on Kelly’s proposal.
Minnesota for Marriage, the main group opposing the push to legalize gay marriage, is reserving judgment on the proposal for now. Spokeswoman Autumn Leva said they are “pleased” to see an alternative presented, but added that her group needs to better understand the religious and constitutional implications of the bill.
Norton butts heads with DFLers on gay marriage
The harshest criticisms of the move came from Democrats, many of whom took to Twitter to protest the new development. “Sadly, ‘civil union’ proposal gives cover to legislators who once voted to make civil unions unconstitutional,” tweeted DFL Rep. Steve Simon, who is a co-sponsor of the gay marriage bill. “A MN Civil Union bill at this point is a day late and a dollar short. The rest of have already moved on to marriage equality,” Lesch chimed in on his Twitter feed.
House Speaker Paul Thissen offered the most forceful statement against the move, calling civil unions an idea “whose time has passed.” “That is not acceptable to those – like me – who support full marriage equality for all Minnesotans,” he wrote in a statement. “And it will not have broad support in the Minnesota House of Representatives.”
Norton, for now, seems to be the lone DFL House member in support of the bill. “I’ve been looking for a way to show support, and when I surveyed my community, it was very clear that they are moving on the topic but they are still kind of at the civil union place,” she said. “They want to remove the laws that discriminate against same-sex couples, but they are not quite at marriage yet. I was trying to find a way to signal to my community that I’m trying to listen to them and respond to what they are telling me.”
Norton says she hasn’t talked to anyone else in her caucus about their view of the proposal, but Kelly said “numerous” Democrats have thanked him for bringing the alternative forward. “They have suggested to me that they appreciate me bringing this forward and they look forward to reading the bill,” he said, “and I would expect more of them getting on.”
Kelly professed surprise that Democrats had not offered a bill of their own to establish civil unions. He sees his proposal as a fallback if their plan to legalize gay marriage fails. “I thought civil unions would have been proposed by this time,” he said. “And I’m afraid because it’s not, now we’ve put all our eggs in one basket proposing a gay marriage bill. If that fails, there’s no fallback plan. My commitment to my constituents and to the state of Minnesota was that I got those individuals those rights.”