Rural DFLers torn over issue; revised civil unions bill coming
On the steps of the state Capitol, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton stood in the sleet on Thursday to encourage a crowd of hundreds to push their legislators to legalize gay marriage this session. “You have a constitutional right, an American right to marry the person you love,” Dayton told the cheering crowd. “People don’t want to be [in] civil unions, they want to be married.”
Inside the Capitol on the House floor, DFL Rep. Jay McNamar says he’s not sure whether he will run seek re-election to his west central Minnesota House seat in 2014 if he has to take a vote on gay marriage later this session. “I’ve got many things I’ve introduced this session that are just great for my district, but to be stuck on [gay marriage], it’s going to make a difference whether I come back or not, whether I even run,” said an undecided McNamar, who won his first term to the House by 255 votes in GOP-leaning House District 12A last fall. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. It just tears at your heart.”
In the midst of an onslaught of budget bills moving through the Legislature, the issue of gay marriage has turned to a mostly behind-the-scenes lobbying effort with bursts of public pressure like Thursday’s rally. Minnesota for Marriage, the main group opposing the push for gay marriage, has been traveling around the state holding rallies, and leaders from the DFL, Independence, Green and Libertarian parties recently held a joint news conference to call on lawmakers to legalize gay marriage now. “Martin Luther King once said, ‘it’s always the right time to do the right thing,’” DFL Party chairman Ken Martin said. “I think there are some [legislators] making political calculations. That’s understandable, that’s politics – our hope is that people will do the right thing here.”
Politicos like Martin have appeared at the Capitol regularly to talk to hesitant rural members, telling them that internal polling suggests a vote for gay marriage may not be politically ruinous for rural Democrats. Rally-goers promised to campaign for Democrats who support the bill this year, and 27 business leaders recently signed a letter urging legislators to pass gay marriage.
But it’s been more than a month since gay marriage bills were introduced and passed through committees in both chambers, and reports from Capitol watchers indicate that gay marriage advocates still lack the votes needed to pass the bills. It’s been difficult for advocates to get hard-and-fast commitments from DFL rural members like McNamar, whose districts voted for an amendment to ban gay marriage last fall.
“Once progress on the budget is made, then I think we will consider whether or not the votes are there. And if the votes are there, we will take a vote,” Minnesotans United for All Families executive director Richard Carlbom said this week. “I think the votes will be there. I think we are very close.”
A ‘no-win’ situation
Vicki Jensen says she has been honest with her constituents from the start. The freshman senator from Owatonna is the first Democrat to represent the area in several decades, and her Senate District 24 voted 56 percent in favor of the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage last fall. But Jensen plans to vote in favor of a bill to legalize gay marriage this session.
“I was clear with my constituents on the campaign trail, and I’ve been clear with them throughout the session. This is the most important vote I will take all year,” Jensen said. “I have to vote with what I think is right.”
DFL Rep. Ben Lien didn’t campaign on gay marriage, but facing a likely vote on the issue this session, he has told his constituents that he plans to vote yes. “I have friends, I have family who are part of the LGBT community,” said the freshman lawmaker from Moorhead. “I can’t turn my back on those folks… I stand by that.”
But outstate legislators are far less certain on the impending vote. McNamar has put out 3,000 surveys in his district on the issue that he’ll get back at the end of the month, not long before a vote could come to the floor. “I’m an old-time politician — I try to vote my constituents,” he said. “Which will be tough if it’s 50-50; what do I do? If I vote for it, I turn off half my voters. If I vote against it, I turn off the other half. It’s probably a no-win situation for me.”
DFL Rep. Roger Erickson prevailed in one of the most expensive House races of 2012 for his sprawling House District 2A in the northwest corner of the state. He’s gauging constituent response in emails so far, and opponents of legalizing gay marriage have been more numerous than supporters, he said. “There’s a fairness issue there, a lot of times it’s a religion-based argument,” he said. “There is a separation of church and state, and I don’t like the idea of legislating a religious point of view. It’s going to be a very tough vote.”
Some Democrats support civil unions
Courting DFL legislators is complicated by the fact that it appears very few Republican lawmakers are willing to consider a yes vote, thereby affording Democrats room for some rural defectors in their own ranks. Early in session, GOP Sen. Branden Petersen joined on as a co-sponsor of the gay marriage bill in the Senate, and many thought his actions would inspire other Republicans to support the bill too.
But five House Republicans perceived as soft votes on the gay marriage bill in the House have instead opted to support a bill that would allow civil unions in the state. As originally drafted, the bill would have inserted “or civil unions” in statute next to any instance of the word “marriage.” But the lead Republican on the effort, Rep. Tim Kelly, is planning to change that proposal to remove the word “marriage” from statute altogether, having everyone in the state get civil unions instead. He says that will address the issues some Democrats had with creating a “separate but equal” definition in law for gay couples in his original proposal.
“Over the last week and a half, that seemed to be the only real kick-back,” Kelly said. “People said, ‘We understand what you are trying to do, but what you haven’t done is you don’t call it the same thing.’ By removing marriage from statute, we have the same rights for everyone.”
At least some Democrats say they could support that move. Rochester DFL Rep. Kim Norton has already signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill. DFL Rep. Tim Faust of Hinkley is on the fence about gay marriage, but he said he’s considering supporting Kelly’s new proposal, and Erickson said he would likely support civil unions if they came up for a floor vote. DFL Rep. John Persell, who represents the Bemidji area, told constituents at a local meeting that he would prefer to eliminate any mention of marriage in statute in favor of civil unions.
DFL Sen. Tom Saxhaug, who hails from the same area as Persell, says he’s sympathetic toward the LGBT community, but would prefer to wait to take up the vote until next year, after the U.S. Supreme Court makes its awaited ruling on the constitutionality of state laws that prohibit same-sex marriage. “I think we will get more behind us here after that ruling is out,” Saxhaug said. “I’d prefer we didn’t take a vote this session.”