It is an ugly memory that Rep. Karen Clark has lived with for 32 years, though dimmed now by passing decades. Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, doesn’t remember if the threat against her took the form of a resolution or petition that some unidentified Republican House member wanted to circulate against her, or whether it was just loose talk.
She only knows this: In 1981, as she was preparing to take her place as the first openly lesbian member of the Minnesota Legislature, someone was making noise that she should be prevented from being sworn into office because of her sexuality.
Clark does not know if her sources — several fellow DFL caucus members whom she doesn’t identify — knew firsthand that a legislative attempt was in the works, or if they had merely picked up on a rumor. She never heard anything about it until six months or so after the fact. Caucus members protected her from hearing of it, she says, until after her first legislative session was over.
Whoever had the idea, it was kiboshed and has since been largely forgotten. No other longtime Capitol figures contacted for this article — former Sen. Roger Moe, sitting Reps. Phyllis Kahn and Lyndon Carlson, and Harry Sieben, the House speaker at the time — remembers the incident.
“It may have been going on and I didn’t know about it,” Sieben says. Had it come to his attention, he says, “I would have said the logical thing, that the people who elected her were going to swear her in.”
However, Janet Dahlem, a professor at St. Catherine University who helped engineer Clark’s groundbreaking 1980 House victory, does recall it. “I just remember that it was happening and it was very painful,” she says.
It is hard to imagine even a rumor like that starting today. These are different times. Last year, in perhaps the gay community’s biggest political victory to date, Minnesotans blocked an attempt by Republicans to seal a gay marriage ban into the Minnesota Constitution.
This year, Clark, 67, is trying to capitalize on that momentum by authoring a House bill to legalize gay marriage — a bill that DFL caucus leaders now believe has votes enough to pass in both the House and in the Senate, where Sen. Scott Dibble is the companion bill’s champion. They are joined by a third gay legislator, House bill co-sponsor Rep. Susan Allen, the first openly lesbian Native American Minnesota representative.
“Things have changed,” Clark says quietly. “I have lived through those changes.”
In fact, in her three decades in office, Clark has driven many changes in the state, and not just in the realm of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) issues.
The current chair of the Housing Finance and Policy committee has long been proponent of public housing for the poor and elderly. A former nurse, she drove home successful 1980s legislation requiring businesses to reveal any toxins their employees were being exposed to. And she spearheaded the successful drive in 1993 to protect to GLBT individuals’ civil rights under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, making Minnesota the first state to do so.
This session, she has introduced some 33 bills. One that she thinks has a good shot at passage would allow undocumented workers to obtain driver’s licenses.
“Nobody is kicking them out of the country, and their work is needed,” she says. “But should they be stopped by a police officer, they get in trouble and then it could be a deportation issue. And they can’t get insurance.” That latter problem makes the lack of drivers’ licenses among undocumented workers a public safety issue, Clark says.
Clark does not always work on a grand scale. Last biennium, she procured $1.75 million in the 2012 bonding bill to save an inner-city swimming pool in south Minneapolis’s Phillips neighborhood. She sold the idea as a civil rights issue because drownings disproportionately occur among young African-Americans.
Among the most liberal legislators, Clark also is one of the most popular judging by her performance at the polls. She regularly collects 75 to 85 percent of the vote in her Minneapolis district, topping out at 89 percent in 2008, according to her legislative webpage.
Dahlem, who co-teaches a course in women’s holistic health with Clark at St. Catherine University, thinks that one reason Clark maintains that high level of popularity is the personal touch she brings to her constituents.
“She gives them rides, takes them places, goes to their hospital beds — it is truly who she is,” Dahlem says. “She is that gentle and kind.”
Clark considers her constituents key to accomplishing her wide-ranging, social-justice-oriented progressive goals. “I am very much still involved with the grass roots in helping pass tough legislation,” she says. “That’s a good way to work, it’s a fun way to work and it’s an effective way to work.”
Sieben, now an attorney at his own Sieben, Grose, Von Holtum & Carey law firm, has watched Clark’s career from a short distance since leaving the Legislature in 1985. He always admired Clark’s straightforwardness and willingness to listen carefully — even to those with whom she has sharp disagreements — before making up her mind on issues where she has not yet taken a position.
“She is very smart, very honest and straightforward, and very dedicated,” he says. “She was a good caucus member. She understood not only what the right thing to do was, but she understood caucus discipline — which struck home for me, of course.”
A signal achievement
If same-sex marriage is legalized, it likely will be remembered as one of Clark’s signal achievements. Beyond that, a victory would hit home for her at the most personal level. She and her partner, Jacquelyn Zita, have waited 23 years to exchange vows.
There are those who wonder whether Clark and her allies are misreading the message voters sent when rejecting the constitutional amendment last year. Hamline University political science professor David Schultz is among those who think Democrats risk jumping out in front the public by pushing a marriage equality bill too soon.
Unless the passage of a marriage bill leads to widespread “rejoicing in the streets,” which Schultz doubts, the DFL might well be creating an electoral opportunity for Republicans, he says.
“The gay marriage issue is a big problem for the Democrats and a big opportunity for the Republicans,” he says. “Republicans are smartly seeing a good window here, especially in 2014.”
Clark disagrees, saying the tide is turning and the timing is perfect.
Certainly the atmosphere is nothing like it was in 1993, when former Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, reluctantly cast a vote against including GLBT individuals in the Minnesota Human Rights Act. At that time, Runbeck said that while she did not want to cast a vote against civil rights, she also did not want Minnesota to send the message that it was promoting homosexuality.
Just nine years ago, former Rep. Lynne Osterman cast an anguished 2004 vote to place before voters a question about constitutionally banning same-sex marriage, even though it was known the Senate at the time would not pass the measure. In March, Osterman appeared before the House Civil Law Committee to tearfully beseech legislators to vote in favor of same-sex marriage, saying that when she had the chance, she “blew [her] vote” and lives with the emotional repercussions of that decision every day.
Osterman remembers approaching Clark even before the vote to express her regrets about the vote she was about to cast. “I kept saying to her and others, ‘I can’t believe we are going to have to take this vote,’” Osterman says. “I was physically sick for two days leading up to that.”
These days, even Republicans are willing to move legislation reflecting acceptance of same-sex couples’ rights. A group led by moderate Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, that includes staunch social conservative Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, has pitched civil union legislation as an alternative to Clark’s same-sex marriage bill. Even Clark acknowledges it is a step forward for the GOP.
However, she opposes that idea, saying civil unions don’t work. Authorities in hospitals, schools and law enforcement too often don’t understand how to deal with a partner claiming civil union status, she says. “And very often at critical, time-sensitive moments, it just disempowers that relationship,” she says. At any rate, Clark thinks no alternative is necessary, because she expects the marriage equality bill will pass.
Still, that is only one reason that Clark thinks the current session will prove a triumph for Minnesota progressives.
She expects that the governor’s ambition of making “the wealthy pay their fair share” on the tax front will pass, after years of resistance. She predicts there will be important legislation passed to toughen up laws on sex trafficking. And she expects key new laws will pass on the minimum wage, jobs and housing fronts.
“I think this is going to be a really historic year,” she says. “It is kind of an inspiring year to be here.”
The Clark File
Name: Karen Clark
Job: Minnesota House member
Grew up in: Rural Rock County
Lives in: Minneapolis
Education: Edgerton Public High School, Edgerton, Minn. B.S., nursing, College of St. Teresa; MPA., Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
Family: Domestic partner Jacquelyn Zita.
Hobbies: Hiking, biking and participating in an organic apple orchard north of the Twin Cities.
Interesting fact: Had Clark not been elected in 1980, she says she might have instead become an acupuncturist. Problem: Before she became a legislator, there were no acupuncture schools in the Twin Cities. In fact, the practice was not even legal. However, after she was elected, she was instrumental in legitimizing and legalizing the procedure in Minnesota. Today the State Board of Medical Practice regulates it.