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Early this week, half a dozen offered no comment on which way they will vote the bill, which is scheduled for a floor vote Thursday.

Decision day: House prepares for gay marriage vote

Photo illustration: Jake Schreiber

Having finally found his way to 68 votes on a bill to legalize gay marriage, Democratic House Speaker Paul Thissen described his caucus as “calm” heading into the most-watched vote the Minnesota House will take this year. “We’re still having conversations, but I think we have the votes,” Thissen said. “It clearly is a significant issue for the state of Minnesota. There will be a lot of emotion up here.”

But the atmosphere in the House chamber this week was markedly uneasy. The House has been the major obstacle to the bill’s passage from the start, and Thissen said the votes he needs to pass the controversial measure have been secured within his own caucus.

That has involved a slow and delicate process of courting a group of rural, swing-district Democrats, some of whom personally oppose gay marriage. But most of those DFLers are battling with the clear message they got from the voters last fall as they took up a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. While the amendment ultimately failed by 5 percent of the vote, a total of 17 House districts now represented by Democrats voted in favor of the constitutional amendment, some with support totaling more than 60 percent.

Early this week, half a dozen Democrats from those far-flung rural districts offered no comment on which way they will vote the bill, which is scheduled for a floor vote on Thursday, May 9. Their DFL colleagues were distressed to see how much attention was being paid to their votes. “Why isn’t media focusing on the 22 Republicans who represent districts that voted against the marriage amendment?” tweeted DFL Rep. Carly Melin, a second-term lawmaker from Hibbing who plans to vote yes on gay marriage.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy stressed how sensitive this vote is for many rural Democrats. “I can’t say enough about how great and thoughtful our members have been in contemplating this issue,” Murphy told a group of reporters on Monday. “I am grateful for your attention to this issue, but I am grateful for your respectful attention to the issue.”

If the House does indeed pass the gay marriage proposal on Thursday, the Senate could take up the bill as early as Saturday. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk has expressed confidence in its passage there, and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton says he will sign gay marriage into law if it reaches his desk.

Democrats weigh constituents, conscience

DFL Rep. Joe Radinovich has gotten a taste of the backlash already. The 27-year-old freshman lawmaker from Crosby won his GOP-leaning District 10B seat by a mere 323 votes last fall, while his district voted more than 62 percent in favor of the constitutional amendment. Late last week, he became the second rural swing Democrat in a span of several days to come out as a supporter of the bill, and shortly afterward Republicans in his district announced that they would organize an effort to remove him from office.

Former Crow Wing County Republican leader Doug Kern is in the process of collecting signatures and sending his complaint to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. Kern plans to argue that Radinovich is knowingly going against the wishes of his district, an offense he deems worthy of a recall. Historically, legislative recalls are rarely successful, and Kern knows that. “It will be a bit of a process, but this is bigger than politics,” he said. “Whether the vote stands or not, his constituents are not going to stand for this and take this. Our area is so conservative, and for Joe to do this, it’s just like a slap in the face to us.”

Radinovich says he’s put a lot of time into his decision. After the election, Radinovich said he hoped lawmakers wouldn’t take the issue up this year. “I think more than anything, it was fear,” he said. “I won by 323 votes and my campaign knocked on 36,000 doors. It would have been difficult to go against public opinion in my district on this issue.”

But Radinovich said he has personally supported gay marriage for the last decade, and his father recently became a supporter of the issue, which influenced his decision. “While I understand that some people may interpret that as me bucking public opinion, I think it’s also important to remember that there are gay people who were born and raised in my community and live in my community right now,” Radinovich said this week. “It’s hard to justify denying rights to people solely for the sake of political expediency. Certainly it’s been done before, but I’m not interested in that kind of a political career.

“The best I can be is straight with my constituents right now about my decision and why I made my decision,” he added.

The vote has even troubled more veteran members of the caucus who live in districts that voted against the amendment. Fourteen-term Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, surprised some Capitol watchers this week when he expressed hesitancy about taking the vote before the $627 million budget deficit is balanced.

“The new majorities created by the November elections should govern in the best interests of all of Minnesota and not just placate political bases,” Pelowski said in an email to Politics in Minnesota this week. “In the 2010 and 2012 elections Minnesotans rejected DFL majorities in 2010 and Republican majorities in 2012 because they governed from their political left-wing and right-wing bases.

“There is next session. By that time the budget issues should not only be resolved but Minnesota should be in a position to reinvest once again in improving our quality of life.” When pressed further about which way he will vote when the bill comes to the floor, Pelowski only said, “When the vote is taken, you will know.”

The Republican gay marriage dilemma

In addition to the 17 Democrats who represent districts that voted in favor of the amendment last fall, there are also 21 Republican House members who hail from mostly suburban districts that voted against the ban. A handful of members in those districts have surveyed voters in their district about legalizing gay marriage, but after months of discussion, no Republican in the House has committed to voting yes.

Eden Prairie Republican Rep. Jenifer Loon said this week that she’s still deciding how she will vote, but four other Republicans perceived as leaners on the gay marriage issue — Reps. Tim Kelly, Andrea Kieffer, Pat Garofalo and Denny McNamara — have opted to support a proposal to allow civil unions in the state. GOP Rep. Mary Franson also co-sponsored the civil unions bill. All of those Republicans say they still plan to vote against the gay marriage bill if the civil unions amendment is not adopted.

The meaning of the vote last fall is a bit more complicated for Republicans. A rejection of the constitutional ban doesn’t necessarily mean voters want to see gay marriage legalized, they say, and those Republican lawmakers are also weighing likely political ramifications back home, where GOP legislators must first face the party activists who will decide whether to re-endorse them for election.

Only Andover Republican Sen. Branden Petersen is on record supporting the bill this year. Gay marriage advocates hoped Petersen’s early support for the proposal would inspire other hesitant Republicans in the House to do the same, but Petersen was immediately attacked by two conservative campaign funds, which promised to spend money to defeat him in his 2016 race for re-election.

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