Few see issue having widespread effect in 2014
For every angry email GOP Rep. Andrea Kieffer received for voting to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota this spring, she got 20 others thanking her for her vote.
The two-term representative from Woodbury was one of just five Republicans who joined nearly all Minnesota Democrats to support gay marriage earlier this year. When Kieffer recently announced that she would not seek re-election to her suburban House seat next fall, most assumed political backlash was the cause.
“It wouldn’t have mattered either way — no one was riled up. No one said, ‘I’m going to run against you,’” said Kieffer, who is retiring to take a more active role in The United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, a disease with which her daughter has been diagnosed. “I’ve had maybe five emails from people who said they would never vote for me again, and I’ve had maybe 100 emails thanking me for what I did.”
Kieffer’s experience in the months since the vote reflects that of many legislators who took political risk in voting for gay marriage this spring.
After the dust of the 2012 election settled, 17 House Democrats represented districts in Minnesota that voted in favor of an ultimately unsuccessful ballot initiative to ban gay marriage. On the flip side, 21 House Republican legislators – mostly in the suburban areas – were elected to districts that defeated the constitutional ban. The situation was similar in the Senate, but after months of internal debates and soul searching on the part of some members, the bill to legalize gay marriage passed out of both chambers with votes to spare.
But more than six months after lawmakers took the vote, it’s been mostly quiet back home. Some lawmakers think public support for gay marriage is growing so quickly around the nation that it won’t be a campaign issue next fall.
“I think we are seeing that other states are doing this, and I think that by the time next election comes around it will not be near the issue people said it was going to be and what we thought it was going to be,” said DFL Rep. Tim Faust, who supported gay marriage this spring. “As a rule, there have been more positive comments than negative. Most people have moved on.”
Issue has small impact
Faust is a Lutheran minister from Hinckley. His House district voted in favor of the constitutional ban on gay marriage, and Faust didn’t know which way he would vote until shortly before the issue came up on the House floor. He’s been door-knocking in his district since the legislative session ended, and while some have expressed anger over his vote, most have thanked him or said they’ve changed their view on gay marriage.
When it comes to his bid for re-election next fall, Faust said the gay marriage vote will only have a small impact on his chances.
“It’s going to motivate people, the 25 to 30 percent of people in my district who are very strongly opposed to it, and maybe they will be more motivated to work against me and work for my opponent,” Faust said. “It’s going to make a difference, but is it going to make a difference in the mind of the independent voter? I don’t think so.”
DFL Rep. John Persell, a Bemidji representative who voted for gay marriage, said he’s never had a more positive response to any vote he’s taken during his time at the Legislature. His Bemidji-area district voted in favor of the constitutional ban last fall, but negative backlash on his vote to legalize gay marriage stopped a few weeks after session ended, he said.
“It’s hard to predict in some districts, but I’d be really surprised if this is a big issue next year,” Persell said. “If I sit back and look back at some of the things the folks on the other side of the aisle are trying to make issues, I think they must feel the same way. If they thought it was going to be the issue that they were going to ride back to the majority on, they wouldn’t be looking for much else.”
In the Senate, Twin Valley DFL Sen. Kent Eken struggled with how he would vote all session. In the end he voted in favor, and said he’s hardly heard anything about it from his constituents since the session ended. “I think as time goes on, people are going to move on,” Eken said. “The whole country is moving in the direction of greater acceptance.”
In small number of districts, however, some say gay marriage could still be a major campaign issue. DFL Rep. Joe Radinovich became the poster child of the tough gay marriage vote when a group of local Republicans launched a recall effort against him this spring. The freshman Democrat from Crosby won his district by less than 350 votes last fall, while voters in his area approved the proposed constitutional amendment with more than 60 percent of the vote. Crow Wing County Republicans, who filed for the petition, said Radinovich was knowingly going against the wishes of his constituents.
A judge struck down the recall effort, and Radinovich says he’s only heard one negative comment about his vote since August. “The only time I heard about marriage is when people were complimenting me for taking a stand on that vote. Not all of them were Democrats, a lot of them were independent voters,” Radinovich said. “When your values come knocking, you have to answer.”
But Republicans back home say voters in the area remember Radinovich’s position on gay marriage.
“If it would have just been up to Aitkin County, [the marriage amendment] would have passed by 66 percent,” said Dale Lueck, a Republican who ran against Radinovich fall. “They don’t remember anything else, but they remember that vote. I don’t think that’s something anyone in the district forgot. He had real good, strong support among the older voters, and frankly he trashed that when he voted for gay marriage… There’s a real visceral reaction to that, and that’s what he is known for.”
Backlash has quieted for GOP
Some Republican legislators say the rejected marriage amendment didn’t necessarily mean voters wanted to see gay marriage legalized last session. In a survey of a handful of Republicans who represent suburban districts that opposed the marriage amendment, none say they’ve received backlash for their vote against legalizing gay marriage.
The threat is more real to Republican lawmakers who voted yes, observers say. That’s because legislators must first pass the test of local conservative activists, who have the power to endorse or not endorse an incumbent for re-election.
GOP Sen. Branden Petersen, who co-sponsored the gay marriage bill, faced immediate backlash from conservative activists after the vote. Republicans in Senate District 35 took a vote of “no confidence” in Petersen, saying he didn’t disclose his support for gay marriage before he sponsored the bill. They were also miffed that Petersen accepted help from MN United PAC, a pro-gay marriage political fund that also backs Democrats.
But since then, Petersen said things have been quiet. “I haven’t been hearing anything about this issue, I think it literally has been months,” said Petersen, who is not up for re-election until 2016.
In general, suburban legislators don’t suffer from the local media attention that rural lawmakers do, Petersen said. But he thinks hearts and minds are also changing on the issue. “I think people, now that the law is in effect, realize that their life isn’t any different than it was the day beforehand, unless you were someone who benefited from the law,” he said.
GOP Rep. David FitzSimmons became one of the most unlikely players in the gay marriage debate last session. The freshman Republican from Albertville, one of the most conservative areas in the state, offered an amendment to the gay marriage bill on the day of the vote that added the word “civil” in front of marriage. Then he voted “yes.”
“Sometimes it comes up, but for the vast majority of people it’s not an issue, or not a current issue,” FitzSimmons said. “It’s something they see that’s not going change anytime soon.” But FitzSimmons said it’s too soon to tell, as endorsing conventions for Republicans are still months away.
GOP Rep. Pat Garofalo, who surprised everyone in reversing his decision to vote against gay marriage, said he’s hearing about everything but gay marriage in the interim. “There’s only so much oxygen that can be in the political environment, and when you have radioactive issues like day care unionization and massive tax increases and the federal government taking over health care, I think those are more pressing conversations,” the Republican from Farmington said. “That’s what I see next year’s election focused on.”