No matter what comes of their efforts, two Democratic lawmakers from Minneapolis know they will be accused of moving too fast.
DFL Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Karen Clark will carry bills this session to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota on the heels of a more than $18 million election fight over a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Advocates of gay marriage won that fight by about 5 percent of the vote, and now they say the time is right to settle the question of whether same-sex couples in the state can marry.
But opponents say a “no” vote on enshrining anti-gay marriage language into the constitution doesn’t necessarily mean Minnesotans are ready to legalize it in the state. In face of a $1.1 billion budget deficit this session, Republicans are already accusing Democrats of losing sight of the economy and guilty of the same “overreach” that landed Republicans in the minority.
Clark doesn’t see it that way. “In some ways I think, who would have guessed it could have happened so fast? In other ways, it’s been more than 30 years that we have been working on this,” she said. Clark, who is openly gay, keeps a photo in her office of her parents at a pro gay marriage rally in 1993. “These were rural farmers two decades ago. It’s been a lot of years of toiling to get the discussion going.”
Dibble, who is also openly gay, says the public mood on the issue is at a turning point, and it’s time to take the debate off the table. “It’s become far, far less controversial, and we just came through this election and Minnesotans spoke pretty strongly,” he said. “It’s about responding to what the election tells us.”
The public face of the campaign starts this week. Minnesotans United for All Families, the anti-amendment campaign turned lobbying effort, will hold a Valentine’s Day rally Thursday in the Minnesota state Capitol Rotunda with faith leaders who support gay marriage. Spokesman Jake Loesch said they are anticipating between 1,500 and 2,000 people to attend on Thursday, and bills to legalize gay marriage should be introduced in both chambers before the end of the month.
Behind the scenes, the group is assembling a sizable bipartisan lobbying team that’s already crafting a plan to target the weak links on the issue of gay marriage in Minnesota: rural Democrats whose districts voted for the amendment and suburban Republicans whose districts voted against it.
A two-front lobbying effort
Minnesotans United is launching a two-pronged effort. During the election, the group organized offices around the state, signed up more than 27,000 volunteers and pulled in millions in individual donations. Now that grass-roots organizing ability will be used to put pressure on targeted lawmakers in their districts.
Loesch says the group has already been phone-banking in specific districts in the suburbs and in rural Minnesota, and they are planning a handful of “house parties” around the state in mid-March in districts where the group has allies or hopes to sway reluctant legislators. Minnesotans United is also armed with a petition to legalize gay marriage signed by more than 20,000 people.
“Our opponents will try to make it look like we just hired a bunch of big lobbyists in St. Paul, but we will keep working in the public and doing things in specific districts,” Loesch said. “We will be talking to the public and telling them to talk to their legislators.”
But in St. Paul, a lengthy roster of veteran lobbyists is already attached to the effort and will be tasked with the more delicate work of convincing legislators to turn a public no vote on the amendment into a yes vote on legalizing gay marriage. Their main lobbying opponent will be familiar to them: last year’s main pro-amendment group, Minnesota for Marriage.
Messerli & Kramer has registered four lobbyists with Minnesotans United, including Nancy Haas, Tom Poul, Eric Hyland and former GOP Rep. James Clark. They’ve also hired a handful of high-profile contract lobbyists: Cristine Almeida, Jill Sletten, Larry Redmond and GOP lobbyist Todd Hill. Both Almeida and Redmond bring DFL cachet and were attached to Minnesotans United’s campaign effort.
Sletten, who has lobbied with GLBT advocacy group Project 515 since 2008, was close to the gay marriage constitutional amendment fight in 2004, when then-state Sen. Michele Bachmann brought it to the floor. Hill brings close ties with members of the GOP House caucus, including former Speaker Kurt Zellers.
Backing the whole effort will be a sizable checkbook. Minnesotans United raised more than $11 million in contributions for the campaign throughout 2012. This year, the group has been vigorously soliciting past donors to the cause. A recent fundraising solicitation asked for contributions with the promise that national gay rights groups the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry would match any donations up to $100,000. Freedom to Marry has also said it will divide $2 million among five states looking to legalize gay marriage this year. Minnesota has already received $150,000 from the group, and more is expected, Loesch said.
Minnesotans United also has an apparent ally in Gov. Mark Dayton, who held several fundraisers for the group during the campaign season and came out strongly in favor of legalizing gay marriage in his State of the State address last week. “I believe that every Minnesotan should have the freedom to marry legally the person she or he loves, whether of the same or other sex,” Dayton told a joint session of the House and Senate. “I want Minnesota to be a state which affirms that freedom for one means freedom for everyone, and where no one is told it is illegal to marry the person you love.”
In one fundraising email, Minnesotans United executive director Richard Carlbom wrote that if a bill were brought to the floor today, there would not be enough votes to legalize gay marriage.
Counting votes will be tricky for this effort. Both bill authors say they’ve heard that Republicans in their chamber plan to support the bill if it comes to the floor, but they will also likely lose support in their own caucus from rural Democrats who fear a vote for the bill could be used against them in the next election. While the amendment lost by 5 points in November, 75 of Minnesota’s 87 counties actually came out in favor of the amendment. In many of those outstate counties, Democrats won competitive elections last fall.
Proponents of the bill say they are confident they will get votes from both rural Democrats and Republicans. Dibble has said he wouldn’t count on GOP votes for the effort. “I’ve changed my view on that,” he said this week. “I’m getting some indication that Republicans are interested, and I’m very happy about that.”
Loesch, who was a legislative assistant in the Senate GOP caucus before going to work for Minnesotans United, said he is “confident” there will be some Republican support to legalize gay marriage. “This is not a partisan issue at all,” he said. “We are conscious of that and working in a bipartisan fashion.”
But of the four Republicans who voted against the constitutional amendment when it came up in the House, only GOP Rep. Tim Kelly has returned to the Capitol this year. He does not support legalizing gay marriage legislatively.
“My stance has always been that I believe that government shouldn’t have a role in that part of our personal lives, and for me to turn around now and say now that it does, I would feel very hypocritical,” he said, noting that he does support pulling discriminatory language relating to domestic partner benefits out of statute.
“It’s the wrong strategy and it’s the wrong approach, so I think it’s going to have a very tough time,” Kelly continued. “I’ve told the groups they are interpreting the message wrong if they think this [amendment rejection] is a mandate. It becomes such a divisive issue from the start, as we found out.”