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Handful of DFLers who oppose abortion could be key to DFL keeping MN House control

Democrats at the Minnesota Legislature have called for voters in November to elect a “pro-choice majority” to the state Capitol. That request includes flipping the Senate and changing the makeup of the state House, where the DFL already has a narrow majority.

In 2019, Democratic state Rep. Mary Murphy co-sponsored a Republican-led bill to prohibit most abortions 20 weeks after fertilization.
In 2019, Democratic state Rep. Mary Murphy co-sponsored a Republican-led bill to prohibit most abortions 20 weeks after fertilization.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month, Democrats at the Minnesota Legislature have called for voters in November to elect a “pro-choice majority” to the state Capitol.

That request includes flipping the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans. But it also includes changing the makeup of the state House, where the DFL already has a narrow majority.

“We need a Democratic pro-choice majority in the Senate and we need to have it in the Minnesota House,” said Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen of Edina, at a June news conference following the Supreme Court’s decision. (López Franzen is not running for reelection this fall.)

There are at least four House Democrats who do not share the party’s view on abortion rights and have supported limits on the procedure. 

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Democrats locally and across the country have debated whether the party should include anti-abortion Democrats in its coalition or excise them.

That question is salient in Minnesota, where at least two of those anti-abortion lawmakers are facing tough re-election fights in outstate districts that could be key to deciding control of the Legislature.

Stalled push for abortion legislation

In the 1995 case Doe v. Gomez, the Minnesota Supreme Court outlined a right to abortion access in the Minnesota Constitution which is unchanged by the federal ruling reversing Roe. But Democrats have pushed to remove state limits on abortion — many of which were struck down by a Ramsey County judge last week — and to codify in law that abortion is a “fundamental right.”

Those bills face staunch opposition in the Republican-led Senate, but they have also failed to pass the DFL-led House in recent years.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, a Democrat from Brooklyn Park, said her DFL majority the House is too slim to move forward any legislation to expand abortion access.

Four House Democrats have supported legislation to limit or regulate abortion: Reps. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, Mary Murphy of Hermantown, Gene Pelowski of Winona and Julie Sandstede of Hibbing.

In 2019, Murphy co-sponsored a Republican-led bill to prohibit most abortions 20 weeks after fertilization.

Sandstede proposed a bill in 2019, co-sponsored by Marquart and Murphy, that would require physicians to notify a patient when they perform an ultrasound before an abortion and allow the patient to see the imaging. In 2020, Marquart co-sponsored a bill limiting state money for abortions. And in 2019, Sandstede proposed creating “Choose Life” license plates that fund abortion alternative programs. Pelowski co-sponsored similar bills in 2017 and 2018 related to ultrasounds and taxpayer-funded abortion.

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All four in 2017 voted for a bill to impose new licensure and regulation requirements on abortion facilities that most Democrats opposed, and for legislation on ultrasound viewing and limiting public funding of abortion. The bills passed the House, which was then controlled by Republicans, and the Senate, but were vetoed by then-Gov. Mark Dayton.

Tough elections ahead

The DFL effectively controls 70 of the House’s 134 seats, giving the party a six-vote majority.

But Republicans are bullish on their chances to take control of the House in the November election amid political headwinds for President Joe Biden such as rising inflation. Many key battleground races will be in the Twin Cities metro area suburbs. But there are a handful of important elections in Greater Minnesota, including at least two featuring anti-abortion Democrats.

Sandstede won her Iron Range seat in 2020 by just 30 votes and is now facing incumbent Rep. Spencer Igo, a Republican from Grand Rapids, following the redistricting process that changed district boundaries.

State Rep. Gene Pelowski
Democratic state Rep. Gene Pelowski co-sponsored similar bills in 2017 and 2018 related to ultrasounds and taxpayer-funded abortion.
Murphy is in her 23rd term, having been first elected in 1976. But she could face a serious challenge from Republican Natalie Zeleznikar in an area that includes Hermantown and Two Harbors and has trended toward Republicans in the Trump era. Joe Biden took 54 percent of the vote in Murphy’s district in 2020, but Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber of the 8th Congressional District narrowly won it.

Murphy’s newly redrawn district includes a much larger area north of Hermantown that stretches nearly to Hoyt Lakes.

Marquart is retiring, so he won’t be up for election. Pelowski, who was first elected in 1986, ran unopposed in the last two elections. He’s running against Republican Stephen James Doerr, but his campaign doesn’t appear to have a website.

Abortion policy doesn’t seem to be a huge part of either Murphy or Sandstede’s campaign.

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Sandstede didn’t respond to several requests for comment, but her social media accounts did not mention the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe. Her campaign website doesn’t include any information about her stance on abortion.

Murphy noted Minnesota law on abortion hasn’t been changed by the new Supreme Court ruling and said she’s been gathering information about the decision. But she largely wouldn’t comment on abortion policy or detail her stance on the issue. Murphy said she hadn’t read the PRO Act, the DFL legislation to codify abortion access in state law.

State Rep. Julie Sandstede
State Rep. Julie Sandstede
Zeleznikar, the first-time candidate running against Murphy, said she believes viability begins at conception and criticized the district court ruling striking down regulations on abortion like a 24-hour waiting period, saying they were “safeguards for women.” While Zeleznikar said Murphy might be against abortion, she has voted against or not voted on several bills that included policy to limit abortion or regulate clinics.

Zeleznikar said abortion has been raised some on the campaign trail, including by people who assume there are some guidelines on abortion or want more limits. Republicans, she said, are more committed to having a conversation about re-imposing some limits on abortion and “defending that unborn child.” Zeleznikar believes a compromise on the issue could include restricting abortion in the second and third trimesters. And she said she wants to provide more support for women who choose to keep a baby.

State Rep. Paul Marquart
State Rep. Paul Marquart
She said rescue organizations would go to great lengths to save a pregnant dog’s puppies. “Every one of those puppies are born and they are adopted out,” she said. “That mom is not taking care of the puppies and we are not killing the puppies. … To me that’s an interesting analogy of how we do things in the United States.”

A changing DFL on abortion

Pelowski, for his part, said he would prefer to ban abortion except in cases of rape and incest or to protect the life of a pregnant woman. He said his values on abortion were formed long before he was elected.

“On this type of a personal value the DFL caucus is not my source or ever will be my source,” he said. “Every life matters.”

When Pelowski was first elected, anti-abortion Democrats, particularly in Greater Minnesota were more common. The party has since gained strength in the metro suburbs and lost most of its seats in rural areas outside regional centers like Duluth, Rochester and Mankato.

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When asked if his stance on abortion helps or hurts in his Winona district, Pelowski said “look what’s left of the DFL in Greater Minnesota” since the party has become “more intensely pro-choice.”

“I think this is one of the issues that has slowly wiped out DFLers from being elected in Greater Minnesota,” he said. Pelowski said he’s had gatherings in his apartment of elected outstate Democrats for more than 20 years.

“I could probably hold them now in an elevator,” he said.

Pelowski said he has faced backlash within his own party on the issue. He described House DFLers standing up during private caucus meetings and saying “all pro-life people should be banned.” He said those lawmakers “are usually the people who advocate diversity” and Pelowski decried what he views as a lack of respect and inability to deal with different points of view, “other than to say: get out.”

How other Democrats view anti-abortion DFLers

DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin declined to comment. But Hortman, the House Speaker, didn’t criticize any of the anti-abortion Democrats.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
She said the Minnesota House DFL caucus has always been “a big tent.” And she said Democrats have a Speaker who supports abortion access and keeps debate over new restrictions from reaching the House floor or the governor’s desk.

“The most important thing to protect Minnesotans’ rights to reproductive health care is to have a Democratic majority,” Hortman said. “They are important members of the Democratic majority. They give us the majority that enables us to protect Minnesotans right to reproductive health care.”

Hortman said the House DFL campaign arm supports incumbent members of their caucus who have been endorsed by the party. Sandstede, Murphy and Pelowski have all been endorsed. “How much or how little we engage in any particular race is sort of a state secret at this point,” she said.

Hortman also said the reason Minnesota doesn’t have more abortion rights legislation passing is because there aren’t Republicans who support abortion access. She said as Republicans lost suburban seats they moved to the political right, and there are remaining suburban legislators in “pro-choice districts” that don’t reflect voters while Sandstede and Murphy reflect their populations.

A House Republican spokesman said no current members or GOP endorsed candidates support abortion access. Republican Dario Anselmo of Edina favored abortion rights as a state representative but he was ousted in 2018 by a Democrat.

Democrat John Hest, an academic advisor and teacher running to replace Marquart in a district outside of Moorhead, does support abortion access and would vote for the PRO Act. He said he’s wrestled with the issue, wondering if Democrats should support anti-abortion candidates and compromise on a “fundamental human rights issue” while at the same time wanting to welcome those with sincere religious beliefs on abortion.

In the end, he said the party has a broad coalition and Democrats who win endorsements and primaries should be supported. 

“I don’t know if it will hurt me or help me to be honest,” he said of his stance on abortion. But in the wake of the Supreme Court reversing Roe, Hest said: “We just don’t have the luxury to be squishy on the issue of choice.”