Will Minnesota’s 2010 race for governor be the next referendum on gay marriage?
That’s an oversimplification, because there will be many very clear issue differences in that race, especially in the general election. But it’s not as much of an exaggeration as you might think.
All 10 of the DFL candidates support the right of gays and lesbians to marry. Not civil unions — the full Monty. Marriage, with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities thereunto appertaining.
Some of the Dem candidates bring this up even in their brief two- or three-minute summaries of what they will do as governor. Former state Rep. Matt Entenza features prominently in the “issues” section of his campaign website that he co-authored the first bill that would have “redefined the legal definition of marriage to explicitly include two persons of the same gender.” Others don’t bring it up unless asked. But when asked, all say they will sign a same-sex marriage bill, although I gather the most current term for the idea is “marriage equality” (which is not an unreasonable term, but certainly has the whiff of the political Marketing Department about it).
None of the Republican gubernatorial candidates favor legalizing same-sex marriage.
In other words, leaving aside for the moment the Independence Party nominee (there are still no publicly known candidates from that party), the 2010 election will offer Minnesotans a fairly clear choice on, among other issues, gay marriage.
This story is all about movement, specifically movement on the political thinkability of gay marriage. If it seems intuitively obvious that the DFL would nominate a gay marriage advocate for governor, allow me to point out that it is unprecedented. With one possible exception, no major-party nominee for governor of Minnesota has ever been four-square for legalizing same-sex marriage.
The possible exception is state Sen. John Marty, who was the DFL nominee in 1994 and who is running for the nomination again this year (and who says that he expects to sign marriage equality into law within about three years). Marty says he has favored full equality for gays for many years, and did so in 1994, but doesn’t recall whether his published positions that year included explicit reference to marriage. In fact, in 1994, legalized same-sex marriage was a left-fringe idea.
But let’s talk about more recent history. In 2006, DFL nominee Mike Hatch explicitly stated that the word “marriage” was reserved for couples consisting of one man and one woman. Former state Sen. Steve Kelley was Hatch’s chief rival for the 2006 DFL endorsement. Kelley recalls that he did not embrace full marriage rights for gays that year. He is a candidate again this year and does embrace full marriage equality.
All about movement
“I think it’s fair to say that I’ve moved,” Kelley told me yesterday. “In 2006, I would’ve said civil unions, yes. Marriage, no. But I have become more comfortable saying, ‘Let’s just call it what it is — marriage.’ It will be a responsibility of the governor to have a conversation with Minnesotans and get them comfortable with that.”
Kelley said that his own “journey” on the issue has a lot to do with having a gay brother. “If Jim and his partner decide to get married, I’d like to be able to go to his wedding in Minnesota, not in Iowa or California,” Kelley said.
Until fairly recently, even gay marriage advocates felt that the M word was a political bridge too far, Kelley said. “But seeing the success of a gay marriage position in Iowa, a neighboring state with somewhat similar values, is one of those facts on the ground that has changed things,” Kelley said. “It has changed the view of some folks in the GLBT community about how far and fast they would like to push the issue.”
In 2008, all of the top tier Democratic presidential candidates (Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards) had essentially the same position, which was considered the politically smart liberal position at that time, which was that same-sex couples should have full rights to “civil unions,” but not to “marriage.”
Here’s what Obama said, as candidate:
“I’m a Christian. And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition, and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.”
So, the fact that the DFL will almost certainly nominate a pro-gay-marriage candidate for governor can be taken as evidence that things are moving on this issue, and pretty quickly. To put it another way, it’s reasonable to assume that — as has been the case ever since the gay marriage issue appeared on the political radar screen — no one who favored gay marriage could be nominated by the Republican Party for an important statewide office. But this latest development suggests that no one can win the DFL endorsement who opposes full marriage rights for gays and lesbians.
State Rep. Paul Thissen, who says yes, he favors the full marriage approach, also testifies to the movement on the issue. When he first ran for the Legislature in 2002, he said, all of the discussion about gay marriage was not about whether to legalize it, but whether to amend a one-man-one-woman definition of marriage into the state Constitution so no “activist” judge could change state law on the subject. Now, seven years later, you never hear about such an amendment, which could not pass in the Legislature. But there seems to be a growing possibility that a marriage equality bill could pass.
Let’s assume that all of the candidates are sincere about wanting to legalize gay marriage as a matter of personal conscience and public policy. They are also politicians seeking election, so we must also assume that they believe emphasizing this issue is a political plus. And this calculation is surely true, as far as gaining the DFL endorsement and/or nomination.
But isn’t it also quite possible that when the time comes to appeal to the statewide electorate, gay marriage will turn out to be one of those infamous wedge issues that Republicans can use to mobilize the social conservative base?
Of course, it is possible. University of Minnesota Law Professor Dale Carpenter, who is gay and a same-sex marriage advocate, thinks it’s quite possible that the DFLers advocacy of gay marriage will be used as a wedge in the fall of 2010. Although the movement in favor of acceptance of same-sex marriage is palpable, and very welcome to Carpenter, he noted that gay marriage has been on the ballot as a referendum question 30 times around the country and “so far, we’re 0 for 30.”
He said that last week, before the big vote in Maine, where state voters were asked decide whether to strike down a law establishing marriage equality. When we spoke, I told Carpenter that the last pre-election polls showed a dead heat between yes and no votes. He replied that the pro-gay marriage side always did a few percentage points worse on Election Day than it did in the late polls. He was right. Mainers rejected gay marriage by about 53-47 percent.
“Marriage equality is not a majority position,” Carpenter said. “Not nationally and not in Minnesota. So my guess would be that it’s not going to turn out to be a plus, politically, in 2010.” But then Carpenter doubled back and pointed out that Al Franken took an unequivocal position in favor of gay marriage in his campaign for the nomination, and Carpenter predicted that it would turn out to be “radioactive.” (I wrote about this at the time, and about Mike Ciresi’s fudging of the issue.) But, to Carpenter’s surprise, he said, Republican Norm Coleman never made an issue of it against Franken. This example might also suggest that the DFL nominee for guv in 2010 won’t necessarily face wedge issue ads on the marriage issue.
Carpenter also said that although gay marriage loses when it comes up in a referendum, it’s hard to point to candidates who have lost elections because of a pro-gay-marriage position.
That gets back to something I mentioned at the top. The guv race will not really be a referendum on gay marriage. It will be a complicated mish-mash of referenda on many issues and non-issues. One DFL candidate I interviewed for this story, state Sen. Tom Bakk, (yes, he would sign a marriage equality bill, Bakk said, and yes, the fact that all candidates have the same position is a function of base politics, but he didn’t seem to think my idea for this post was all that swift) said that the fiscal and economic issues besetting Minnesota should and must be the main topic of the campaign.
“The person that can connect with the public on that issue will be the next governor,” Bakk said. “This election has nothing to do with the base. It has to do with what’s on the mind of swing voters and they’re not gonna be thinking about social issues.”
p.s. Some of the people I talked to for this story believed that Minnesota has already had a pro-gay-marriage governor, namely Jesse Ventura. That’s not quite right. In “Do I Stand Alone?,” a book that Ventura brought out in 2000 in the middle of his term as Minnesota governor, he stopped short of the full Monty. He wrote:
“I support the idea of a legally recognized domestic partnership for gay couples. There are honors & privileges that go along with being in a permanent committed partnership, as well as responsibilities & benefits to society, and I don’t think that people should be denied the opportunity to achieve these things just because they love a person of the same sex.
“It often happens today that a committed gay couple isn’t permitted to function the way a committed (married) heterosexual couple would, [such as in hospital visitations]. Legalized gay partnerships would allow gays to become something they have never become before in the eyes of the law: family.
“But I draw the line at calling gay partnerships ‘marriage.’ Marriage is something different. My dictionary says marriage is a union between a man and a woman. I don’t think we need to be diluting that definition just to make sure gays have the privilege of being in a committed union. I think a term like ‘domestic partnership’ works fine.”
More recently (2008), Ventura has described a different position based on separation of church and state. The state should get out of the business of defining marriage, Ventura said, but require as a matter of civil rights that all couples have equal rights, irrespective of gender. Then leave it to the churches to decide what kinds of unions they each want to sanctify with the M word, with no effect on the legal and economic rights of couples.