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What’s this ‘we’: How involved was Amy Klobuchar in the campaign to defeat the marriage amendment?

Many DFL politicians were quick to mobilize against the amendment to ban same-sex marriage in 2012, but one prominent DFLer was slower to take up the cause.

photo of rally outside minnesota capitol
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
In 2012, 51 percent of Minnesota voters voted “no” on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
In 2012, voters in Minnesota decided against amending the Minnesota Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

The month before the election, polling for the marriage amendment was neck and neck. Forty-eight in favor. Forty-seven against. A week later, forty-seven in favor. Forty-eight against. Minnesota did become the first state to defeat a ballot initiative of this kind. But the defeat wasn’t by a large margin: 51 percent voted “no.”

Speaking at an LGBTQ Presidential Forum at Coe College in Iowa earlier this year, Sen. Amy Klobuchar celebrated that victory: “We were able to defeat that amendment, in a major election, my re-election in 2012. And not only did we defeat it, we took back the state legislature and we passed gay marriage in Minnesota. And so that’s my journey.”

But according to several people who were involved in the campaign to defeat the marriage amendment, Klobuchar’s use of the word “we” doesn’t tell the whole story. While some say Klobuchar was supportive of the campaign from the beginning, at least in private, several others describe a senator who avoided public involvement in the effort until the last minute. Klobuchar’s presidential campaign declined to respond to request for comment for this story.

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“Whether or not she’s been willing to be a leader or be public on these equity issues is important to me, especially because I personally reached out to her. This is not secondhand,” said John Sullivan, who was on the board of Minnesotans United for All Families, the main group that worked to defeat the amendment. Sullivan said he has been supportive of every Klobuchar campaign until her presidential run.

At one point, Sullivan said he asked Klobuchar to publicly oppose the amendment, but Klobuchar said the marriage ban was a state issue. “It sort of sticks in my mind when she tried to educate me on the difference between state issues and federal issues.”

“Her response was that this was not an issue she was gonna take a position on,” Sullivan said. “She said, you know, that ‘I oppose it, but I’m not taking a position.’”

The marriage amendment

In May of 2011, the Minnesota Senate passed a bill that proposed the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, 37-27, with all Republicans  and one Democrat voting in favor. The House passed an identical bill the same month, 70-62, with two Democrats and all but four Republicans supporting it. At the time, same-sex marriage in Minnesota was already illegal. But the amendment would go further: If passed, courts and future legislatures would’ve been blocked from recognizing same-sex marriages.

The proposed amendment read: “Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota.”

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The opposition campaign was swift and attracted support from across the DFL.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, who was then in the state Legislature, gave a stirring opposition speech prior to the vote that went viral. 

“We have to be careful about trying to enshrine our beliefs, however religiously valid we may believe them to be, in the Minnesota Constitution,” he said in May of 2011. “What I’m hearing today and what I heard on Friday was largely a religious justification. I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think that’s fair. I think it departs from our tradition.”

DFL state Sen. Scott Dibble, one of only two openly gay state legislators then, said at the time: “We’ve been punched in the gut, but we’re a strong, resilient people.”

photo of politicians celebrating
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Sen. Scott Dibble, left, celebrated the defeat of the marriage amendment.
Even though proposed constitutional amendments are not subject to gubernatorial veto, Gov. Mark Dayton decided to symbolically veto the bill anyway. “Although I do not have the power to prevent this unwise and unnecessary constitutional amendment from appearing on the Minnesota ballot in November…. I am vetoing the amendment and its title; I urge Minnesotans to reject it in November,” he wrote.

At the time, Sen. Tina Smith was Dayton’s chief of staff. Smith held a number of private meetings with the campaign on overall strategy, offered advice on fundraising, messaging and development. Smith said she had a personal reason for supporting the campaign against the amendment. Her brother-in-law, Craig, was gay and died of AIDS in 1986. 

“There were many people who worked much, much harder than I did on the actual campaign and put together a really remarkable campaign. But I was always so supportive of their work and wanting to do everything I can to help them,” Smith said. “And of course, Gov. Dayton was exactly the same way.”

Attorney General Keith Ellison, then a member of Congress from Minnesota’s Fifth District and vice chair of the congressional LGBT Equality caucus, and then-Sen. Al Franken were also early supporters of the campaign. Ellison announced his opposition to the amendment in early 2011, while Franken starred in a Human Rights Campaign ad supporting gay marriage.

Former Vice President and Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale joined the effort, endorsing the Minnesotans United for All Families coalition in March of 2012 and forming a sub-group, Lawyers United for All Families, along with Retired Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court Kathleen A. Blatz.

In April, Obama for America’s Minnesota chapter endorsed the campaign against the amendment. The next month, in May, Barack Obama became the first president to endorse same-sex marriage.

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“At a certain point,” Obama said, “I’ve just concluded that — for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that — I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Franken said it was a step in the right direction.

“I’ve long believed that people should be able to enter into loving, committed marriages regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Franken said in response. “And I’m glad the president agrees.”

Klobuchar, who had yet to take a stance on same-sex marriage, agreed as well. “We are a country that was founded on equality of rights and I agree with the president’s comments today,” she said. “Nothing in his statement changes the ability of religious institutions to decide whether or not they perform same-sex marriage.”

In October, Franken’s staff in both Washington and Minnesota dressed up in support of the campaign against the amendment. And Franken and his wife starred in an another ad telling people to vote against the amendment.

But until that month, people MinnPost spoke to said they hadn’t seen much from Klobuchar, one of the most popular DFL politicians in the state.

“From my perspective she was running for re-election with minimal opposition but chose not to speak against the amendment like most other DFLers did,” said Beth-Ann Bloom, a Woodbury resident who volunteered as an organizer opposed to the amendment.

“As you heard her say from Coe College, she touts the triumph of marriage equality in Minnesota when she was ‘at the top of the ticket.’ It is a painful disconnect for me and I imagine it is even more painful for those who worked more intimately on the campaign for equality.”

Klobuchar gets involved

In October of 2012, the month before the vote, Klobuchar made a public speech endorsing the opposition campaign at the Big Gay Race, a fundraiser organized by Jacob Frey (now the mayor of Minneapolis).

Klobuchar’s campaign donated $10,000 to Minnesotans United on Oct. 22, about two weeks before the election, according to records from the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. In an email to donors in late October, Klobuchar made her stance clear:

“Defeating this amendment matters — for all of us. Thirty states have already faced amendments like this, and in every single one, these amendments have passed,” she wrote. “We’ve got a real chance to make history — a challenge I know that Minnesotans never back away from.”

Klobuchar’s presidential campaign cited a few more times the senator mentioned the marriage amendment prior to her October email: In September of 2011, at a Human Rights Campaign gala, Klobuchar called the amendment “divisive.” During a debate at the State Fair with Bills, Klobuchar said she opposed the amendment in response to a question from an audience member. ”

Klobuchar, then and now, has remained one of the most popular DFL politicians in the state. She has outperformed national presidential candidates consistently in red districts — it’s one of her main campaign pitches as she seeks the Democratic nomination for president. At the time, the same polls that showed the ballot amendment was close showed Klobuchar had a commanding lead of 30+ points over her Republican opponent, state Rep. Kurt Bills. All of this is exactly why several people asked her to go out and campaign against the ballot measure more actively — she was at the top of the ticket and they believed a more forceful endorsement would be helpful.

“I can say for me as a rabbi, and as a gay man, as a dad, as a now husband, I did phone banking, I showed up at press conferences, I showed up at rallies, I spoke on panels, I donated and attended fundraisers and events, I wrote op-eds. I was interviewed on the television, I door knocked,” said Rabbi Michael Latz of Shir Tikvah, who actively organized the Jewish community during the opposition campaign.

“So I guess my question would be, ‘Senator, what were the tangible ways in which your support was manifest?’”

‘Over time, she became more and more active in the campaign itself’

Richard Carlbom, the former campaign director for Minnesotans United, has a somewhat different view of Klobuchar’s actions.

“My attitude is that it took thousands and thousands of people to defeat the amendment and no single person deserves all the credit and they’re just a lot of people who deserve credit for being part of the historic victory of Minnesota,” said Carlbom, now a consultant for DFL politicians. “And she certainly was one of the people who deserve credit for that historic victory.”

When asked about those who say Klobuchar took too long to get involved, Carlbom said that Klobuchar said she was on board with the campaign early on and stayed in touch.

“Over time, she became more and more active in the campaign itself,” he said. “I get frustrated with people six, seven years later looking back and trying to blame people for not doing enough, when in fact a lot of people did a lot of work and we don’t need to try and decide who did enough and then who didn’t do enough. We should just instead focus on what the next battle is.”

Ken Martin, the current DFL chairman, was one of the founding board members of Minnesotans United. Martin said that Klobuchar was supportive from the start. (Martin said that while he is neutral in the presidential race, he could speak in a personal capacity about his time on the board.)

“My sense of when she says ‘we’ is she means collectively Minnesotans beat back this amendment. We were the first state in the country to beat back a constitutional amendment trying to define marriage between a man and a woman. I can’t speak to her comments about her personal journey. I don’t know what she was referencing there,” Martin said.

“I don’t know the chronology of the various events that she participated or didn’t participate in, but what I could say is that she was a consistent supporter.”

photo of people celebrating after marriage amendment defeat
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Opponents of the marriage amendment celebrated after its narrow defeat.
When asked about Sullivan’s contention that Klobuchar had explicitly told him multiple times she would not be public in her support, Martin said he wouldn’t dispute what Sullivan had to say.

“I’m not going to dispute what John’s saying ‘cause I wasn’t part of that conversation and I love John. And there’s no reason not to believe him that that’s true.”

‘The community generally loves her’

Sullivan and Latz said they wouldn’t have spoken out had Klobuchar accurately represented her record. They cited personal experience, interactions with the senator, and noted her absence at many of the public events they went to.

“The community generally loves her…  But it’s in those circumstances where she’s talking as if she’s been our strongest ally from day one that bother me. And you know, she is very careful with her language,” said Sullivan. “She may not say it directly, but she certainly intimates that she played a much bigger role than those of us on the front lines believe she played.”

Latz said he would be glad to apologize to the senator if she can point out what she did to consistently and actively support the opposition campaign. Otherwise he thinks it’s important to clarify the record.

“Here’s the thing,” said Latz. “There’s actually a really powerful story to tell here. Of moral redemption and transformation, right? Of saying, you know, like, ‘I was really unsure of this and it took me a while to wrap my head around it for a variety of reasons. And while I look back and I’m so proud of all the work my fellow Minnesotans did do to defeat this amendment and then to pursue marriage equality. It has made us a better state and a better union …’”

“I don’t think anybody would have faulted her and this would be a non-story had she done that,” he said. “That’s the part I don’t get.”