Much to the chagrin of Republicans, it is the marriage amendment that will define the work of this legislative session.
The fact is, most legislative sessions end with budget tussles. It’s only the size of this deficit that makes this dollars-and-cents dispute different from earlier ones.
Like all of the other budget disputes, this one will be resolved and the budget will be balanced, although that’s not going to happen by midnight Monday and probably not anytime soon.
But what won’t be resolved long after this session is over is the fight over who, under the Constitution, can marry in Minnesota.
Prayer controversy, passionate speeches fill weekend
What won’t be forgotten about this session is the ugly prayer that was delivered Friday morning and the passionate speeches that were delivered Saturday night.
The prayer by a homophobic man was so ugly that House Speaker Kurt Zellers first denounced it and apologized for it. He then tried to have it expunged from the official record of the House by declaring a “reset” and noting that a quorum wasn’t on hand to hear Bradlee Dean’s remarks. A new prayer was delivered, and Dean’s presence was erased from the record so that in future years there would be no official record of what had happened.
On Sunday, though, DFLers ended the effort to erase reality by reading a resolution, signed by DFL legislators, into the record about Dean’s appearance.
“There are no do-overs,” said Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, adding that it was important for the record to reflect “the history of shame brought to this body” by Dean.
Zellers — and the Republican majority — accepted the resolution without comment.
But there were other moments, far more powerful, that followed Dean to the House.
The moment that most won’t forget is when Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, rose late Saturday night to speak against the marriage amendment.
Kriesel, whose legs were badly mangled in Iraq, was described by Zellers at the beginning of this session as “a rock star” of the Republican freshman class.
Kriesel offers powerful anti-amendment speech
And now, here he was, speaking out passionately against a key Republican action.
“If this was five or six years ago,” Kriesel said as he began his talk, “I probably would have voted ‘yes’ without really thinking about it.”
Then, Kriesel told a silent House about suffering his wounds, laying in the dirt, legs mangled, thinking of his wife and kids and doubting that he’d ever see them again.
The thoughts of the people he loved, he said, made him fight for life.
“As bad as that day sucked,” he said, “it’s changed my life in good ways. What would I do without my wife?”
He talked of how it’s a hard world and “that happiness is so hard to find.” Why, he wondered, would legislators vote for something that would deny people who love each other the chance to marry?
“This amendment doesn’t represent what I went to fight for,” he said.
Before he spoke, Kriesel had made sure each legislator had received an 8 ½-by-11-inch copy of a photo of Army Spc. Andrew Wilfahrt in combat gear. The Minnesota man was killed in Afghanistan during the winter. He was gay.
Kriesel asked his colleagues to look at the picture and think about the young man’s death.
“Good enough to give his life for his country, but not good enough to marry the person he loved?” Kriesel asked.
The speech will not be forgotten by members of either party, although Republicans give off the feeling they’d like to forget it — and the marriage amendment. But they didn’t have the strength to turn down the most socially conservative portion of their base.
The Republicans “won” the vote 70-62. Two DFLers , Lyle Koener of Clara City and Denise Ditrrich of Champlin, voted with the Republican majority. Four Republicans voted against the amendment: Kriesel, Tim Kelly of Red Wing, Steve Smith of Mound and Rich Murray of Albert Lea.
And none of the Republicans seemed eager to talk about their action.
Speaker Zellers deflects amendment questions
On the day after this vote, for example, the House speaker tried to shut down questions about the marriage amendment.
“I’m focused on the budget,” said Zellers. “Talking about votes that are behind us is Monday morning quarterbacking.”
But of course, the consequences of this vote going forward are immense. Huge amounts will be spent on both sides of the issue on intense media campaigns.
Former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe predicted Sunday that “there will be economic impact” created by the vote. He predicted that conventions scheduled for Minneapolis, for example, will be canceled as a protest to the Legislature’s decision to make this a constitutional issue.
The one Republican who spoke in favor of the amendment on the floor Saturday night, Rep. Steve Gottwalt of St. Cloud, tried to downplay the significance of the “policy issue.”
“The big story of this session,” Gottwalt said, grandly, “is whether we [Republicans] can end the spending that is unsustainable.”
So if that was to be the story of the session, why did the caucuses add such an explosive issue as the marriage amendment into the mix at the last moment?
“We can do both as legislators,” he said.
Over and over, he referred to the marriage amendment as “a policy issue,” not a “morality issue.”
“It’s not a morality issue except for individuals,” Gottwalt said.
The key thing is to keep the discussion civil.
The House caucus decided to have only Gottwalt speak for the amendment — although one other legislator also did — to try to hold passions to a minimum.
“We want to emphasize respect,” said Gottwalt. “This amendment is about decency and respect, not about hate and prejudice.”
And it has become the defining issue of the session.
Budget impasse remains
As for that “other” issue, the budget . . .
Various Republican leaders met with Gov. Mark Dayton throughout the day and into the night Sunday.
The result of those meetings: nice conversations, but no move toward ending a stalemate.
Again, according to a number of members of the caucus, Republican leaders don’t have only a problem with Dayton. They’ve got just as big a problem with their own caucus.
The most fiscally conservative members of the caucus are upset that their leaders ever expressed willingness to spend $34 billion, which is $1.8 billion less than the governor’s bottom line. The hardnosed conservatives, a substantial block in the House caucus, came to St. Paul determined not to spend more than $31 billion or $32 billion.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.