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Meet the six House members who bucked their parties on the marriage amendment vote

Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, speaking against the marriage amendment late Saturday night.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, speaking against the marriage amendment late Saturday night.

During one of the many breaks on the final day of the legislative session, Sen. Scott Dibble came into the House chamber to introduce himself to freshman Rep. John Kriesel.

“Thank you,” said Dibble, the south Minneapolis DFLer, to the Republican from Cottage Grove.

“It breaks my heart that I couldn’t get more [Republicans] to vote ‘no,’ ” said Kriesel.

“You were powerful,” said Dibble, who is gay.

The two, who disagree on most issues, continued to chat amiably.

Kriesel said he’s received more than 1,000 e-mails reacting to his Saturday night speech on the House floor opposing the Republican-led marriage amendment.

“Maybe one out of 100 has been negative, and even those have been respectful,” said Kriesel.

Kriesel, 30, wasn’t backing off the strong statements that he’d made about what he sees as the ills of the amendment.

“I’m a conservative guy, and when it comes down to it, you shouldn’t have people messing with another person’s family,” Kriesel said. “I’m very disappointed in how the vote came out.”

Kriesel has received most of the attention for bucking party lines. But there were five other House members who also crossed party lines. Three other Republicans opposed the constitutional amendment. Two DFLers supported it.

At least none of the six seems to be paying any sort of political price for their opposition.

Here’s a look at the five others:

The other Republicans
Tim Kelly, a second-term Republican from Red Wing who is a member of the majority’s executive committee in the House, surprised DFLers even more than Kriesel did when he took the floor and spoke in opposition to the amendment.

Rep. Tim Kelly
Rep. Tim Kelly

“You think of Red Wing as such a conservative area,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. “I thought what he did was incredible.”

But Kelly, 47, doesn’t think so. He thinks his party is “behind the times” on the issue of gay marriage.

“I’ve thought from the start we’re on the wrong side of this issue,” said Kelly in an interview Tuesday. “I think in most places, there’s almost an apathy about it. People are saying, ‘Why should we care?’ … The hard core on the issue comes at it from a religious aspect. I expect that, and I respect their beliefs.”

Still, to bring up marriage in this session was a strategic political mistake, Kelly believes. Republicans won a majority to balance the budget and create jobs.

“We preach less government is a good thing,” Kelly said, “except somehow we think there needs to be more government on this issue.”

Kelly said he has “great respect” for his caucus’s leaders, “but I very respectfully think they made a wrong decision on this.”

To date, emails would suggest most agree with him. He said of the 400 e-mails he’s received, only three have reproached him for his vote.

Rich Murray, 54, of Albert Lea is another member of that huge Republican freshman class, which has been so conservative on most issues. But on the marriage amendment, Murray joined first-termer Kriesel in voting “no.”

Rep. Rich Murray
Rep. Rich Murray

He made no fanfare about his vote and gave no speech. But he doesn’t duck from it, either.

“I ran on the budget and jobs,” said Murray, an investment adviser. “Those are my priorities. Those are the issues I’ve been sent here to work on.”

There was no magical moment, he said, when he decided he couldn’t support the marriage amendment. And he didn’t really think about any political consequences.

“It felt right in my heart, and when I went home on Saturday night, I slept like a baby,” he said.

There have, as it turns out, been consequences — almost all of them favorable.

“A lot of people have been saying thanks for your vote, thanks for your courage,” Murray said.

Steve Smith, an 11-term Republican from Mound, is the most senior member of the Republican caucus. An attorney by profession, he’s not typically been a legislator who draws much attention to himself.

Rep. Steve Smith
Rep. Steve Smith

On Saturday night, Smith, 60, made no speeches about his feeling about the marriage amendment but he did vote in opposition. It was not a vote he had to reflect on deeply. It simply seemed the right thing to do.

“Up until I was 30,” Smith said, “I was a Democrat. I’m one of those Reagan Democrats who became a Republican.”

So far, there’s been no backlash; no suggestion from activists in his district that his endorsement in 2012 will be opposed.

“That may happen, but not yet,” said Smith. “So far the feedback has been very good.”

Two DFLers crossed party lines and supported the Republican majority on the amendment.

“It was disappointing, but we knew they were going to do it,” said Paul Thissen, the House minority leader.

What led to their decisions?  And what has the reaction been to their votes?

The two DFLers
The two DFLers weren’t quite so conversational as the four Republicans.

Rep. Lyle Koenen
Rep. Lyle Koenen

Rep. Lyle Koenen, 54, who has represented the Clara City area for five terms, did not return a phone call seeking comment. A former farmer (he’s sold his cattle and now rents his land), Koenen in recent years has been a milk truck driver and a school bus driver. Koenen has served on property tax and ag committees during his tenure. He seldom speaks on the floor.

It’s already been noted on Koenen’s Wikipedia entry that he voted to support the marriage amendment on Saturday night. But given the rural nature of his district in southwest Minnesota, that may not create a political problem for Koenen, who was a party activist before becoming a legislator and also has served as a Sunday school teacher at his church.

Rep. Denise Dittrich
Rep. Denise Dittrich

Denise Dittrich, 54, a fourth-termer from Champlin, wasn’t eager to talk about what led her to her decision to support the amendment.

“I voted the same way in 2005,” she said.

What sort of feedback is she receiving for her vote?

“Let me think about that,” she said.

I paused, allowing her time to think.

“I’ll have to get back to you,” she said.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/25/2011 - 09:54 am.

    Yes, I don’t know what’s up with Denise, and neither, it appears, does Denise. Katherine Kersten has explained to us that the gay marriage amendment is not an exercise at bigotry, and since Katherine is a nice lady, I take her at her word. What she does not say is that the amendment, however unbigoted it may be in the intent of it’s proponents, does little more than provide an occasion for the exercise of bigotry by others.

  2. Submitted by Cecil North on 05/25/2011 - 10:08 am.

    Six Republican heros, two Democrat zeros.

  3. Submitted by Cecil North on 05/25/2011 - 10:11 am.

    Make that four Republican heros. Anyway, good on them for taking a position on this that is actually consistent with their conservative principles.

  4. Submitted by Jeff Wilfahrt on 05/25/2011 - 10:11 am.

    Kriesel, Murray, Smith and Kelly will need financial support should they run again. Do not forget who stood on the right side of history.

    They stood for us when we needed it, let us stand for them when they need it.

    Jeff Wilfahrt, Rosemount, MN

  5. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 05/25/2011 - 11:14 am.

    Interesting that the two who voted for the amendment won’t discuss their votes. You might say they are “in the closet”.

  6. Submitted by Jim Roth on 05/25/2011 - 11:34 am.

    I think those who voted against the amendment are “profiles in courage”. For those DFLer’s who voted in favor, while they most likely voted based on their consciences, they were also going with the flow of the majority.

  7. Submitted by Dee Ann Christensen on 05/25/2011 - 12:12 pm.

    it is no wonder Rep. Dittrich did not want to reveal the feedback she has received after her vote on this issue and the voter ID bill. Simply said it was pure outrage by many of hwe constiuents that I know This was a vote about human decency and character and with this vote she revealed much about both.

  8. Submitted by John Ferman on 05/25/2011 - 12:24 pm.

    Very good article, Doug. I hope you will do a follow up after some of most of their local constituents weigh in on those votes.

  9. Submitted by Kevin Slator on 05/25/2011 - 12:25 pm.

    The three Republicans might want to contact the “Override Six” — the Republicans who voted to override Gov. Pawlenty’s transportation bill veto in 2008 — to help them prepare for the hammering they’re going to face from hostile Republicans between now and November 2010.

  10. Submitted by David LaPorte on 05/25/2011 - 12:37 pm.

    “I’ll have to get back to you”. That’s politically courageous.

  11. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/25/2011 - 01:01 pm.

    I am never impressed or moved by the golden tickets legislators are given to cast contrary votes to caucus positions. The reason the gay marriage amendment is on the ballot is because Republicans control the legislature. No matter what their individual votes on this matter, the reason the measure passed is that Kriesel, Kelly, Smith and Murray are in the legislature voting to organize it as Republicans.

  12. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/25/2011 - 01:02 pm.

    “They stood for us when we needed it, let us stand for them when they need it.”

    Don’t judge legislators by what they say, judge them on the basis of what gets done.

  13. Submitted by Byron & Karyl Rice on 05/25/2011 - 01:30 pm.

    Dear Mr. Grow,

    Thank you for interviewing the representatives who voted against and for the the marriage amendment. I still can’t believe that we are considering an amendment that would eliminate rights for some of our citizens. Which group are we going to go after next?


    Byron Rice

  14. Submitted by Garrett Peterson on 05/25/2011 - 01:51 pm.

    68 votes are needed in the House to pass a bill. The Republican caucus had 68 votes plus the two Democrats for a total of 70 in favor of placing the amendment on the ballot.

    While I’m not going to defend Dittrich or Koenen, I’d like to believe that they would have voted against it if the Republicans hadn’t been able to muster 68 votes.

    Then again, there’s no way the bill would have been brought to the floor in the first place if the Republicans didn’t have 68 votes in their caucus.

  15. Submitted by Garrett Peterson on 05/25/2011 - 04:00 pm.

    This is really nerdy, but I think it’s fascinating politics:

    I re-watched the vote on the House website. Early on in the vote as the voting board is lighting up, Koenen and Dittrich are voting “no” on the amendment and Murray is voting “yes.”

    After it becomes clear that the Republicans have the necessary votes to pass the amendment, Koenen and Dittrich suddenly switch to “yes.” Then, very late in the vote, when it is clear that the bill will pass, Murray switches to “no.”

    There might have been some principles behind the way these three voted, but there was also some serious political maneuvering going on.

  16. Submitted by Linda Vanderwerf on 05/25/2011 - 04:34 pm.

    Lyle Koenen spoke to his local newspaper, the West Central Tribune. Here’s the link:

  17. Submitted by Marcus Willett on 05/25/2011 - 06:31 pm.

    It’s good to see that not every republican is a part of the NutBall Fascisto.. Now if you could support Teachers and Labor you might be able to persuade lifelong dems to vote for you.. It’s a long shot that that would happen BUT if you look at banished republicans like Arne Carlson and Tom Horner they REALLY do stand on a populous platform..

  18. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 05/26/2011 - 04:31 am.

    Time will tell if GOP leaders Sutton or Brodkorb show up at GOP endorsing conventions to tell the delegates they should not endorse the dissenting legislators, like “Deputy Dot” did for Rod Hamilton in Cottonwood County (SD22) a few years ago after he voted to over ride Gov. Pawlenty’s veto of the transportation bill.

  19. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/26/2011 - 07:29 am.

    “We preach less government is a good thing,” Kelly said, “except somehow we think there needs to be more government on this issue.”

    Defining marriage as between a man and a woman isn’t “more government.” It’s the status quo, Mr. Kelly. Changing the definition of marriage to something else and re-writing all the bureaucratic policies and regulations associated with government’s involvement in marriage would be more government. Because when you boil it all down, this is about who gets government benefits.

    Regardless, only in a society that’s jumped the shark would marriage reserved a man and a woman be considered “unequal,” or “eliminating human rights.” Really, people. Get a grip. You’re all behaving like the world began the day you were born.

  20. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 05/29/2011 - 11:36 am.

    “Because when you boil it all down, this is about who gets government benefits.”

    That’s exactly the argument once used by Michele Bachmann. If “they” get these benefits, she lamented, that will leave less for “us.”

  21. Submitted by will lynott on 05/29/2011 - 09:25 pm.

    Tester, I’m intrigued by your notion that the gay marriage issue is nothing more than the question of who gets government benefits. I’m assuming you have no gay friends–oh, right, you wouldn’t let that happen. Ewwww!

    Gay people are, in one sense, no different than the rest of us. They have love to give, and they want desperately to give it. And, like the rest of us, they want love in return. If they are fortunate, they find someone, like some of the rest of us do.

    Who on earth are YOU to tell them they aren’t worthy? Had they been hetero, presumably you would not have a problem with them taking “government services.” Why is it different if they’re gay?

    They don’t threaten anyone, they are no threat to hetero marriages,and when they adopt, the kids are most likely to end up hetero. Not that that should matter.

    Do you really think that any intelligent person would, clear eyed, choose the homosexual lifestyle? With people like you out there, why on earth would they?

    Tester, what exactly is your problem?

  22. Submitted by Scott Muggli on 06/03/2011 - 11:18 am.

    I’ve written to all the Republicans who showed the courage of their convictions on this vote. To my other friends in the Republican Party; you may be interested to know that you owe the very foundation of your party to men like this. Your party was founded by a small group of patriots who acted in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, effectively ending the Missouri Compromise and allowing the respective states to vote on whether or not they wanted allow slavery. Your party was founded on the idea that there are some things so fundamental to freedom and liberty that they cannot be trusted to the people.

    Personal liberty, freedom from government interference and the pursuit of happiness; these are my values. I am confused by so-called Republicans who hold those values as paramount, yet support this amendment. What we don’t need is more big government sticking its nose into our personal affairs. We need to fall back to the core principles set forth by the founders… who recognized and feared the threat posed to our nation from a majority faction who would impose their morality and their will on others. Make no mistake; that is exactly what this proposed amendment represents.

    Your founding party members thought that “putting it on the ballot and letting the people decide” was an unconscionable act of bigotry that undermined basic human dignity because they knew full well that the tyranny of the majority is just as threatening to freedom as a tyrant on the throne.

    Now, sadly, we see the willful destruction of the primary founding principle of your party from within. You risk losing your core values you hold so dear because of blind ignorance, apathy or fear. It is time to recognize, as your predecessors did, that in some cases, it is the job of the Government to protect its people from a majority faction, even to protect them from themselves. I’d recommend reading James Madison’s Federalist #10. Since many of you seem so fond of the Federalist Papers, I’d suggest you try applying those founding principles of our Republic.

    I do not relish explaining this to future generations, because I will be ashamed of us… as should we all.

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