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Will Quist’s past comments on gays and women hurt him? Times are a-changin’

Like Arne Carlson in 1994, Mike Parry is trying to draw attention to Allen Quist’s remarks.

Allen Quist speaking to a crowd at a Faribault town hall meeting.

“I thought you’d have recused yourself from this story,” said Ben Golnik, campaign advisor for Mike Parry, when I told him I was writing about Parry’s primary battle with Allen Quist for the GOP nomination in the first congressional district.

The Parry campaign has exhumed comments that Quist made in the 1980s and ‘90s about homosexuality and the role of women that Parry says make Quist too controversial to get elected. Those are the very same tactics that I helped carry out in 1994 when Quist was challenging incumbent Arne Carlson for the GOP nomination in the governor’s race. I told Golnik that I couldn’t resist analyzing and comparing the two campaigns.

In 1994, Carlson, a popular governor with moderate views on abortion and gay rights, lost his party’s endorsement to Quist, who had a strong following among conservative delegates at the state GOP convention who were starting to dominate in the party structure.

The setting was ideal to motivate moderate Republicans, still a force in the party, to vote in the primary election by portraying Quist as a religious and social extremist.   

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Eighteen years later, though, the shock value of Quist’s comments – such as, “the husband should be the head of the household because of a genetic predisposition” – fades. His speeches as a state representative decrying homosexuality, even his visit to an X-rated bookstore for “research,” seem like old news. 

Party has changed

The GOP has since seen Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann emerge as leaders who use their views on gay rights and traditional families not as stealth tactics but as a broad appeal to conservative voters. And then there’s the recession.

“The issues today are economics, economic and economics,” Quist recently told me. He maintains that in the eight town halls he’s held since the start of his current campaign, none of the Parry attacks has come up for discussion. “The public is in a totally different place.”

And, he add, so is Allen Quist. “Politics is always changing,” he said. “Eighteen years is like — you might as well start over.”

His views on some issues, or at least the emphasis on certain issues, have changed.  “People ask me, ‘Do I support the marriage amendment?’ Of course I do, but I’m not campaigning on it,” he says. “Am I prolife? Of course, but I’m not campaigning on it.” 

As for the role of women, Quist points out that he supported Bachmann in her presidential bid. “Frankly, I still prefer her to [Mitt] Romney.”

And one woman plays an important role in Quist’s campaign: His wife, Julie, is his campaign manager. “She’s the best campaign manager in Minnesota,” he says.

But the Parry campaign is not about to let Quist shrug off his past so easily. “The statements define Allen Quist,” says Parry. “It would be different if Allen Quist would man up to what he had done, but he consistently runs away when we bring them up.”

Case in point: Quist’s explanation of the infamous “genetic predisposition” statement. In interviews with two media outlets in 1994, in the heat of the governor’s race, Quist made the comment that the husband should be the “head of the household” because of a “genetic predisposition.”

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The Arne Carlson campaign organized a group of Republican women to protest that remark. The campaign produced buttons with the words “genetic predisposition” encircled in a slash of red.  For weeks in the late summer of 1994, the button was visible on the lapels of men and women of both parties at the state Capitol.

‘Religious point of view’

Today, Quist says the statement was taken out of context. “The context was: What is the historic position of the Christian church on marriage?” he says. “It was a religious point of view.”

He claims that criticism of the remark amounts to religious prejudice. “People have a sense that it’s not fair game to attack people for their religious beliefs,” he says.

But, in the first interview that Quist gave on the subject, he denied any religious motivation. My colleague David Brauer conducted the interview for the Twin Cities Reader. In a recent MinnPost article, he revisited the quote in which Quist states clearly that there is no biblical connection to the comment.

“He won’t accept responsibility,” says Parry. “And if he won’t accept responsibility, what does that tell you about a man’s character?” Parry offers an answer: “I think he’s a character that is too risky for the Republican Party to put up against [Democratic incumbent] Tim Walz.”

The voters will decide in the Aug. 14 primary. For the next week, Parry intends to remind them of  Quist’s past. “We will continue to draw a contrast and highlight the differences,” Parry says.

Quist says he believes the voters’ interests lie elsewhere. “There is no connection in what they are trying to do and where the public is,” he says. “This personal stuff that goes back 20 years, that was so, so long ago.”