Thursday afternoon the elevators on the east side of the Capitol rotunda opened to reveal a young man carrying a slender laptop emblazoned with a large National Rifle Association sticker. He looked, in a word, petrified.
The rotunda, the surrounding corridors and the balconies on the second and third floors were packed with an overflow crowd whose cheering and clapping had turned the statehouse into a giant echo chamber. A giant gay echo chamber.
The outsized Valentine’s Day celebration marked the kickoff to Minnesotans United for All Families campaign to convince the DFL-dominated Legislature to legalize same-sex marriage. The fervor could be heard even two floors down in the catacombs that connect the Capitol to other parts of the state office complex.
Those in attendance hoped that unlike May 2011 when a similar crowd packed the rotunda to protest a proposed gay-marriage ban, the thunder of emotion would sway hesitant lawmakers.
By the end of the month, Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Karen Clark, both gay Minneapolis DFLers, told the throng they would introduce companion bills to recognize same-sex marriage rights. The supporters could help, they said, by forging a relationship to their elected representatives and explaining, in personal terms, why the issue is urgent.
“Yesterday I got a visit from some constituents who said, ‘Sen. Dibble, what if we put love at the center of everything we do?” Dibble said. “Marriage matters, family matters.”
Even though the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was defeated decisively at the ballot box last fall, support from the legislative leadership for recognizing same-sex marriage this session has been tepid.
Concerns voiced by ranking members of both chambers include the fear that the DFL will be accused overreach, concern that the issue could muddy budget-year waters and — likely wishful thinking — a desire for the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and resolve the question.
A number of DFLers who were elected from districts that voted in support of the proposed amendment fear the issue could hurt them when they run for re-election.
House Speaker Paul Thissen is said to support gay marriage but also to be worried about putting his caucus-mates in a political bind. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk is thought to want the question kept off the table this session.
Lawmakers who attended Thursday’s rally included Sen. John Marty, who for years has introduced bills seeking to legalize same-sex marriage, as well as Patricia Torres Ray, Sandy Pappas, Jeff Hayden and Tony Lourey, all DFLers. Also present were Reps. Jim Davnie, Susan Allen and Carolyn Laine, all DFLers as well.
Boost from Dayton
The campaign got a major boost last week from Gov. Mark Dayton, who declared his desire to see marriage rights expanded in his state of the state address.
“Let me mention one other cause, which is controversial but consistent with my faith and my principles and, more importantly, consistent with this country’s founding principles and its Constitution,” Dayton said. “I believe that every Minnesotan should have the freedom to marry legally the person she or he loves, whether of the same or other sex.
“Last year,” the governor continued, “Minnesotans began a conversation about why marriage matters and we found our common belief that it is about love, commitment and responsibility. I want Minnesota to be a state which affirms that freedom for one means freedom for everyone and where no one is told it is illegal to marry the person you love.”
A continued conversation is exactly what Minnesotans United is planning. After ballot box losses in 31 states, same-sex marriage advocates at the national level spent recent years using social science methods to determine why they were losing when polls show Americans are increasingly comfortable with gay rights.
One surprising answer: Many had not considered that rights notwithstanding, gays and lesbians might want to marry for the same reasons as heterosexuals. And it hadn’t occurred to many of those in same-sex relationships that they needed to say as much.
Then registered with the state as a ballot question committee, Minnesotans United staged hundreds of thousands of conversations via social media, house parties and a sophisticated phone-banking effort fueled by some 27,000 specially trained volunteers.
The process left the campaign with a detailed roadmap to pockets of support and resistance in every legislative district in the state. The information and the infrastructure will now be tapped to stage conversations with lawmakers.
“Send a photo of your family, tell them why this matters to you,” said Jake Loesch, communications director for Minnesotans United. “Tell them this is actually something we can do this year.”
The faith communities that mobilized in opposition to last year’s constitutional amendment will be key, said Faith Director Javen Swanson. Lawmakers can expect spring break invitations from religious groups in their communities, he said.
One of the things they’ll hear is that gay marriage has gathered new supporters since the election. “We’re hearing from new people all the time,” said Swanson. “We’re hearing from new people who haven’t done anything with us before. People who maybe 18 months ago did harbor some doubts and who are starting to come along.”
Some of those new people may be statehouse Republicans, a few of whom are rumored to be rethinking their stances. Minnesotans United has hired a nine-member lobbying team that boasts big names with long experience working with the GOP.
Nor is the possibility of cross-party voting the only possibility for muddied waters. The introduction of a civil union bill — something that has happened in other states — could provide a convenient political compromise for the reluctant.
Finally, Minnesota for Marriage, the coalition that worked in favor of the failed ballot amendment, has yet to tip its hand. At the moment, its advocacy appears to be focused on the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear two same-sex marriage cases in its current term.