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Undecided GOP senators ponder gay-marriage vote

State Sens. Dave Senjem and Carla Nelson are among a handful of Republicans who may vote “yes” on the gay-marriage bill.

“It’s not about love. It’s about what’s right going forward in our society, whether or not this advances our society the way we would want it to advance," said GOP Sen. David Senjem.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

Like the most popular kids in high school, Republican state Sens. Dave Senjem and Carla Nelson are getting lots of phone calls, emails and personal visits. They are among a handful of Republicans in the Senate who may vote “yes” on the gay-marriage bill that comes up for a floor vote later today.

It’s not coincidence that anti- and pro-gay marriage activists are targeting Senjem and Nelson. They both represent districts in Rochester where last fall’s vote on the gay-marriage amendment split evenly. Like their constituents, they seem conflicted.

“I get swamped with lots and lots of calls and emails for and against, and they’re very nice about it,” Senjem said. “I suppose if you waffle a little bit, you become a target for robo calls. I can live with that.”

Senjem wouldn’t say which way he was leaning but indicated he was close to making a decision. Nelson said she had “a good idea. But I’m definitely going to listen to the debate.”

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When the vote is taken, the eyes of two dozen lobbyists will be boring into them, along with GOP Sens. Karin Housley of Stillwater and Jeremy Miller of Winona. Housley has indicated she is undecided about her vote. Miller is seen as a possible “yes” vote because his district includes a college campus where students cast “no” votes on the marriage amendment last November.

Their votes won’t be necessary for the bill to pass. All but one of the 39 DFL senators is considered a “yes” vote, which would allow the bill to pass easily.  (LeRoy Stumpf, whose district is in the far northwestern part of the state, has said he will vote “no.”)  Also, Republican Sen. Branden Petersen, who serves a district in Anoka County, has said he will vote “yes.”

But gay-marriage proponents want passage to be bipartisan. They believe the amendment offered in the House by Republican Rep. David FitzSimmons, which states that only same-sex civil marriages, not same-sex religious marriages, must be allowed under state law, will allow Senate Republicans to follow the lead of four House Republicans and vote “yes.”

That argument has not persuaded Senjem. The FitzSimmons amendment, he said, “was trying to soften the language and find a middle ground to gain some acceptance. I think it’s semantics. I don’t think it changes the tone or temper of the argument.”

Furthermore, Senjem and Nelson object to the timing of the vote. “This, in my mind, is coming at a horrible time in the session,” Senjem said. “We are right in the cross hairs of trying to get a budget together and get this session wrapped up.”

Nelson agreed: “It’s a very important topic, but we don’t even have our budget yet. I do wish we had focused on the budget first.”

But gay-marriage supporters and opponents have little control over the timing of the vote and follow the direction of the leadership. In the case of the House vote, the timing did supply supporters another argument to offer to undecided senators — namely that in some Republican districts, a “yes” vote may improve their standing in their districts. 

They point to Andrea Kieffer from Woodbury and Jennifer Loon from Eden Prairie, two Republican representatives who voted for the measure in the House. They represent districts that are solidly Republican and voted solidly against the marriage amendment. New independent voters would offset any votes they could lose because of their gay-marriage position. FitzSimmons’ Albertville district has a libertarian tilt that fits with his “yes” vote.

But this is legislation that even the most practiced lobbyists acknowledge will not pass because of tactical arguments. This is legislation, they say, that lawmakers are really thinking through.

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Even the weekly newsletter from the state Republican Party, in stating its opposition to the gay-marriage bill, struck a pensive note: “Republican Legislators will need to be vigilant, and not because sincere gay couples will receive marriage licenses, but because the underlying principles of the legislation are profound and the implications are yet to play out,” wrote party Chair Keith Downey.

“There will be great respect for people who support the bill and for people who do not support it,” said Nelson. “I don’t promise my vote because that’s not what we’re sent here to do.”

Senjem said: “It’s not about love. It’s about what’s right going forward in our society, whether or not this advances our society the way we would want it to advance.”

With passage of gay-marriage guaranteed, the vote for many Republicans becomes nothing less than a vote that defines their placement in Minnesota history. And within the context of historical change, the vote they will make will come from their heart as much as their mind.