Delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte have adopted a plank in their party platform supporting same-sex marriage. The move makes the Democratic Party the first major party to endorse same-sex marriage in its platform.
Members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community are hailing the plank and suggest it could affect the Minnesota debate over a proposed constitutional amendment that would effectively ban same-sex marriage.
Convention enthusiasm over the plank was apparent at a breakfast gathering on Tuesday, where a large number of Minnesota's DFL delegates wore blue "Vote No" T-shirts. DFL officials are encouraging the group to wear the T-shirts on the first night of the convention to show that they oppose the proposed Minnesota constitutional amendment that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.
For former DFL Chairman Rick Stafford, who holds the distinction of being the first openly gay chairman of any major state party in the country, the move by the DNC is historic.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, did I ever think that I'd have a day like today?" Stafford asked. "No. I had hope. But to be realistic, no."
Stafford said openly gay Democratic delegates could have "met in a phone booth" when he attended national conventions in the 1970s and 80s. But there are about 500 gay and lesbian delegates at this year's convention, he said. That tells Stafford that public perception is changing on the issue of same-sex marriage.
"There isn't one person in America today that isn't touched by somebody from the LGBT community, whether it's family or friends," he said. "We're more open about it and share our stories, so it's progress."
Stafford and Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, say they expect the national party's platform language will influence some voters in Minnesota. Dibble, who is openly gay and pushed for the party to change the platform, said he believes that the party taking a strong stand on the issue will sway some undecided voters.
"This is an issue whose time has come," Dibble said. "This is not an issue that is at the margins. This is a fundamental, mainstream, bread-and-butter issue. A major political party is stepping up just like they have done in the past, on behalf of people who have otherwise been unable to participate in our larger civic life."
Both Dibble and Stafford compared the action at the convention to Hubert Humphrey's speech against segregation at the 1948 Democratic convention.
“This is not an issue that is at the margins. This is a fundamental, mainstream, bread-and-butter issue.”Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis
But Humphrey's speech caused southern delegates to abandon the party and has reverberated even until today. The battle over same-sex marriage is similarly divisive. Voters in 30 states have already banned it.
Kate Brickman, a spokeswoman for Minnesotans United for All Families, a group working to defeat the amendment in Minnesota, said the DNC's action is helpful because it will get people to discuss the issue.
But Autumn Leva, a spokeswoman for Minnesotans for Marriage, a group working to pass the amendment predicts that the DNC's decision will cause problems for Democrats in November. She said exit polling from California's vote to ban same-sex marriage in 2008 shows that a large number of Democrats joined nearly all Republicans to pass the amendment.
"The harder the DFL works to excite and turn out that constituency, the more they're going to help the marriage protection amendment campaign, which we think is great," Leva said. "And that's because union households and ethnic voters are big time supporters of marriage."
The Democratic and Republican parties are going in opposite directions on same-sex marriage. At their convention last week, Republicans reaffirmed a plank in their platform to uphold marriage between a man and a woman "as the national standard."
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who called for full equality for same-sex couples during his failed U.S. Senate campaign in 1994, is now in line with his party's platform, as he made clear when he addressed the GOP convention on Thursday.
"As president, I'll protect the sanctity of life," Romney said. "I'll honor the institution of marriage."
The debate over the constitutional amendment in Minnesota is expected to be one of the fiercest this political season. Stafford said he's optimistic the amendment will be defeated this year. If not, he's confident the public will eventually be comfortable with the idea of allowing same-sex couples to marry.
"It might get in our constitution, but shortly thereafter it will get repealed," Stafford said of the marriage amendment. "It's sort of like Prohibition."
The constitution will be amended if a majority of those voting in November vote yes on the ballot initiative.