When Republican state Sen. Branden Petersen of Andover stepped forward to co-sponsor a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, he took some of his constituents by surprise.
When Petersen served in the House in 2011, he voted to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. This time, the 27-year-old Republican has broken with his party. One interest group, the National Organization for Marriage, is warning it will cost him his seat.
Petersen's district spans the north metro communities of Andover, Ramsey, Coon Rapids and Anoka and supported the marriage amendment that was defeated last November.
Andover resident Scott Price said he typically votes Republican, and he thinks marriage should be between a man and a woman. When candidate Petersen came door-knocking at his house last year, Price liked what he heard and gave him his vote. Now he's feeling burned.
"It was what we were led to believe about some of his beliefs," Price said. "And now, it sure feels like that wasn't the case. I haven't had the opportunity to speak with him directly, but I think more of the constituents you know really need to know what they voted for and what they thought they were voting for."
Another constituent, Gretchen Sabel, was just as surprised, but pleasantly so. Sabel is a Democrat who supports same-sex marriage. She sent Petersen an email thanking him, and told him about her brother, who died of AIDS.
"My brother grew up in Ohio in the '70s and '80s and if you were openly gay, you were in the bars, you were doing all that social stuff," she said. "I know that if he'd had an option for a better life and a way that society could encourage him to have that better life, that he would have."
Sabel said although she didn't vote for Petersen, now she would, based on what she calls his courage to take a principled stand on the issue.
Another Andover resident, Dick Lindmark, thinks Petersen is out of step with his constituents on same-sex marriage, but he respects his reasoning. Lindmark is a Libertarian who voted for Petersen and supported the marriage amendment. Lindmark would rather see civil unions give equal benefits to gay couples, but so far, he's not opposed to his senator co-sponsoring the legislation.
"When I heard his point about that he felt that fair dealing between the citizens in the state was essential to his core conservative values, I can't disagree with that," he said. "A core conservative value is each individual being treated as an individual, not as part of a group, and not shown preference."
Lindmark thinks same-sex marriage is a done deal in Minnesota with a Democratic Legislature and governor that support it, so he thinks his senator is making a smart tactical move to sign on as a sponsor, where as a member of the minority party, he could have more influence over the legislation.
Other members of our Public Insight Network aren't so sure. Democrat Eric Zaetsch of Ramsey wrote to say he's mistrustful of Petersen's motives, calling him "a practical, cynical politician" with a finger in the air to feel the prevailing winds on the issue. Republican Mark Nupen of Anoka said the bill is unnecessary and really about political correctness.
Yet even some of Petersen's constituents who voted no on the amendment aren't ready to support same-sex marriage.
Independent voter Evelyn Lee of Ramsey thinks civil unions are the way to go.
"I've seen many homosexual couples who are really in love. And I don't think we should deny that possibility of them to be united legally," Lee said. "Therefore, my feeling is don't challenge the definition of marriage. We can use civil unions and use that as at par with marriage in the traditional sense."
There's no doubt the issue is burning up the phone lines in Petersen's district. The Minnesota Family Council, a Christian values group that opposes same-sex marriage, is doing robo calls and patching voters directly through to the senator's office.
A staffer there confirms the volume of calls coming into the office is "intense," but said the spreadsheets they're logging for callers on both sides of the issue are "very full."