Gov. Mark Dayton addressed a gathering of gay-rights supporters outside the Capitol Thursday and called on them to help convince lawmakers to legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota this session.
With a steady mix of sleet and snow falling on the crowd, Dayton praised rally organizers -- the groups Minnesotans United and OutFront Minnesota -- for their work last fall to help defeat a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota. Dayton, a Democrat, said he believes voters sent a strong message.
"The people of Minnesota said no to bigotry and to discrimination and to violating the constitutional rights of some of our fellow citizens," Dayton said. "Now we have to depend on 201 of their elected representatives to turn that no into a yes."
Backers of the marriage bill are expecting action soon in the Minnesota House and Senate, but it's still not clear if they have the votes they need to pass the legislation.
Dayton said passage of the same-sex marriage bill won't be easy, but he's hopeful. He called on supporters to be respectful and persuasive in their discussions with legislators.
State Rep. Karen Clark, the chief author of the House bill, also offered an upbeat assessment.
"We expect to pass this bill," said Clark, DFL-Minneapolis. "We're very, very close."
“The people of Minnesota said no to bigotry and to discrimination and to violating the constitutional rights of some of our fellow citizens... Now we have to depend on 201 of their elected representatives to turn that no into a yes.”Gov. Mark Dayton
Many legislators have publicly declared their support or opposition to legalizing gay marriage. But many have done neither. Jake Loesch, a spokesman for Minnesotans United, said those undecided legislators are getting a lot of attention.
"We're focusing on that. We're focusing on districts that maybe voted predominantly yes on the marriage amendment but are represented by Democrats, or vice versa -- districts that voted no on the marriage amendment but are represented by Republicans," Loesch said. "All of these come into play, and really we're not leaving anyone aside, or ignoring anyone. We expect this bill to have bipartisan support, as it already does, and we hope more will come. So, we're talking to everybody."
But so far, that bipartisan support is slim. State Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, is a co-author of the bill and the only Republican to publicly support it. Petersen said he's working to get a few more to join him.
"Obviously it's harder to do it ahead of time than just do it on the floor and be done with it," Petersen said. "So that's a consideration. But I can tell you that there's ongoing conversations with multiple Republicans in the Senate and the House."
A leading opponent of the bill, state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the issue is making a lot of legislators nervous. Limmer, who sponsored the bill that placed the constitutional amendment on the ballot, said he thinks rural Democrats are struggling with a vote that could run counter to the majority of their constituents.
"Legislators are rolling that around as they're approaching this decision, and I think many of them are undecided what to do," Limmer said. "They may have personal feelings about voting for it, but they also believe in representative government. We all do. So that's where an internal conflict may abide."
It's not clear when or if floor votes will take place. House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, stressed that the Legislature's current focus is on budget matters. He stopped short of promising a vote on the marriage bill.
"Members are still having conversations with their constituents about it," Thissen said of the same-sex marriage bill. "Once we get through the budget work in the next week and a half we'll start taking up other bills, and marriage could be among them."
Meanwhile, a few legislators are continuing to push an alternative to allow civil unions for gay couples, rather than marriage. Supporters of the marriage bill have uniformly dismissed the idea as separate and unequal.
But state Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said he's planning some modifications to address that concern.
"I think what we're struggling with is trying to define marriage, and I've said from the very start that I don't think that's government role," Kelly said. "So if we look at a bill that possibly removes that issue and creates civil union equality throughout, I think that might be a start."
Kelly said he's also renewing his request for a committee hearing on the bill. But it could end up as a floor amendment.