Johnson apologizes for gay marriage remarks

Johnson apologizes
Senate DFL Leader Dean Johnson apologized Friday for statements he made earlier in the year, which indicated that State Supreme Court justices had told him they would not overturn Minnesota's law banning gay marriage. Johnson says he "embellished" conversations he had with court justices.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

A subdued Dean Johnson who appeared on the verge of tears at times told reporters that he wanted to apologize to the Supreme Court, the Senate, the media and the public.

"I need a second chance today," said the Democrat from Willmar, who is a Lutheran minister, and was taped without his knowledge telling a group of pastors that he's talked to members of the Supreme Court about the state's Defense of Marriage law.

Johnson told the pastors that former chief justice Kathleen Blatz and two of the three justices named Anderson told him the court won't touch the law defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. He says during the meeting, he became frustrated by some of the comments made by other pastors, and he made a mistake.

I embellished it. I did. And it's wrong. I apologize to all of you and to the people of this state. I made a mistake.

"I remember I was frustrated, I was tired, I know I had a tough week, it was close to the anniversary of my wife's death, and I'm not making excuses, I'm simply apologizing for what happened that day." Johnson said.

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Johnson says he embellished his description of a brief conversation he had one day at the Capitol. Johnson didn't name the person he talked with, but it was clear from his comments it was Blatz.

"After a discussion about the wind and weather and relatives and the Legislature, I simply said, 'Any thoughts on the '97 DOMA law?' And the person shrugged their shoulders and said, 'Yeah, we have a law.' That was it. That was the extent of the discussion," according to Johnson.

Johnson says he has not received any commitments from justices on the matter. Johnson's comments have added fuel to the already-heated debate over a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Supporters believe Minnesota's law isn't adequate, because they say the courts could overturn the law, and they view Johnson as the main roadblock in getting the constitutional measure on the November ballot. The House has passed the amendment, but the full Senate has never taken a direct vote on it. The latest developments have prompted a new Republican radio ad.

"Dean Johnson isn't being honest. That's because he doesn't want Minnesotans to vote on the marriage amendment. Call Dean Johnson," the radio ad implores.

The state GOP says it will run the ad in Johnson's district and in the Twin Cities. Party Chairman Ron Carey says Johnson's apology is fine, but Johnson shouldn't be let off the hook for playing fast and loose with the truth.

GOP chairman Ron Carey
Minnesota GOP Party Chairman Ron Carey announced that his party has launched a radio ad criticizing Johnson for his actions on the same-sex marriage issue.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"There are some issues going more to the credibility of Dean Johnson being able to be the leader of the Minnesota Senate. I mean I think that's a first step. Obviously we want an apology, a sincere apology, not using the word embellished. He needs to come clean with what was really going on here," Carey said.

Johnson says he prides himself on telling the truth. He stopped short of saying he lied to the pastors, saying a lie is something said with the intent to deceive someone. But he did acknowledge what he called "sanding off the truth."

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon didn't want to comment on Johnson's embellishment, but said Johnson could easily make the controversy disappear by allowing a Senate vote on the marriage amendment.

"The whole issue would go away if the Senate would just vote. Just vote. All they need to do is vote, you don't have to do any more covering your butt, you don't have to do any more rationalizations, you don't have have to do any more of that other stuff, just vote," said Sviggum.

Johnson says the amendment will get a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. That same committee defeated the bill two years ago, and the bill would likely face the same fate this year. If the bill does come to a vote by the full Senate, Johnson says he will likely vote against it.