Social issues rarely in focus in governor's race

Emmer, Horner, Dayton
The three candidates for governor (left to right) Republican Tom Emmer, Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, and Democrat Mark Dayton debate in Minneapolis on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

With economic issues dominating Minnesota's wide-open race for governor, the three major-party candidates have largely ignored traditionally divisive social issues.

Still, the next governor could have a big say on state policy related to same-sex marriage, abortion and gambling.

Advocates on both sides of those issues are trying to make sure voters know where Republican nominee Tom Emmer, Democratic nominee Mark Dayton and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner stand.

Opponents of same-sex marriage, for example, have been trying hard to elevate the issue in this year's election.

This week, Minnesota's Roman Catholic bishops mailed a DVD to parishioners advocating a marriage amendment to the state constitution. The Minnesota Family Council and the National Organization for Marriage teamed up to buy TV ads with a similar message.

"Mark Dayton and Tom Horner want gay marriage with no vote of the people," an announcer says in the ad. "Tom Emmer believes marriage is between one man and one woman, and Emmer says let the people vote."

As the ad points out, Emmer opposes same-sex marriage, while Dayton and Horner support it.

Advocates for gay rights put a spotlight on Emmer's position earlier in the campaign when they protested Target Corporation's support of a corporate political fund that backs the GOP candidate. Still, same-sex marriage and other social issues have rarely been mentioned in more than a dozen gubernatorial debates.

Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, has noticed. Prichard said he's disappointed with Emmer, whom he supports, and with debate moderators.

"I think there's a general attitude out there that social issues shouldn't be dealt with; you know, avoid them," Prichard said. "I think that's what some of political handlers are saying out there. We say the exact opposite. It may not be the paramount issue, what a candidate is always talking about, but we think it's wrong for a candidate and politically unwise to run away from these issues."

Prichard's concern was made evident during a recent debate in Duluth. It was one of the few times the candidates were asked about abortion. Mark Dayton succinctly described his position.

"The decision is between a woman and her doctor and her god," Dayton said. "And I believe that abortion should be safe, legal and rare."

Horner said his goal is to reduce the number of abortions.

"I think we get to reducing abortions by making sure that all women have access to good health care, including access to contraceptives," Horner said. "I think we get there by making sure we have responsible sex education in the schools."

But Emmer mostly sidestepped the question.

"You know what, I appreciate the question, and, you know, Jacquie and I, we believe in life," Emmer said. "But I've got to tell you, this election; it has to be about what is hurting the state of Minnesota -- the loss of jobs. It's got to be, the economics are front and center."

Emmer's response did not surprise a key advocate on the other side of the abortion issue. Tim Stanley, executive director of the Planned Parenthood of Minnesota Action Fund -- which supports Dayton -- said social issues have clearly taken a back seat this year to bread and butter issues.

"You know, I've been at this for a couple decades now, and there's no election that I've seen that is more focused like a laser on one issue, and that issue this year is the economy," Stanley said.

But gambling seems to be the one exception. The question of whether to expand legalized gambling in Minnesota has come up regularly in debates and other venues.

Despite some well-established anti-gambling forces in the state, all three candidates have said they could support an expansion under certain circumstances.

Emmer and Horner favor the so-called racino concept, which would allow slot machines at horse racing tracks. Dayton proposes a state-run casino at the Mall of America or the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.