Marriage debate: Both sides begin final push

St. Cloud marriage amendment
A sign supporting the proposed marriage amendment is displayed along 9th Ave. S. in St. Cloud, Minn. Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The race to decide whether Minnesota would add an affirmation of marriage as between a man and woman to the state constitution began more than a year ago. This past weekend, the groups leading the campaigns for and against the amendment began their sprints to the finish. They're using very different methods to get there.

The coalition opposing the amendment, led by Minnesotans United for All Families, is still seeking to sway undecided voters. Spokeswoman Kate Brickman said they could change the outcome of the election.

"We know that conversations move people to a 'no' vote. They don't move people to a 'yes' vote," she said. "So our strategy is to continue having conversations with those undecideds, because we know if we do, we can move them to a no vote."

But a Star Tribune Minnesota poll published this weekend showed the race in a statistical dead heat. The survey of 800 Minnesotans showed 48 percent support the proposed amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and 47 percent oppose it. Five percent of those surveyed said they were undecided. That's why the best strategy is to concentrate on established supporters, said spokeswoman Autumn Leva, of Minnesota for Marriage.

"It's very important to reach back out to those people and give them a call and say hey, you remember we talked about this marriage amendment at such and such event?" she said. "It's important to get back out and vote yes. you can't just say you support it, you actually have to vote in favor of the amendment for it to pass."

Leva said Minnesota for Marriage's goal is to call 100,000 people every day until the election. The group has phone banks set up throughout the state. The one in a St Anthony Park office park this weekend smelled like the pizza volunteers had for lunch. There were signs and notes of encouragement on the walls. Melissa Eckert sat at a table and used a cell phone provided by the campaign. She tucked her hair behind her ear and hummed while dialing. She had to leave several voicemails before someone picked up.

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"Can we count on your yes vote to preserve marriage?" Eckert said into the phone, and there was only a brief pause. "Wow thank you! Polls are open through 8 pm. Please tell everybody you know that leaving the ballot blank counts as a 'no' vote. Thank you. Buh-bye."

Eckert said she'd never done anything like phone banking before. She said it's interesting, fun... and scary.

"Because a lot of people out there are you know, you think that everybody's against you," she said. "So standing up for what you truly believe in -- it's revitalizing but at the same time, a little nerve-wracking."

St. Cloud marriage amendment
Residents living along Garfield Court display signs in opposition of the proposed marriage amendment in St. Cloud, Minn. Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Eckert was born and raised Catholic in Plymouth. In early September, her Bible study group discussed the marriage amendment. Eckert realized she had been confused about which way to vote -- instead of "yes" to ban same sex marriage, she wanted to vote "no" to define marriage traditionally. She worried others might also be confused.

"At first I thought, 'I'm just gonna put a sign out and let people know how I stand,'" she said. "But then I thought I need to do a lot more than that."

At 28, Eckert says she has a responsibility to protect the family model and stand up for the children she and her husband want to have.

"How do you know what is right and what is wrong? How do you decide that? A lot of people go off of what they think," she said. "But I always have my faith in the Bible to go back to and refer back to because the Bible's been around for ages. And it's been around for ages for one reason: because it is the truth."

Eckert said it's a common misconception that people like her don't like gay people. She said she spends time with many gay people at her workplace in downtown Minneapolis.

"I love working with them, they're some of the people I enjoy being around the most," she said. "But truly, if the marriage amendment does not pass, it actually gives government more control and it limits our freedoms... and people are targeting us because it sounds like we're anti-gay, but totally not. I'm not anti-gay at all."

Across the metro in St Paul, opponents of the amendment this weekend were still trying to appeal to anyone who will listen. Lynne Hvidsten led a group of six door knocking volunteers into a highrise apartment building, each carrying a stack of pamphlets. Hvidsten got involved in the campaign to oppose the amendment last October -- late, in her estimation. She also says her opinion is grounded in faith.

"I am incredibly grateful for having had the opportunity to grow up in the small community that we did. The small agricultural community. And the values that I got," said Hvidsten, who was adopted as a child by a family in far northwest Minnesota. "That God loves everybody, we should treat people the way we want to be treated."

Hvidsten and her partner live in Minnetonka and have two adult children.

"We're the two women that live next door to you... we're the two women who have lived together for 20 years. We want to be the two women who have been married for 20 years," she said. "Because people understand -- when you say you're married, people understand that."

Hvidsten's group separated two-by-two from the building's elevator, each walking into a cement labyrinth. Hvidsten and her fellow volunteer Noukhiag Xiong took the 10th floor. They knocked on several doors with no response. One man talked to them through the door. An elderly woman invited them in, but she didn't speak much English. Later they sent another volunteer who spoke Spanish.

Loud, fast music came from behind Maurice Hicks' door, but when they knocked he answered promptly. Hvidsten asked him what he thought about the marriage amendment.

"I think it should be one man one woman," he said. "I think it should stay that way."

Hvidsten asked if Hicks opposed rights for gay couples, and he said he didn't know. She gave him some pamphlets and moved on. At the next door she and Xiong found a "no" voter, and then a string of voters opposed to the amendment. Many were surprised and glad when Hvidsten told them their polling place was down in the lobby.

They promised to make the trip down next Tuesday.

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