Same-sex marriage battle focuses on rural, freshman DFLers

Marriage rally
Hundreds gathered at the State Capitol Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 in St. Paul, Minn., where supporters of same-sex marriage called for Minnesota lawmakers to legalize same-sex marriage.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

When committees in the Minnesota House and Senate begin holding hearings today on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, they'll hear from those who want to support or defeat it.

Advocates on both sides will focus much of their attention on newly elected Democrats from rural Minnesota whose constituents largely favored last fall's failed constitutional amendment to make marriage only between men and women.

The energy surrounding the lobbying efforts was clear on a recent Sunday, as a handful of volunteers packed into the office of Minnesotans United for All Families in northeast Minneapolis. The group was making phone calls to people living in the Willmar area.

Phone banks were essential last year in helping Minnesotans United defeat the constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage in Minnesota. Now they hope their list of supporters and another round of calls will help them convince the Legislature to remove a state law that bans same-sex marriage and allow same-sex couples to marry.

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"The issue is whether or not people want marriage redefined. As you can see, people don't want that."

The Minnesotans United callers contacted voters who support the bill and urged then urging them to leave a voice-mail message for state Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar. Those who agree are quickly transferred to Sawatzky's Capitol office phone.

Juliana Keen, a volunteer from Minneapolis, said she was ready to take a break after the amendment was defeated last year. But she said her sister and other friends in same-sex relationships don't have the ability to marry. She wants to change that, and decided to lobby the Legislature to pass a law.

"It took some talking to people to realize that this isn't the stopping place," Keen said. "It's the starting place. And if now is not the time then when?"

Marriage rally
Opponents of a bill to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota gathered in the State Capitol Rotunda to voice their opposition Thursday, March 7, 2013, in St. Paul, Minn.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

Minnesotans United is ramping up its lobbying efforts to convince the Legislature to pass the bill this year. The group has 11 registered lobbyists on staff. The group's spokesman Jake Loesch, said Minnesotans United is working to convince legislators to approve the bill in committee this week but is also lobbying the entire Legislature.

"We're confident it will pass when and if it gets to the floor for a vote," Loesch said. "So we're going to turn all of our energy to make sure that it happens."

While Loesch and supporters of the bill are working to get a vote this year, opponents are trying to keep it from reaching the floor of the House and Senate. Both sides are urging their supporters to contact their lawmakers, and a big target is first-term Democrats who won in districts that also supported the constitutional amendment.

Marriage rally
Hundreds gathered at the State Capitol Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 in St. Paul, Minn., where supporters of same-sex marriage called for Minnesota lawmakers to legalize it.
MPR photo/Tim Pugmire

Last week, opponents of the bill filled the Capitol Rotunda to urge lawmakers to vote no. Autumn Leva, a spokeswoman for the group Minnesota for Marriage, said opponents of same-sex marriage had to regroup after the November election and are now focusing on rural Democrats.

"People were very much discouraged after the loss in November but now we're down to a new issue," Leva said. "The issue is whether or not people want marriage redefined. As you can see, people don't want that."

Some lawmakers are watching the issue closely. Sawatzky, the Democrat from Willmar, said both sides are lobbying her. She is examining the final vote totals in her legislative district, where more than 60 percent voted in favor of the amendment.

"At this point," Sawatzky said, "how can I argue with 69 percent in Willmar saying marriage is between one man and one woman?"

Marriage rally
Opponents of a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota gathered in the State Capitol Rotunda to voice their opposition Thursday, March 7, 2013, in St. Paul, Minn.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

Supporters of same-sex marriage say they expect some Democrats to vote no on the bill, but they are also working to convince some Republicans from the suburbs to support it.

Those GOP votes could also influence when the House and Senate vote on the bill. DFL legislative leaders say they want bipartisan support for the bill. But so far, only one Republican, state Sen. Branden Peterson of Andover, is a co-author of the bill.