Listen MPR's Cathy Wurzer spoke with reporter Catherine Richert about the behind-the-scenes lobbying
May 15, 2013
At 5 p.m. on May 8 -- less than 24 hours before the Minnesota House was to vote on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage -- Rep. Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette, was sitting in his office when a couple walked in with a postcard explaining why he should vote to allow gay people to marry.
Erickson said he had already spent months weighing the issue. The two visitors helped him make up his mind.
"I was very undecided for quite a while," he said. "And then it just kind of hit me that it really should not matter whether it was a man and a woman, or two men or two women... I just became comfortable with the decision [to vote for the bill], that it's kind of the right thing to do."
Erickson's decision to support the bill did not come easily. Last fall, his district voted for an amendment to the state constitution that would have banned same-sex marriage. Supporting the legislation to legalize the practice could cost him his seat in 2014.
Despite the DFL's new majorities in the House and Senate, one look at a map of where the amendment passed and failed offers visible evidence that securing support from outstate DFLers, let alone Republicans, would be an uphill battle. Few people thought then that the Legislature would move this quickly to turn around and make same-sex marriage legal. But it did, and Gov. Mark Dayton plans to sign the measure into law Tuesday evening.
MORE MARRIAGE VOTE COVERAGE
• Story: After bill's passge, supporters jubilant
• Story: In the rotunda, issue still divisive
• Story: Rift remains in southeast Minnesota
• Live blog: Recap of Senate vote
• Live blog: Recap of House vote
• Photos: From the Minnesota Senate
• Photos: From the Minnesota House
• Maps: Same-sex marriage votes compared
• Interactive: Deep roots of the marriage debate
• Special report: How the amendment was defeated
From the start of the session, the odds appeared to be against passing the bill. It was only a combination of effective lobbying, polling, timing and a few key lawmakers, especially in the House, who made up their minds that the time was right for Minnesota to take a bold step that no other Midwestern state's lawmakers had yet been willing to take.
Starting in late 2012, opponents and supporters of the legislation launched an aggressive lobbying campaign around the issue, one that can be measured in stacks of emails, thousands of phone calls, and a host of registered lobbyists.
Behind the scenes at the Capitol, internal polling tested how passage of same-sex marriage would play in the 2014 elections. And in the House, a late-session decision to abandon a gun control bill meant some lawmakers were more comfortable supporting the legislation.
But as Minnesota becomes the 12th state to allow same-sex couples to marry, opponents say voters will soon learn the unintended consequences of the new law.
"We all witnessed our state Legislature rejecting the beliefs of the majority of Minnesotans -- choosing instead to side with the powerful same-sex 'marriage' lobby -- and denying the religious liberty rights of over 1 million Minnesotans," Minnesota for Marriage, the group lobbying against the bill, wrote in a press release.
Just hours after the DFL won control of the Legislature last November, leaders made it clear that the House and Senate would focus on jobs and crafting a balanced budget.
The message wasn't lost on Minnesotans United, the primary group that opposed the marriage amendment and supported same-sex marriage.
"Even though there was a Democratic majority, other issues at the Capitol this year have proven that just because there is a majority of a party that favors an issue doesn't mean things are black and white and everything gets done easily," said Jake Loesch, a spokesman for the group.
It wasn't until December that the group decided to push for legalization. Loesch said feedback from the group's members, initial conversations with House and Senate leadership, and a cursory headcount of potential legislative supporters remobilized the group.
"We were cautiously optimistic," said Loesch.
At the Capitol, the issue of same-sex marriage came up during the House DFL's first caucus meeting, said Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. He said he and House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, started talking to their members individually about the issue.
"It was never about, 'You need to vote for this because we need to do it this year,'" he said. "It was more just talking through with them what they were hearing from their constituents, what they are thinking about personally, where their families were."
Throughout the winter and spring, Minnesotans United relied on a strategy that had worked in the fall: they asked their supporters to use personal stories to convince lawmakers to support the legislation.
The group also hired 11 lobbyists to push the issue at the Legislature. And it ramped up organizing efforts in rural DFL districts where the amendment had passed and in suburban Republican districts where the amendment had failed, Loesch said.
Austin-area activist Kirsten Lindbloom, who was involved in campaigning against the marriage amendment, was among those enlisted by Minnesotans United to secure key DFL votes.
"I received a phone call in March from Minnesotans United saying, 'Hey, can you do a check with Jeanne Poppe? She's saying she's waffling,' said Lindbloom, who has known Poppe, DFL-Austin, for years through work. "I said, 'OK. What do you need? What do you need to hear and who do you need to hear from.' And [Poppe] was very clear that the other side had been vocal for months and that she hadn't been hearing from our side.'"
Lindbloom organized a meeting of 42 people at her home that included straight and gay families, teachers and clergy to encourage Poppe to vote for the bill. Lindbloom said the group did its best to convince Poppe of their support in the 2014 election if she decided to vote yes.
At the end of the meeting, Poppe told the group she would support same-sex marriage.
Poppe said her children also played an important role in her decision. Voting against the bill would be voting against "offering a welcoming and fair and just society to them," she said.
"As my youngest son tweeted [the night of the House vote], he raised me right," Poppe said. "And I think he did."
Meanwhile, Minnesota for Marriage, the primary group opposing the legislation, launched a statewide road trip to rally against the bill and to urge people to contact their legislators.
Minnesota for Marriage spokeswoman Autumn Leva told MPR News in April that the road trip was meant to let "legislators know that this bill does nothing to protect individual religious rights and rights of conscience."
The group also targeted the same DFL lawmakers being courted by Minnesotans United.
Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, was the subject of intense lobbying efforts on both sides, saying he received stacks of emails and hundreds of phone calls daily.
The general theme was "vote your district," Anzelc said. "Don't you realize that a majority of your district in the last election expressed a different opinion than you have? It's your responsibility to follow your district."
Ultimately, Anzelc voted for the bill. For him, it came down to civil rights.
"As an Iron Ranger, I'm proud to say that more times than not we have stood historically here at this Capitol for equality, civil rights and justice," he said.
Minnesota for Marriage did not return phone calls, but Leva recently told MPR News that her side was outspent and out-lobbied at the Capitol.
And in some cases, it appears the group may have been out-mobilized.
"I went through emails, phone calls, surveys, letters, and in person conversations on both sides of the issue," wrote Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, in a letter to the Alexandria Echo Press. "Overall, there were 64 percent of people urging me to support same-sex marriage and 36 percent urging me to vote against same-sex marriage."
TOO MANY TOUGH ISSUES
While both Minnesota for Marriage and Minnesotans United were locked in a public battle over the bill, there was more going on behind closed doors at the Capitol.
Several lawmakers said that they were concerned with the menu of controversial issues on the Legislature's agenda, including a bill that would have imposed stricter rules on gun ownership.
Poppe said she was among those who told DFL leaders that backing gay marriage and the guns bill would be too much for her to defend in her district.
Support for the gun bill was sparse in the House, and earlier this month, House Speaker Paul Thissen announced that the legislation wouldn't come to the floor for a vote. Thissen said abandoning the gun bill and taking up the same-sex marriage bill were not connected, though doing so may have made some lawmakers more comfortable supporting the marriage legislation.
Meanwhile, some outstate DFL lawmakers said they were shown internal polling that demonstrated same-sex marriage would be easier to defend in 2014 than expected. Thissen declined to discuss specifics of the polling, saying that people cast their vote based on conversations with constituents.
DFL Party Chair Ken Martin was involved, too, explaining to DFL lawmakers that public opinion is shifting in favor of same-sex marriage throughout the country, though recent polls in Minnesota show that the state is still against the practice.
"I spent a lot of time talking to legislators, not trying to lobby them or pressure them, but [saying] that from a political stand point, the political risk is not as high as it once was and you should feel free to vote your conscious on this issue," he said.
Meanwhile, David FitzSimmons, R-Albertville, was crafting an amendment that would protect religious institutions that oppose same sex marriage and generate bipartisan backing for the final bill.
Early last week, FitzSimmons reached out to Minnesotans United for their support.
"The Democrats didn't necessarily have any motivation to have Republicans vote for [the bill]," FitzSimmons said. "MN United is, at least in theory, a non-partisan organization. And my calculation was that if there's any ability to have negotiating leverage it's with MN United."
The group promptly sent out a press release in support of FitzSimmons' amendment, which he said sent "a signal to the Democrats that they needed to support this as well."
LAST MINUTE PUSH
Though it was clear early last week that the House had the votes to pass same-sex marriage, it didn't stop groups on both sides from a last minute lobbying blitz.
Minnesotans United asked former Carlson Companies CEO Marilyn Carlson and former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe to call key Republican lawmakers, including Sens. David Senjem and Carla Nelson of Rochester, and Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington.
Kluwe phoned Garofalo a few days before the House vote. The two had bonded over football and video games in the past, Kluwe said.
But even as Kluwe hung up the phone, he wasn't sure Garofalo would vote yes.
"It was a tough decision for Pat," Kluwe said. "He wanted to make sure it was something that his family would be OK with him doing, and that his kids, when they look back, they would be proud of their Dad."
Ultimately, Garofalo, along with FitzSimmons and Republican Reps. Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie and Andrea Kieffer of Woodbury, voted for the bill.
Meanwhile, Minnesota for Marriage made a series of final robocalls over the weekend, asking supporters to contact key senators.
"The fate of marriage in Minnesota will be decided by just a handful of state senators. State Sen. David Tomassoni [DFL-Chisholm] is one of those senators," said one of those calls. "Tell him that the religious protections are inadequate for both small businesses, religious institutions, and individuals. Please. This is urgent. Your call could be the one that changes his mind."
But by time the Senate took up the bill Monday, passage was a foregone conclusion. The chamber voted in 37-30 in favor, with one Republican voting for it and three Democrats voting against it.
Sen. Branden Petersen of Andover, was the only Republicans who voted for the bill. He said his decision came down to equal protection under the law. On the Senate floor, he dedicated his vote to his two children.
"Regardless of whether you one day agree with my position on this issue," he said to his kids, just one and two years old. "I just want to say that in all things related to your faith, to your freedom, to your family, be bold and be courageous and you'll never regret a day in your life."