Anti-bullying law fires up both GOP, DFL party faithful

Gov. Mark Dayton signs
Gov. Mark Dayton signs into the law the Safe and Supportive Schools Act on the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol in April 2014. The Safe and Supportive Schools Act strengthens protections against the threat of bullying in Minnesota Schools. At left is Jake Ross, 11, of Forest Lake. Jake was bullied by classmates for years. At right, behind Dayton is Rep. Scott Danrie and Sen. Scott Dibble.
Judy Griesedieck/For MPR News, File

Minnesota's newly-enacted anti-bullying law is designed to help school kids, but both political parties think it could also help them this election year.

Gov. Mark Dayton signed the legislation a few weeks ago that requires schools to have a detailed bullying policy that outlines how they will respond to and track bullying complaints, as well requiring each school to have one employee who receives reports of bullying.

In part, the bill was prompted by concerns over gay children being bullied in school. One of the law's primary backers is OutFront Minnesota.

Democrats say they're focusing on the issue to underscore their party's priorities, while Republicans are focusing on the law to fire-up the party faithful and to highlight their conservative credentials.

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But both parties take radically different views of what the law actually does.

Republicans argue it is an unfunded example of government overreach. They also say that the new law threatens religious freedom, for instance if a student who opposes homosexuality based on his faith is accused of bullying.

Democrats say the new requirements underscore their party's commitment to families and children.

In that regard, Democrats view the new law as a legislative victory - and an election year positive.

"The only disappointment is a majority of Republican legislators refused to support the bill," said DFL party chair Ken Martin at the bill signing. "It's especially disheartening that legislators running for statewide office voted against children's wellbeing. Once again Republicans put far-right special interest groups before good public policy and the DFL's efforts to build a better Minnesota for all."

Meanwhile, GOP gubernatorial hopeful Jeff Johnson says the issue has worked well for him when it comes to connecting with potential supporters.

"The Democrats are misleadingly calling this bill the 'Safe and Supportive MN Schools Act,' but it isn't truly about bullying -- it is about forcing government-determined personal values and morals on our children," Johnson wrote on his Facebook page recently.

Johnson says he will drop out of the race if he doesn't win the GOP endorsement for governor in May, so gathering support from the most active and engaged members of the Republican Party now is critical.

And that's one reason Johnson may be talking about the bullying bill, said University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs. When it comes to appealing to the mostly socially and economically conservative voters who will participate in the endorsement process, this is a topic that works.

"The bullying bill is a one-size-fits-all to appeal to both the social conservatives who are so important during the endorsement process and also the Tea Party, economic and libertarian conservatives who are seeing government as wildly out of the control" Jacobs said.

The bullying bill was also opposed by the Minnesota Family Council, an organization that played a critical role in advancing an effort to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota and has broad support among conservatives. The council argues that the law could violate religious freedom.

The group says that it opposes bullying, including bullying of LGBT students. But also says that the law threatens to reshape "the beliefs and values of students on such topics as family structure and sexuality."

Chief bill sponsor Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, says conservative opposition to the bill goes back to intolerance of homosexuality.

"No one objected to kids of color being included [in the bill]. No one objected to kids with disabilities being included," Davnie said. "LGBT kids? That not only sparked-up a conversation about the status of LGBT kids, but it also brought up bizarre conservations about sex ed curriculum that's completely outside the scope of this bill because it struck too close to issues of sexuality for people who are very uncomfortable with any conversation like that."

For his part, Johnson says he realizes that opposing the bullying bill comes with an additional political risk.

"You don't want to appear that you're OK with bullying," he said. "Most of us, including me, are absolutely opposed to bullying."

"I don't think it's just gay kids who are bullied," Johnson added. "A lot of kids are bullied and it doesn't have anything to do with sexual orientation and it's always wrong."

But right now, Jacobs said candidates like Johnson won't get punished for their views on this issue. That's a risk in the general election, when views like Johnson's may be perceived by the wider electorate as intolerant.

"For Jeff Johnson, the only thing that matters at this moment is whether he can build a coalition on the conservative side," he said.