I have never seen anything quite like the Minnesota House debate over the proposal to amend their state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. The amendment passed last night, 70-62.
In the first place, I’ve seen a lot of legislative debates on this subject, and five and a quarter hours is a lot of talking on a single subject. I don’t think California has ever broken the three-hour mark on same-sex marriage, and that was years ago.
But the length of the discussion wasn’t what made it so remarkable. While Joe Jervis says, “The vote came after impassioned debate by legislators on both sides,” in fact there was no debate at all. Every member who spoke opposed the amendment – and did I mention that went on for over five hours?
The only voice in support was the amendment’s author, Rep. Steve Gottwalt, who had no backup from anyone in his party. And even he never weighed in on why it might be good to amend the constitution to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying. His argument was about the virtue of legislative abdication. This shouldn’t be our decision, it belongs to the voters. In his cameo speaking role, he kept repeating that his opinion on same-sex couples, were he to have one, would be irrelevant to his authoring of the amendment. The proposal wasn’t about same-sex couples or opposite-sex couples, or, really much of anything at all. He never budged from this non-position, and then went into radio silence, along with every pro-amendment Republican in the body. One other Republican, Rod Hamilton, did share how deeply he had struggled with his vote, but that was the extent of it. He, too, offered no argument in favor of the constitutional amendment.
In contrast, John Kriesel, a Republican Iraq war vet, was truly impassioned in his opposition. He spoke about the American values he fought for, and explained that the amendment was exactly the opposite of what he understood our principles to be. Rather than Gottwalt’s dodges, or the silence of the rest of his party, Kriesel was eloquent and manifest about his vote: “I’m proud of this. It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Three other Republicans and all but two of the Democrats could say the same thing. So what about those 68 other non-voices, that majority in favor of – nothing? This is what the public discussion of gay equality has come to on the right, a combination of cowardice and embarrassment. Again, in decades of paying very close attention to legislatures, I have never seen such a stone wall (you should pardon the expression). In the past, opponents have always had something to say. They don’t any more.
That is a testament to the merits of their position. They are willing to let NOM’s commercials do their talking for them, since even they know it isn’t seemly for elected officials to so openly appeal to the vestiges of prejudice. Far from having arguments they can take pride in, they want to say as little as possible, knowing that history will judge them badly and hoping to minimize the damage. That seemed to be Gottwalt’s strategy. He knew, going in, that the other side had the better of it, and the best he could do was avoid owning up to the position he’d wound up having to champion.
So now it will be up to the voters of Minnesota. How much of the GOP’s prejudice will they be willing to adopt as so supremely important that it is worthy of being placed in their state’s constitution?
The rules for passing a constitutional amendment in Minnesota are tougher than some other states, and that is an important fact. It must be passed with a majority of all votes cast in the 2012 general election, not just those cast on the amendment, itself. The increasing support for equality across the nation will also play a role.
But there is one other factor. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton has said he would fight the amendment with “every fiber of my being.” That kind of public leadership from the state’s governor can make a difference. California’s former governor once made a similar promise on Prop. 8; but like other promises he’d made, it wasn’t one he meant. He spoke not one public word against the amendment, and only offered a tepid statement for use by the opposition. I urge Minnesotans to do what California could not, hold their Governor to his word.
The rallying cry for this election should belong to Rep. Kriesel, though. Looking down at his desk, and then up to his fellow representatives, he said, “If there was a Hell No button, I’d press that.”