Large crowds gathered on the lawn outside, clustered under umbrellas in driving wind and sleet, to hear Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton argue that Minnesotans both straight and gay have "a constitutional right and an American right to marry who you love."
Ann Turnbull, a retired state worker with a lesbian partner of 36 years, brought a message to the Capitol Thursday for Minnesota lawmakers who say it's too soon to legalize gay marriage.
"I'm getting old. This needs to happen this year," Turnbull told her state senator, Republican Carrie Ruud, in a brief discussion just off the Senate floor. She and her partner want the full legal protections of marriage, Turnbull said, "and I want it to happen in my lifetime."
Hundreds of gay marriage supporters swarmed the Capitol in hopes of winning over reluctant lawmakers for a lobby day sponsored by groups funding the gay marriage push. Large crowds gathered on the lawn outside, clustered under umbrellas in driving wind and sleet, to hear Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton argue that Minnesotans both straight and gay have "a constitutional right and an American right to marry who you love."
But a vote this session is not certain. Republicans, including Ruud, are almost uniformly opposed. And many Democrats in rural districts have been reluctant for fear of alienating constituents.
"It's a tough issue up in my neck of the woods," said Rep. Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette, a retired teacher. His northwestern Minnesota district voted more than 60 percent in favor of last fall's gay marriage ban, and Erickson said only one out of every five letters or emails he gets about gay marriage asks him to support it.
Still, Erickson said he's undecided. He said he can see a distinction between civil and religious marriage, but that many of his constituents "have a harder time separating the church and state part of it. That's the conundrum I'm kind of in."
Ruud, who lives in the Brainerd-area town of Breezy Point, huddled with about a dozen gay marriage supporters from her district. Many, including Turnbull, spoke in very personal terms. "This is difficult for a lot of us. I don't do politics, I don't like lobbying," Turnbull said.
But Ruud, who called her district "very socially conservative," said she would vote no if the bill gets to the Senate floor.
"I have to do what my district wants in the end, and I did campaign for marriage as a man and a woman," Ruud said. "I've been very out front with where I stand, but it doesn't mean I don't empathize with their stories and their hearts. It's hard."
Last month, the House and Senate bills to legalize gay marriage cleared committees in the respective chambers. DFL legislative leaders have said they wouldn't hold floor votes until they're done with the first phase of passing budget bills; that could happen by late next week.
The bill is likely to come up in the House first, where supporters see a bigger challenge in getting the 68 votes needed for passage. Seventeen House Democrats represent districts where a majority of voters backed the unsuccessful gay marriage ban. Conversely, 21 House Republicans represent suburban districts where the amendment failed — but so far, no House Republicans have publicly backed the bill. One Republican senator, Branden Petersen of Andover, has signed on.
Sen. Tom Saxhaug of Grand Rapids is another Democrat from a district where the marriage amendment did well. Last weekend, a group of gay marriage opponents traveling on an RV tour sponsored by the group Minnesota for Marriage stopped at Saxhaug's house and knocked on his front door without notice.
"I came outside, and someone tried to grill me a little bit," Saxhaug said. "I had to tell them it wasn't a question and answer session, and they were respectful."
Saxhaug said he's "sympathetic to same sex marriage" but wants the Legislature to wait until next year.
"By then we'll know where the Supreme Court falls on this question," Saxhaug said. "For us to just stick our necks out without knowing which way the federal government's going makes it tough."
If the bill gets through the Legislature and Dayton signs it, gay marriages would start in the state on Aug. 1.
Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, said he's ready to cast his vote for gay marriage even though his Iron Range district went for the marriage amendment by about 53 percent. The 32-year-old former union organizer recalled how a close childhood friend came out to him a few years back.
"It's amazing, when you have someone you love and know go through that, how much it can change the things that you were raised to believe," Metsa said. "So I'm just going to vote my gut and do what I think is right."