The new legislature has arrived, and the question on everyone’s minds is: when will Republican legislators, despite hints that the state and national parties may be starting to move away from marriage as their classic wedge issue, launch an attempt to put a constitutional ban on same-gender marriage on the 2012 ballot? A group of LGBTA Minnesota conservatives say they believe legislators will stay focused on economic issues, but they aren’t hedging their bets, and will be lobbying the new Republican majorities in the state House and Senate to try and defeat any attempt at putting an amendment on the ballot. However, it’s an open question how much pull the group will have over their traditionally anti-LGBT party colleagues.
“The incoming Majority Leader [of the state Senate] and Speaker [of the state House of Representatives] have made it crystal clear they’re not going to be focusing on social issues,” said Mark Kneif, chair of the Minnesota Log Cabin Republicans, in an interview with TheColu.mn last week. “The Minnesota Family Council is pushing that…but I don’t think they’ll get much traction.”
Despite the Republican Party’s long-standing ties with the Christian Right, many Minnesota GOP leaders have tried to distance themselves from social issues, claiming their popular mandate only included fixing the state’s budget deficit and spurring economic recovery. Nationally, groups like the Conservative Political Action Conference have started to welcome small LGBT Republican groups like GOProud, much to the consternation of some conservative Christian groups.
Jimmy LaSilvia, head of GOProud, says he thinks that “we’re seeing that the few [anti-LGBT conservatives] are are being shown for what they are, and they are very few.”
“I’ve known for a long long time that not all conservatives are anti-gay bigots…and not all gays are liberal,” he told TheColu.mn last week.
LaSilvia suggested a nationally-observed generational shift in attitudes towards sympathy for LGB rights causes was changing the political calculus at GOP headquarters.
“More and more Americans – conservative, liberal – know gay people, and everyone has gay people in their lives now,” he said. “I certainly see it among young people as more and more people feel comfortable living their lives as they are.”
In Minnesota, at least some incoming Republican state legislators, like Sen. Paul Gazelka (R-Brainerd), pushed an anti-marriage equality message in their 2010 campaigns, alongside the party’s overall emphasis on deficits and “jobs, jobs, jobs,” and the Catholic Archbishop of Minneapolis and St Paul, John Nienstedt, infamously sent parishioners DVDs where he called for a ballot measure pushing a constitutional amendment to ban same-gender marriage.
The Log Cabin Republicans’ Kneif said he is placing his faith in incoming House Speaker Kurt Zellers (R-Maple Grove) and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch (R-Buffalo), but he and other members of the group will also lobby rank-and-file Republican members of the legislature to support LGBT rights.
“They’ve been on-message on fiscal issues 100% don’t think they’ve talked about social issues since the election,” he said. “That’s going to be in their best interest to focus on fiscal issues: that’s what a vast majority of people want, and that’s what we need to have happen.”
Kneif acknowledged that his group had their work cut out for them.
“We do have a lot of work to do to continue to educate new and existing members” of the legislature, he said. “They’ve been fed a lot of false information [about LGBT people] by the Family Council for a number of years.”
Kneif said the Log Cabin Republicans would try to personalize LGBT rights issues for the members, using an approach that larger groups like OutFront Minnesota have relied on in trying to win over individual voters.
“There’s a fast difference between a person’s beliefs on GLBT equality when they know someone personally who’s gay,” Kneif said.
By building these personal relationships with individual GOP legislators, he said he hoped to give them visceral examples of the intense personal consequences any ban on same-gender marriage would have, and Kneif predicted that his group would have an easier time than more prominent LGBT-rights groups in the state, because they would be dealing with their fellow conservatives.
“The other equality groups in MN have been extraordinarily partisan,” he said.
In an email to TheColu.mn on Wednesday, an OutFront activist pointed out that the Log Cabin Republicans’ strategy has worked in the past, but cautioned that unlike larger interest groups, they would have a hard time forcing or enticing legislators into voting for or against a measure.
“The gay GOP groups I’ve found…just don’t have the numbers to be influential — neither sheer numbers of voters, nor heavy-hitting donors,” Adam Robbins wrote. “Like GOProud, I expect they can piss people off, but not really twist any arms.”
Robbins added that the Log Cabin Republicans’ approach has worked in at least some cases in the past, and would likely work with legislators who are undecided or “in the middle” on LGBT rights issues.
“I don’t have any names or stories at the tip of my tongue,” Robbins wrote, “but there are definitely some — some — legislators who have changed their positions after interacting with LGBT people. And then there are legislators like [the Republican state Senator from Maple Grove, Warren] Limmer who seem impervious to that tactic.”