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Same-sex marriage debate keeps Capitol phones ringing
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Brooke Disanto answers phones in Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson's office, tallying how many supporters and opponents of the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage have called. On Tuesday morning alone, she had taken 64 calls in favor of the amendment, and 33 in opposition. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
On the eve of key legislative votes on a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage, lobbying on both sides of the issue has intensified. The House is scheduled to vote on the measure Wednesday, and the bill will get a Senate hearing on Friday. Supporters of the measure have focused most of their efforts on the Senate, where the prospects for passage are uncertain.

St. Paul, Minn. — The proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as a civil contract between a man and a woman is expected to easily pass the House. House Speaker Steve Sviggum has said it could get as many as 100 votes in the 134-member body.

But the measure may never reach the Senate floor if opponents defeat it in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday. So supporters of the amendment are targeting key senators, starting with DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson.

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Image Tom Prichard

Johnson's office has been flooded with calls, several hundred a day. An overwhelming majority of callers support the constitutional amendment, although staffers say calls from opponents have increased in recent days.

Some lawmakers say there hasn't been this much public interest in an issue since the stadium debate of 1997, when angry stadium opponents shut down the Capitol phone system. Johnson says he's not necessarily swayed by the volume of calls, because the vast majority are coming from outside his district.

"Certainly I pay more attention to my constituents -- who, by the way -- if I have now received a dozen, that's about it," says Johnson.

Johnson hasn't said publicly how he'll vote if the measure comes to the floor, but has said he's reluctant to amend the state Constitution. Johnson also says he's troubled by the tenor of the debate. He says when supporters of a same-sex marriage ban rallied at the Capitol this week, he heard what he describes as hateful and judgmental speech.

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Image Sen. Johnson

"Out on the steps, in the Capitol rotunda, and in our own office here, making staff people cry, calling them names."

Johnson's staff called Capitol security, and a state trooper was stationed outside the door to stop supporters from intimidating staffers.

The Minnesota Family Council has been organizing support for the proposal. The Council took out a full-page ad in the Star Tribune newspaper, asking supporters to call DFL senators and ask them to bring up the measure on the Senate floor. Family Council President Tom Prichard says he's told supporters to avoid name-calling, and stick to the facts.

"We don't want to attack any legislators, and we stay away from personal attacks," says Prichard. "But we just want to encourage them to obviously allow this up for a vote, and recognize this is an issue of great concern to many of their constituents."

If people were flocking to the city hall in Austin or Albert Lea and asking to ... have same-sex marriages -- or in Minneapolis, for that matter, I think I'd be a little nervous. We haven't seen any of that here, and I don't think we will.
- Rep. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin

Prichard says he thinks if the full Senate voted on the proposed constitutional amendment, it would pass. The Family Council is targeting rural Democrats in particular, because Prichard says many rural voters support a ban on same-sex marriage.

One rural Democrat high on the Family Council's priority list is Dan Sparks of Austin, who narrowly defeated Republican Grace Schwab in the last election. Sparks says he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, but says he's not sure he supports amending the state Constitution to say that.

"If people were flocking to the city hall in Austin or Albert Lea and asking to be married -- have same-sex marriages -- or in Minneapolis, for that matter, I think I'd be a little nervous," says Sparks. "But I think that we haven't seen any of that here, and I don't think we will."

While Sparks isn't up for re-election this year, he acknowledges the bill would be a tough vote if it comes up on the Senate floor.

The bill may also be a tough vote for some House members in swing districts. All 134 House seats are on the ballot this fall. Rep. Rebecca Otto, DFL-Marine on St. Croix, won her seat in a special election last year, and will likely be targeted by Republicans in November. Otto says she hasn't decided how she'll vote on the bill, but says she's getting a lot of calls and e-mails on the issue.

"We haven't tallied, and I did a survey of my district on several issues, this was actually not one of them. It might have been easier had I surveyed," Otto says. "What I am finding with quite a few folks is they haven't even really thought about it."

Otto says she'll listen to the floor debate, and make her decision then.

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