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Amendment supporters targeting politicians opposed to same-sex ban
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Stephanie Smith (L) and her lesbian partner Kathleen McGuire prepare to kiss during a rally celebrating a court decision ruling gay and lesbian couples in California have the right to marry March 14, 2005 in San Francisco. Advocates of a constitutional amendment in Minnesota call it "judicial activism" and say an amendment would prevent same-sex marriage. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The legislative debate over marriage and gay and lesbian rights leaves the Capitol on Friday. A House committee is traveling to Grand Rapids to consider a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Recent court cases have opened the door for same-sex unions in other states. Opponents of same-sex marriage say that means Minnesota needs to establish a ban in the state constitution. Others, however, say the location and the timing of the hearing smack more of politics than public policy. They say the hearing appears to be targeting two DFL opponents of a constitutional ban.

St. Paul, Minn. — Last year, the Republican-run House voted to put the same-sex marriage amendment on a statewide ballot for citizens to decide. The DFL-controlled Senate declined to follow suit, setting up a disagreement that some say was the root of last year's paralyzing gridlock in the Legislature.

Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, who opposed putting the measure to a popular vote, says he's puzzled that the House Civil Law and Elections Committee is visiting his district to continue the debate.

"Hopefully the committee will hit some of the potholes and the chuckholes that are in the roads," he said.

Solberg says his constituents are more concerned about the state of the local infrastructure than a debate about gay and lesbian unions.

"I don't think it's high on their radar. Most of them try their best to go to work and raise their families and educate their families and are concerned about issues such as health care and how they obtain health care," according to Solberg.

Solberg voted for the current state law, which bans same-sex marriages and declines to recognize them even if they're legally sanctioned elsewhere. He says that law is sufficient; there's no need to elevate the debate to the constitutional level.

But the chair of the Civil Law committee says a simple law isn't enough. Republican Jeff Johnson of Plymouth notes that judges in other states have struck down their laws banning same-sex marriage.

"We know Massachusetts has done it, and we just saw a judge in California do it earlier this week. So I don't think it's realistic to say there's no chance that would happen in Minnesota because I think there's a very good chance that that could happen in Minnesota. And this would prevent that from ever happening," he said.

Democrats, say the real reason the committee is traveling is to make trouble for Solberg and another DFLer. Tom Saxhaug represents the same area in the state Senate. He says the tight margins of power in the House mean a legislative upset here or there could have a profound effect on political power in the state.

Saxhaug says Republican leaders, including House Speaker Steve Sviggum, are simply trying to stir up noise in rural districts to protect the Republican's narrow majority in the House.

"Speaker Sviggum understands that Rep. Solberg is very close to the top in the leadership, is a highly respected representative in the leadership, and that if he loses a couple of more seats the two of them could be switching places. And I think that has a lot to do with it," Saxhaug says.

But voters haven't punished Solberg for his position; he handily won re-election last fall. And the House is considered likely to again pass the constitutional ban with or without his support.

The real action appears to be in the Senate, where the proposal hasn't even had a floor vote. That makes Sen. Saxhaug a tempting target for supporters of a constitutional measure like Chuck Darrell. Darrell, who represents the group Minnesota for Marriage, says the real battle will take place in the Senate, and he says recent statewide polling shows almost half of Minnesota voters would be less likely to vote for a senator who stood in the way of the same-sex marriage ban.

"In many of the districts outside of the Twin Cities, their constituents are socially conservative on this issue. We want to encourage those senators to reflect the will of their constituents and support the marriage amendment," according to Darrell.

Darrell will be in Grand Rapids to release polling data particular to Saxhaug's seat. He says his group has about 10 Senate seats targeted.

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