DFL swing vote on gay marriage to support bill

Published 3:06 pm Saturday, May 4, 2013

ST. PAUL — A freshman Democratic state representative from a socially conservative district said Friday that he’d support the bill to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota, a key pickup for supporters as votes on the issue get closer at the Capitol.

Rep. Joe Radinovich, of Crosby, had been undecided. He said he decided more than a decade ago that he personally supports letting same-sex couples legally marry, but was conflicted knowing that many residents of his Brainerd-area district are more skeptical.

“This was not an easy decision, but at the end of the day I’d rather protect my integrity than my job,” Radinovich told The Associated Press. The 27-year-old lawmaker won his seat by just 323 votes last fall.

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Lawmakers could vote as early as next week on the bill to make same-sex marriage legal in Minnesota on Aug. 1, though votes have not yet been scheduled in either the House or Senate. While supporters appear to have the needed votes nailed down in the Senate, the House is less certain. A group of about a dozen rural House Democrats have been reluctant to commit, hailing from districts where voters strongly backed last fall’s failed constitutional gay marriage ban.

Radinovich typifies this group. The gay marriage ban won the support of 62 percent of voters in his district; to date, no DFL lawmaker from the few districts with a higher margin than that has come out for the gay marriage bill. Radinovich said earlier this week, he met with about three dozen gay marriage opponents from his district to break the news.

“This is an issue where there are people whose opinions are heartfelt on both sides of the issue, and I don’t take that lightly,” Radinovich said. “I certainly have family who feel differently than I do.”

One House Democrat in a similar circumstance made the opposite direction. “I’m voting no because I have to reflect my district on this one,” said Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar. Also a freshman representative, voters in Sawatzky’s district also backed the gay marriage ban by a margin above 60 percent.

Rep. Paul Marquart, of Dilworth, a veteran DFLer whose district also reached nearly 60 percent, said he’s undecided. “I’m getting passionate correspondence on both sides of the issue,” Marquart said.

So far, no House Republicans have said they’d vote for to legalize gay marriage. The situation is different in the Senate, where Sen. Branden Petersen, of Andover, is a definite yes. A handful of others — Sen. Dave Senjem, of Rochester, and Sen. Karin Housley, of Stillwater, among them — say they’re undecided.

“All you can do is listen and understand both sides, and I’m trying to do that,” said Housley, whose situation is the flip side of what’s facing Democrats like Radinovich and Marquart: voters in her suburban Twin Cities district defeated the gay marriage ban by a vote of 54 percent.

Housley said she probably wouldn’t decide how to vote until the minute she has to push the green or red button on the Senate floor.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said on Friday that it remained his preference for the House to take up the bill first.

“Politically if we send it over and they don’t have 68 votes for it, that’s problematic,” Bakk said. “It’s not fair to put them in that position. They’re the ones who are facing an election. They’re the ones who have to make a decision on the good or bad politics of the vote.”

But, Bakk said, House Speaker Paul Thissen asked him to consider the option of acting first. If the Senate were to pass the bill first with a bipartisan vote, that could build momentum for it in the House.