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Move right away on marriage equality

by Eric Ferguson on November 13, 2012

Add mine to the voices in the liberal base saying move right away on marriage equality. I used marriage as an example when I said yesterday that we’ve won nothing in the 2012 election but an opportunity but that’s all it was, an example of the opportunities in front us where we haven’t actually racked up a win yet. I’m focusing now on this specific issue. Now is the time.

I’m not insensible to the case for going slow. A bunch of DFL legislators won districts where the amendment passed. Legislators campaigned on restoring school funding and completing a budget without gridlock and government shutdowns, and this is the budget session. A bunch of worthy or even needed projects got left out of the bonding bills because the GOP can’t comprehend that bonding isn’t the same as spending the money now, that interest rates are at record lows, unemployment is high, and the work has to get done sometime (I guess I just summarized the case for bonding, and yes, we should do that too).

So I get it that there are competing priorities and clearer mandates. I’m aware too that the US Supreme Court might rule in California’s Proposition 8 case and throw out marriage discrimination altogether, or the Congress might change federal law to effectively establish legal equality. I have great doubts Congress is ready to do that, but OK, I admit the possibility.

However, I’m not giving credence to the argument the voters were against gay marriage but just didn’t want the ban in the constitution. That conflates the two amendments. Keeping it out of the constitution even if you’re for it was a core argument against photo ID, but I see no evidence that argument had an impact against the marriage amendment, or even that it was much used. The debate on the marriage amendment was about the issue itself, and the pro-equality anti-discrimination side won at the polls. Yes, it was for the first time ever, but simultaneous with three other states and consistent with what polls have shown for years about changing attitudes.

Maybe support for marriage equality or gay rights in general will continue to rise, but maybe not, or maybe not steadily, we don’t know that — but we do know support is high now. I also know that if you have a chance the put a policy objective into law when public support is at a high point, you do it. You’re almost surely a fool not to.
I understand that it’s still smart to look at the risks and benefits before deciding the time is propitious, so OK, let’s look at some benefits, or at least mitigations of risks, like the concerns of DFL legislators from districts that passed the amendment. Understandable, but it goes two ways, meaning a bunch of Republicans represent districts where the amendment lost. Maybe that’s not much comfort to individual legislators, but on a party level, counting the number of legislators in this position, it’s actually a touch worse for Republicans than DFLers.

I also understand that the budget is the main agenda item and has to come first. It will look really bad if a DFL legislature and DFL governor can’t get it done. Got it. However, I also know it takes time to put the budget together. So don’t try to vote on marriage at the  same time as the budget. Do it right away and be done with it.

I’m not so sure about the argument being offered that if we do this quickly, it will be forgotten by election day 2014. I’ll buy that about 2016 when the Senate faces reelection, but I’m not so sure about the House. I hardly expect the pro-amendment side to just go away. They must be discouraged, but they have backers with scads of money, and I take conservatives at their word that stopping gay marriage is a top issue for them. I would guess they’ll target pro-marriage legislators, however, I would also guess Minnesotans United For All Families (MN United, the umbrella group opposing the amendment) isn’t going away either. So there is a movement to give those willing to end discrimination right now some wind at their backs. In fact, probably the only thing that could break up the pro-marriage movement now is to have DFL legislators refuse to take up the issue when the environment is so favorable.

And if they do refuse to take it up? That’s not exactly risk-free. Like I said in that post yesterday about demographics being opportunity rather than destiny, the groups leaning Democratic aren’t obligated to vote that way perpetually. We know LGBT voters have a strong blue lean, but if the Democrats aren’t going to protect their rights either, even if it’s out of fear of swing voters rather than dislike of gays, they have no reason to keep voting for Democrats. Same for younger voters, among whom even the straights favor gay rights. They just won a huge victory in marriage winning at the ballot box in four states and even an Iowa Supreme Court justice surviving a retention election. Young voters don’t have money, but they had decent voter turnout and a lot of volunteer time, and DFL legislators really want to tell them they get …. nothing? Do you want them to make voting DFL a habit or don’t you? No, young voters don’t care solely about this one issue, and even LGBT voters don’t care solely about this one issue … but they do care about it. Ironically, by putting that amendment on the ballot and forcing this long campaign over marriage, Republicans created a great opportunity for the DFL to win over people who will be voting for a long time to come. Such voters discovered they’re now the majority, that they can win, and which party is on their side. For crying out loud, don’t blow it.

I would also point out to reluctant legislators that the DFL governor we were so happy to have at long last faces his own reelection in two years. Mark Dayton ran mostly on an upper income tax increase, but he also ran on gay marriage. I don’t expect him to publicly contradict DFL legislative leaders, but I have a feeling that in private, he said something like, “Don’t leave me hanging out here.” If the marriage ban is repealed, Dayton can run on a fulfilled promise. If it isn’t, he’s running on a broken promise, even though it was outside his control. He can’t sign it if the legislature won’t pass it. DFL legislators, do you want Dayton to be reelected, or not? Then give him what he ran on.

One more consideration. Let’s suppose the argument that marriage equality will be a non-issue in 2014 if it’s passed now is right — but it doesn’t get passed. Think the pressure will go away? The demands to get this done will only get more urgent. If you’re afraid of ticking off swing voters with a vote nearly two years before election day, how about a vote in the 2014 session, does that seem less scary? Yet the calls to pass it will get more insistent, and those calls will come as you’re seeking donations and volunteers.

So maybe the main point to make to nervous DFL legislators is that the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of action.

Sometimes though, despite all the analysis we do, issues aren’t that complicated and decisions come down to one thing: “What’s the right thing to do? Do that.” This is one of those times.

Click here to sign a petition to DFL legislative leaders asking that this be a high priority for them.

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