Equality proponents can be found in the most unlikely placesPolitically Aware Thursday, September 1st, 2011
Commentary: Politically Aware
Betty White came out for marriage equality in Parade magazine, but her Golden Girls alter ego, Rose Nyland, never did. It may be time for Ms. White to drag the ugly sweaters and ditzy persona out of the closet, because the battle for LGBT rights is moving to St. Olaf.
Since the passage of Proposition 8 in 2008 and the April 2009 Iowa Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, the marriage equality spotlight has been on the East Coast. 2009 saw legislative victories in New Hampshire and Vermont, and the too short victory in Maine, ended by Question 1. 2010 saw the addition of the District of Columbia, with New York following this year. In 2012, the fight for LGBT rights moves back to the Midwest, with potentially historic elections in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The undercard will be out lesbian Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin’s campaign for U.S. Senate. While Barney Frank, Jared Polis, Baldwin and others have given the LGBT community a voice in the House of Representatives, there has never been an out U.S. senator. The seat held by retiring Democrat Herb Kohl has been in Democratic hands since 1957, but Wisconsin politics took a hard right turn in 2010, giving Republicans the governor’s mansion, a U.S. Senate seat (previously held by Democrat Russ Feingold), and majorities in the state legislature.
With Feingold ruling out a run, Baldwin’s name recognition should match or exceed that of her opponents in the September Democratic primary. Should she emerge as the Democratic nominee, Baldwin will have a tough, but winnable, November election. The labor movement and their Democratic allies have been re-energized to defeat the anti-union agenda signed by Gov. Walker, as evidenced by the recall of two conservative state senators this summer. That energy, combined with a ballot likely to include President Obama and a recall of Gov. Walker, could sweep Baldwin to victory.
Baldwin has been a fierce advocate for LGBT causes, particularly health issues, working with the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA) to keep LGBT priorities in the Affordable Care Act and to protect HIV funding. In the Senate, Baldwin could be a focal point for issues like the Repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
While it’s hard to overemphasize the importance of the first LGBT seat at the Senate table, the main event will be in Minnesota, where a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage will be on the ballot. The measure itself is nothing new; 41 states have a similar law or amendment. The setting, however, has advantages that could provide the first ballot box victory for same-sex marriage.
If you’re thinking, “Marriage equality in Minnesota? Shut up, Rose!” you’re not alone, but you haven’t studied the history of the St. Olaf area. Minnesota has a strong history of LGBT activism. The Human Rights Campaign was founded there, and it still boasts more members than all but the most populous states (e.g., California and New York). In 2010, Gov. Pawlenty was the only barrier to legislative approval of same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, just as supportive Gov. Mark Dayton was elected, the legislature fell into less than fair-minded hands.
In addition to an independent, fair-minded citizenry, election rules in Minnesota skew the vote in favor of defeating the initiative. Based on a prior amendment, any voter who doesn’t vote “yes” automatically votes “no”. That may not sound like much, but it’s a huge leg up.
Most constitutional amendments fail, regardless of the state, because people who don’t understand the proposition vote “No” in an effort to maintain the status quo. This effect is so powerful that amendments without a 5-10 percent cushion in the early polls are considered doomed. Historically, the only amendments that exceed their polling are those against LGBT rights, where a “Yes” vote is deemed to prevent a change.
Many people in those elections voted for president or governor, but failed to check the “down ballot” boxes on the initiatives. In Minnesota, each of those people votes “No”. If that seems irrelevant, consider this: a similar law in California would have added nearly 160,000 “No on 8” votes. That advantage, Minnesota’s progressive history and the national trends could give same-sex marriage its first popular victory. Add America’s first out LGBT senator, and Nov. 6, 2012 could be the first historic election in some time that the LGBT community can remember fondly. Break out the Vänskapskaka.
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