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Cottage Grove lawmakers question same-sex marriage amendment's effect, timing

Freshman Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, is stopped by a lobbyist outside the Minnesota House chamber recently. Kriesel has been vocal about his opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente

ST. PAUL - Rep. John Kriesel was sitting outside the Minnesota House chamber, his mind firmly made up on one of the most controversial issues at the Capitol.

Kriesel, a freshman from Cottage Grove, said he split with fellow Republicans and opposes a bill that would put before voters a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

"I don't care in there who's supporting it and who's not," Kriesel said, pointing to the House chamber during a recent interview, "but I know that I can't in my heart."

That was not the case until just recently, Kriesel said. While he had followed the Legislature before deciding to run for office last year, Kriesel said he had not thought about the same-sex marriage issue and was not questioned about it by anyone while campaigning.

With the Legislature in GOP control, an effort to put the amendment on the 2012 ballot gathered steam in recent weeks. The Senate approved the ballot measure last week. It could pass the House before the legislative session's May 23 deadline. Governors have no say in constitutional amendments, so if approved by the House the measure would go straight to the general election ballot.

If a House floor vote takes place, Kriesel said he will be a "no." It would be his third big vote breaking rank with his GOP caucus this year.

Rep. Denny McNamara of Hastings, who previously voted to put the measure on the ballot - those efforts languished in a divided Legislature - would not say how he will vote on the bill if, as expected, it reaches the House floor in this session's final days. McNamara said he is focused on the state budget debate and thinks other lawmakers should be too.

"I'm really not in tune with the whole marriage amendment discussion and really don't think we should be dealing with that right now," he said.

'I just don't care'

Amendment backers, who have been advocating for a public vote on the issue for at least seven years, argue that a change in the constitution is needed because existing state law banning gay marriage could be overturned in court. They say legislative approval this year will allow ample time for public debate on the issue.

McNamara said he has heard from constituents on the marriage amendment issue and is trying to keep track of where they stand. He would not say whether he will vote for it or against it.

"I wouldn't make an assumption that something I did five years ago would not change," he said.

Kriesel, who has sided with fellow Republicans on most votes, said the marriage amendment is an example of how his position was shaped after considering his fundamental responsibilities as a representative.

"I think about the things I vote on," he said. "I thought about it and thought: I love my wife more than anything. She makes me happy; I couldn't imagine life without her. So I don't see how I could ever vote to take that away from someone else. I don't care if it's two men, two women - I just don't care."

McNamara said Kriesel is "a very principled and strong individual."

"It's not surprising to folks that he doesn't necessarily just follow the lead of someone who says this is what you should do if you're a Republican," McNamara said.

Kriesel's position is getting attention. A dust-up ensued last week after a South St. Paul priest emailed Kriesel to ask that he reconsider his opposition to the amendment. Kriesel's office responded with a statement that said the IRS "frowns upon" churches attempting to influence legislation. That generated buzz on Catholic websites, and the Catholic Defense League advocacy group demanded an apology for "unprofessional, threatening and disrespectful emails."

Kriesel said he believes "very strongly" in the issue.

"I also believe that we can disagree without being disagreeable and respect other viewpoints even if they are different from our own," he wrote to the Bulletin in response to the Catholic Defense League's demand.

Talking to others

Lawmakers are careening toward their May 23 deadline while staring at a $5 billion state budget deficit and the need to set a new two-year state budget. Budget talk dominates the Capitol this late in the session, but the marriage amendment is among a handful of high profile issues in play in the session's waning days.

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, opposed the marriage amendment when senators voted on the measure last week. She said it came up before House and Senate Republicans had negotiated their budget proposal, "which I think is frustrating," she told a crowd at a town hall meeting Friday in Cottage Grove.

"It's like, 'Really, why are we doing this now?'" Sieben said of controversial social issues, including the marriage amendment, being discussed late in a budget-setting session.

All legislative seats will be on the ballot next fall. Kriesel, who said he plans to seek a second term, said if the Legislature approves putting the amendment on the ballot he would tell people where he stands on the gay marriage issue, but would not actively campaign against the amendment or include the issue on his campaign literature.

Meanwhile, Kriesel said he planned to talk privately to certain House colleagues who he believes could be convinced to switch their vote and oppose the ballot measure. McNamara said he already discussed the issue with Kriesel.

"John's pretty good about representing his district and doing a good job," McNamara said. "He's talked to me about it. I certainly understand where he's at."

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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