Minnesotans have likely noticed that their legislators are very forward-looking people. They’re always looking ahead — to the next election.
One of this year’s most noticed moments came when a former legislator pleaded with her successors to take a longer look.
Someday you’ll be out of office, former Republican Rep. Lynne Osterman told a House committee on March 12. Don’t cast a vote this year on the repeal of the state’s same-sex marriage ban that you’ll regret then, as she now regrets her 2004 vote in favor of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
“Voting ‘no’ today, this session, might seem politically expedient. But I can tell you from experience that you will have to live knowing that a ‘no’ vote is not fair, it’s not respectful and it’s not equal,” a tearful Osterman said on March 12.
“I blew my vote. And I’m imploring you, please get this right. Minnesota citizens just want you to lead.”
Osterman, now managing director of a nanotechnology research network and nine years past her single term representing New Hope in the Minnesota House, said she came to the State Office Building that day intent on warning her fellow Republicans not to follow her down the road of regret.
“It literally occurred to me as I sat down” at the hearing room’s witness table: “This is a public apology.”
She didn’t intend to become a YouTube sensation or a featured guest on MSNBC. But a day after her testimony, “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” show sent a car to take her to a Minneapolis TV studio for a live interview. Within a few days, the number of online viewers of her testimony approached 200,000.
She received cards and letters from around the world, most of them congratulating her. To her delight, she heard from two longtime acquaintances whose friendship she feared she had lost for good as a result of her 2004 vote.
But the best consequence for her was how good she felt after her testimony. “It was very liberating,” she said.
The consequences of the advice she and other Minnesotans gave legislators in March will be revealed any day now. A vote repealing the state’s statutory ban on same-sex marriage has been teed up for floor votes in the House and Senate.
If and when to take a swing will be up to leaders of the DFL majorities — folks known to be nervous about asking DFLers in politically precarious perches to cast a controversial vote.
In its political dimension, the marriage issue is at least as scary-looking today as it was to Osterman in 2004. She was a freshman from a swing district. She was afraid of displeasing her GOP base. Though her decision gave her a two-day bellyache, she opted for a vote she considered the politically safer bet.
In 2004, she lost anyway. That’s politics. Re-election is not assured, no matter how one votes.
But deciding whether same-sex couples can legally marry isn’t akin to setting tax rates or speed limits. It’s about Minnesotans’ regard for innate human differences and fundamental human relationships. It has a moral and civil-rights dimension that leaves a lasting impression.
That’s why Capitol veterans can easily recall speeches made 20 years ago when the Legislature added sexual orientation to the state statute outlawing employment and housing discrimination.
The votes that legislators cast about same-sex marriage are likely to be among those they remember longest. They’re also ones their grandchildren might ask about one day.
Though a vote isn’t a sure thing, what feels like an 11th-hour lobbying push is on at the Capitol. Gov. Mark Dayton weighed in last week with a public appeal and private meetings with legislators, asking for marriage equality for same-sex couples. Citizen input is ramping up.
Osterman said that she’s still reaching out to her former colleagues. “This could be the last push,” she tells them. “You may never again get this opportunity to do the right thing. All of us who believe in civil rights, in human rights, have to speak up now.”
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.