Just say no to wedge politics

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2011 - 6:24 PM

Efforts like the proposed ban on same-sex marriage will not make this state great.

Photo was taken at the Freedom to Marry Day Rally at the State Capitol in 2009.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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As six middle-aged, white male Republican legislators -- all married in the eyes of Minnesota law -- left the briefing room Tuesday after announcing their push for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, they couldn't avoid passing DFL Sen. Scott Dibble on his way inside.

How does one look a colleague in the eye or speak a civil greeting, right after announcing an intention to make that colleague's marriage forever illegitimate?

I craned my neck to see what expressions passed between them. Darn. Too far from the door to get a good look.

"They nodded," Dibble, a three-termer from Minneapolis and currently the Senate's only openly gay member, reported afterward. "One or two might have said 'Hi.' ... That's what makes it all the more odd that they are willing to effectively dehumanize me."

So it wasn't what they said to him, but what they said about marriages like his, that produced the tremor in the ordinarily unflappable Dibble's voice as he began to speak.

"What family does this help in Minnesota?" he asked.

Not his. Dibble, 45, married landscape architect Richard Leyva in 2008 in California.

It was during that state's brief window between a court decision and Proposition 8, during which anyone in a loving, committed relationship with anyone else could obtain legal recognition of their promises to take care of each other.

Their marriage remains legal in California. It has "no legal status whatsoever" in Minnesota, he said. Here, by statute and court decision, same-sex marriage is not permissible.

But statutes and court rulings are whiteboards that can be erased. Constitutions are granite. The proposed amendment seeks to chisel an opposite-sex-only definition of marriage into legal bedrock.

Yes, constitutional carvings can be altered, but only with extraordinary effort.

Dibble asked a worthy question. Who gains if this state's founding charter is used to define some of life's dearest relationships as acceptable and others as unworthy?

In the long run, denying basic human freedom to a minority usually doesn't turn out well for the majority, either.

The amendment's sponsors say they are leaving a constitutional door open to "civil unions" for same-sex partners. That's marriage by another name, some say.

A few years ago, that might have been deemed a sufficient offer of justice to a population accustomed to much worse. But attitudes about marital justice have been changing fast.

Today, "civil union" sounds a lot like "separate but equal." Real equality doesn't require a separate vocabulary.

To me, the move to put the marriage question on the 2012 ballot raises another question: What good will the divisive fight this will cause do Minnesota?

Attempts to divide Minnesotans are in vogue this year. Same-sex marriage is the latest wedge issue to appear at the Capitol for no obvious good reason, other than partisan gain.

My wedge list includes a cloning ban that would squelch bioscience research. Restrictions on abortion.

Undoing gender pay equity requirements. Piling budget cuts on Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. Photo ID to vote. The raid on Iron Range development funds. That's for starters.

Divisive politics is generally practiced for one reason: it works. But that doesn't make it smart for this state.

Minnesota was an ordinary Midwestern state in the middle of the 20th century. By the end of the century, it was punching way above its weight.

The biggest reason: Minnesotans trusted each other and their state government enough to pay higher-than-average state taxes and invest them in each other. They gave Minnesota its best economic asset: a high-quality, productive workforce.

One of the biggest leadership tasks of the 21st century is to keep Minnesotans pulling together as one state. Politicians may be able to win elections with wedge tactics, but they can't keep this state strong that way.

Most of Minnesota's 21 Fortune 500 companies treat same-sex partners and married spouses equally in their employee benefit policies. They evidently have decided that discrimination against same-sex couples isn't good for business.

Maybe they can help Republican legislators see that this version of divide-and-conquer politics isn't in their best interests, either.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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