Minnesota lawmakers won't be rushed on gay marriage

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 16, 2013 - 6:01 PM

The push is on for marriage equality, but it's a politically delicate task.

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Carolynne Hahn, 18, St. Paul, was among several hundred who gathered at the State Capitol Rotunda on Valentine's Day for the Freedom to Marry Day Rally.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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"Data: A Love Story" is the title of a new book that I'm not here to recommend, though I trust that author Amy Webb has written an engaging tale about online dating.

I'm here to steal the title. Its three key words -- "data," "love" and "story" -- nicely suit this Valentine's weekend column.

First, the data: State economist Tom Stinson recently showed a House panel a graph that ought to jar every steward of this state. It showed that the state's humming economy in the 1990s (increasingly known as the Good Old Days) was fueled by an annual 1.5 percent expansion of the state's labor force.

That growth rate has been dropping ever since. It's projected to keep dropping until it hits a perilous 0.1 percent in 2020-25. And that includes an assumption that by then, a larger share of Minnesotans than today will pass age 65 without retiring.

It'll be hard to sustain the prosperity to which Minnesotans have become accustomed when labor force growth has flatlined. With characteristic understatement, Stinson advised, "We need to reset our thinking to take advantage of the fact that we know this is going to happen."

Minnesotans who habitually fret about jobs, jobs, jobs ought to start worrying instead about what will happen if this state lacks enough skilled workers to replace its retirees. They ought to be asking how best to make this state a talent magnet, and how to avoid sending homegrown talent packing.

And they need to know that keeping same-sex marriage illegal works against those goals.

"We're competing for talent with places that are warmer and more accepting, and have mountains and oceans. The least we can be is accepting," said Sean Kershaw, executive director of the Citizens League, an organization that has the forecasted 2025 labor drought high on its worry list.

To stay prosperous, "this state depends on attracting people and making them productive. The last thing you want to do, even if you are opposed to gay marriage, is keep that group from helping you out," Kershaw said.

Making Minnesota prolove in all its human varieties was the goal of more than 1,000 people who spent part of Valentine's Day singing, shouting and, as the big, orange banner on the third-floor railing said, "standing on the side of love."

That wasn't my favorite sign at the Minnesotans United for All Families rally. The one that kept drawing my eye was held by a pair of 64-year-old women from Columbia Heights: "After 22 years together, aren't we worthy of being married?"

Ah-li Monahan and Lois Burnett held that hand-lettered plea through a long afternoon. But their patience with Minnesota is wearing thin, they said.

Minnesotans United, the biggest, smartest constitutional-question campaign this state has ever witnessed, is back in business -- not that it ever disbanded after it beat back a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage last fall. Its aim is full marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples -- this year.

Delay is unacceptable, the rallygoers insisted. "Now is the time! This is the year!" they chanted.

But -- perhaps more than they realize -- their impatience with injustice collides with their own leaders' assessment of the key to their victory last fall. The key: hundreds of thousands of brave personal conversations with voters.

More than 400,000 such encounters happened at Minnesota doorsteps, said Javen Swanson, a Minnesotans United associate director. More than 900,000 phone calls were made in the eight days before the Nov. 6 election, by 27,000 volunteers.

"We decided we should have a conversation in the state of Minnesota," said the Rev. Grant Stevenson, Minnesotans United's faith director. "We learned that when we take the time to talk to each other, we find broad agreement that marriage is fundamentally about love."

Telling one's love story can be very effective in touching and changing the heart of another person. Lacing the story with data about the positive economic impact that legalization of same-sex marriage is already having elsewhere can help change pragmatic minds.

But storytelling takes time -- and there's a lot more storytelling to be done before legislative leaders will feel comfortable about putting legalization of same-sex marriage on the House and Senate floors for a vote.

Those DFL leaders know well that a number of their members represent districts that voted "yes" on the marriage amendment. They want to see a lot more storytelling in those districts. They want evidence that minds and hearts are changing there.

The biggest "yes" votes for the marriage amendment came from places where people have long lamented that too many talented young people move away. The story I hope gets told is that if those places become more accepting of all kinds of love, the exodus will slow a bit. Some exiles might even return.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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