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Continued: Parents got the win that counts

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 10, 2012 - 10:15 PM

An election doesn't get much more poignant than last Tuesday's was for Jeff and Lori Wilfahrt of Rosemount.

Jeff, 59, a former 3M chemist and a DFLer, lost his first try for elective office by 9 percentage points. The House District 57B seat he sought went to Anna Wills, a 28-year-old Republican legislative aide.

Yet on Wednesday the Wilfahrts called this election a "pride point" in state history, one that renewed their faith in their fellow Minnesotans. They got the outcome they wanted most -- the defeat of the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

They've spent the past 18 months working to defeat that amendment, for Andrew's sake.

Army Cpl. Andrew Wilfahrt died on Feb. 27, 2011, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when an improvised explosive device blew his 31-year-old body apart. He was gay and as open about his sexuality as the infamous "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) rule under which he served would permit.

Andrew knew when he died that DADT was crumbling. He didn't know that his home state was about to embark on a political fight over marriage rights, triggered by the GOP-controlled Legislature's push to put the law's existing ban on same-sex marriage into the state Constitution.

But, Jeff and Lori said, Andrew would have wanted them to do what they did as events unfolded in the weeks after his death. This private, apolitical, long-married suburban couple spoke up.

In a matter of weeks, Lori found herself at the White House, speaking about DADT with Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett. (When DADT was finally eliminated, President Obama sent the Wilfahrts one of the pens with which he signed the order.) Jeff came to the State Capitol, first to rally, then to testify against the bill to place the same-sex marriage ban on the state ballot.

And in a moment that became a YouTube sensation and was broadcast by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, Republican Rep. John Kriesel invoked Andrew's name during the House floor debate on the marriage ban. He held up Andrew's photo and said, "I cannot look at this family and look at this picture and say, 'You know what, Corporal? You were good enough to fight for your country and give your life, but you were not good enough to marry the person you love.'"

Kriesel placed Andrew's photo on every House member's desk that night. When the Wilfahrts took their seats in the gallery above the chamber to watch the debate, they looked down and saw Andrew gazing back at them.

It has been that way for 18 months. Andrew seemed always at their sides. Lori, a 3M e-marketing manager, "did it for him" when she began accepting speaking invitations -- something she'd never done before -- and volunteering with Minnesotans United for All Families. By this fall she was giving at least one speech per week.

Though Jeff insisted that "I don't have the ego for this," he agreed to run for the House seat being vacated by the high school social studies teacher who taught his two younger children, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kurt Bills. As Jeff campaigned, he reflected on Andrew's interest in the Constitution, a copy of which the soldier often carried.

"This is a citizenship issue," he concluded about the marriage amendment. "If this amendment would have passed, a minority group would have been denied the opportunity to stand before the Minnesota Supreme Court and say, 'Where are our rights?' They would have become second-class citizens."

Even when the couple voted on Tuesday, Andrew was there. His name was still on registration rolls. The Wilfahrts were asked to fill out a form to officially remove it.

The couple's public activities may have begun, at least in part, as a constructive outlet for their grief. But they grew into something larger. That's what often happens when one becomes an active citizen. One's world expands, and one's own woes recede or take on new perspective.

Today the Wilfahrts have scores of friends they didn't know 20 months ago. They've hugged many a young gay man or lesbian woman whose parents aren't as accepting as the Wilfahrts were of Andrew. They've been inspired by the courage of long-closeted people who spoke openly about their sexuality for the first time in order to persuade their fellow Minnesotans to vote no.

Along the way, Jeff became an articulate exponent of policies that go way beyond gay rights.

"The politics of this nation right now boil down to the left using the pronoun 'we' and the right using the pronoun 'me' -- my guns, my taxes, my inability to share or sacrifice," he said.

"Somehow government has been vilified, and that's wrong. I like knowing that the fire department will show up. I like knowing that the cops will break up domestic violence. I like knowing that people who are poor and indigent can get medical help. I like knowing that women are not forced to go to a second-floor backroom coat-hangar. I like these things about government. I think they're worth defending."

Whether Jeff and Lori Wilfahrt will be on the front lines in that defense in a future election year remains to be seen. Grief is still unfinished business in their lives. They lost Lori's mother four months ago. Both are eager for more time with their two surviving children, who are graduate students in other states.

Political competition for its own sake holds little allure for them. "I'm not a competitive man," Jeff said.

But the civics lessons imparted in the Catholic grade school in New Ulm where Lori and Jeff first met taught that citizens have a responsibility to stand up and speak out against injustice.

"We weren't out there for us," Jeff said. "Someone might say, 'What's your problem, Wilfahrts? You don't have a dog in this fight anymore.' Well, [gays and lesbians] are my fellow citizens. I would want them to stand on my behalf."

After Tuesday, they have renewed confidence that Minnesotans would do just that.

"I believe in this thing, this place, called Minnesota," Jeff said.

Coming from this particular losing candidate on the day after an election, that's a powerful sentiment.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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