Washington – An unlikely coalition aiming to expand workplace protections for gay and lesbian employees is seeking support from a small group of Republican congressmen, including Minnesotan Erik Paulsen.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights lobbying group, has joined forces with American Unity Fund, a conservative-leaning group founded by a wealthy GOP donor, to target GOP legislators who represent politically moderate districts.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which passed the Senate with 10 GOP votes but has stalled in the House of Representatives, would ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Supporters hope that if a majority of the House — at least 218 lawmakers — publicly favors the bill, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, may reconsider his decision not to vote on it this year. At least 202 House members are cosponsors of the bill, including six Republicans. Five of those are with the Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate, pro-business group of GOP lawmakers of which Paulsen is a member.
Paulsen, who represents the western suburbs of the Twin Cities, declined to comment for this report.
The campaign, managed by a group called Americans for Workplace Opportunity, has a budget of $2.2 million, including $375,000 from the American Unity Fund, founded by Republican Paul Singer.
The group also spent more than $250,000 last year supporting Minnesota’s efforts to legalize same-sex marriage and has hired former Republican Minnesota U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman to lobby lawmakers for the bill.
Coleman opposes same-sex marriage, but supports workplace protections for gays and lesbians. As mayor of St. Paul in the ’90s, he appointed a transgender person as his deputy mayor.
“Republicans should be about judging people on their ability to do the job … and not on any other extraneous factors,” Coleman said.
Eight major Minnesota-based employers — Ameriprise Financial Inc., Best Buy Co., General Mills Inc., Target Corp., Medtronic Inc., RBC Wealth Management, Supervalu Inc. and Robins, Kaplan Miller & Ciresi — belong to the campaign’s Business Coalition for Workplace Fairness.
Among the businesses, General Mills and Target are among Paulsen’s top 20 campaign contributors, according to data compiled for the Center for Responsive Politics. In June 2012, Ken Charles, a vice president at General Mills, testified before the Senate in favor of ENDA.
Similar legislation has been introduced in nearly every Congress since the early 1990s. Supporters hope that shifting public opinion on gay rights issues will prompt passage this year.
Paulsen’s predecessor, former GOP Rep. Jim Ramstad, voted with Democrats in the state’s delegation to back ENDA in 2007, the last time the legislation came up for a full House vote.
Republican U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann and John Kline voted against it.
Current federal law already bans employer discrimination based on race, color, sex, nationality, religion, age and disability. Nearly 20 states, including Minnesota, ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Six of the seven Democrats in Minnesota’s congressional delegation are among the House and Senate members pressuring President Obama to sign an executive order protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans from workplace discrimination. But such protection would be limited to those who work for the government or its contractors. The White House would prefer to see Congress pass ENDA, which would cover all workers.
All told, 195 members of Congress signed the letter, including U.S. Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, and U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, Rick Nolan and Tim Walz signed the letter. Democratic congressman Collin Peterson did not, but voted in support of ENDA legislation in 2007.
“I’m proud of Minnesota’s record when it comes to protecting everyone in the workplace, no matter who they love,” said Ellison, a member of the House LGBT Equality Caucus. “But too many working Americans aren’t protected from discrimination on the job based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau • Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell