Eden Prairie Republican faced tough vote on marriage bill
by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
The morning after the big vote Republican Deputy Minority Leader Jenifer Loon was at her desk in the front of the House chambers, tears in the eyes.
“It’s been a tough couple of days,” Loon said, speaking later on Friday (May 10).
Loon, a third-term House member from Eden Prairie, is one of the suburban Republicans who voted for the legislation last week allowing gay marriage in Minnesota.
On Friday morning, a House Democrat had knelt by her desk collecting the autographs on a vote sheet of the 75 House members who had voted to pass the bill. He wanted it as a keepsake of the historic vote.
Loon, because she had for months said she had not made up her mind, had been zeroed-in on as a lawmaker to watch. Indeed, on the House floor during the marriage debate, Loon made a weak joke that she had been unaware of the number of friends she had.
Loon hadn’t completely made up her mind on pushing the red or green button, “No” or “Yes,” when she took the House floor with the Republican House Caucus. She had decided to support a civil union provision a fellow Republican lawmaker intended to offer — told her caucus she’d speak on the bill
“But I had not made a decision on the bill,” Loon said.
“It would have been easier on me if I had made a decision earlier,,” she said. “I just wasn’t ready.”
Several factors worked to convince Loon she should vote for the bill.
For one thing, although her own personal religious views are that marriage is between a man and woman, Loon felt duty-bound to honor the separation of church and state. And an amendment offered by a fellow Republican, incorporating the idea of “civil marriage” into the legislation, also made the vote easier.
Additionally, Loon actively sought the opinion and guidance of her constituents, she said.
With each passing generation, Loon said, there seem to be more people accepting of civil unions or civil marriage.
“The people I’ve heard from in my district, there’s quite a number who accept, that believe, those legal rights should be afforded,” she said.
Still, Loon knew that no matter how she voted, some people would like, some would not.
“I knew that no matter what I decided on this issue, I would have people unhappy with me, people pleased with my decision. That’s true.“That’s a tough part of being a legislator,” she said.
“I’m at peace with my vote and my decision,” Loon said.
Loon dismisses the idea that her vote — the vote of a Republican legislative leader — should be indicative of movement within the Republican Party.
The Republican Party of Minnesota, in its platform, rejects civil unions and same-sex marriage.
Instead, Loon views her vote as that of an individual lawmaker.
Still, Loon represents a caucus. And most members of the that caucus voted against marriage legislation.
Loon spoke individually with caucus members on Friday.
“I think people knew I was really weighing this vote really heavily,” she said.
“It really did come down to the wire,” Loon said.
She certainly didn’t want to surprise her caucus.
“I had not come to a final decision on how I would vote until it was right upon us,” Loon said.“It was really a culmination,”
Another Republican House member whose autograph must be on the vote tally to be complete is Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington.
Garofalo stresses the importance of the Republican amendment on “civil marriage” going onto the bill in having him push the green button.
“For me I was a ‘No’ vote on the bill, until Rep. (David) FitzSimmons offered his religious freedom amendment to protect churches and faith-based organizations,” Garofalo said.
“And ultimately, that’s what moved me to a ‘Yes’ vote,” he said.
“The lawyers say this is strongest religious freedom legislation in the nation,” Garofalo said.
That provision, Garofalo said, was his “price for voting ‘Yes.’”
Rather than damaging himself with district Republicans — he did speak to some local Republicans about his intentions prior to Thursday’s vote, he said — Garofalo believes has their support.
“The response from conservatives has been overwhelmingly positive,” Garofalo said.
“Religious freedom is a very important issue in my district. A critical issue. And people understand my motivations and are very supportive of it,” he said.
Civil unions would have been a better choice than the legislation passed by the House, Garofalo said.
“(But) I feel like given the position power I have (as a House minority member), I thought it was the best I could do,” Garofalo said.
One Republican lawmaker who has taken tough votes and been sanctioned for them by his caucus is Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka.
He believes Loon and Garofalo had the right to make up their own minds.
“My opinion is people have the right to vote their conscience on these social, moral issues,” Abeler said.
Abeler doesn’t foresee Loon or Garofalo running afoul of the House Republican Caucus, or, for that matter, the Republican Party.
“It would be just their locals,” he said.
“If they represented their locals well, nothing will happen,” Abeler said.
But Carleton College Political Science Professor Steven Schier said the marriage vote could dog the two Republicans.
“Regardless of broader district opinion, active Republicans in their districts are likely to have strongly opposed gay marriage and will not forget this vote at the endorsement conventions,” he said.