By PATRICK CONDON
ALBERTVILLE, Minn. — David FitzSimmons knew when he joined a very small group of legislative Republicans who voted for legal gay marriage in Minnesota that he might face political fallout on his conservative home turf. And he did.
FitzSimmons, a first-term House member whose district includes parts of Wright and Sherburne counties, finds himself facing a fellow Republican for the party’s endorsement at a Saturday district convention. His opponent, Eric Lucero, is blasting FitzSimmons as untrustworthy for breaking from the party’s traditional stand on the definition of marriage.
“I made a decision and I stand by it,” FitzSimmons said during an interview at a coffee shop in Albertville, the exurban town bisected by Interstate 94 that he calls home. “If the cost of that is not being in the Legislature, then I will live with that cost.”
Six months after gay marriage became legal in Minnesota, and nine months after lawmakers voted to make it so, the political repercussions of the vote reverberate. Despite recent court rulings friendly to gay marriage in several moderate and even conservative states, opponents in Minnesota seek to punish some lawmakers they see as betraying their party or their constituents.
“Voters had every reason to trust David FitzSimmons when he gave his word,” Lucero wrote on his campaign website. “David FitzSimmons later broke his word by voting to redefine marriage in Minnesota.”
Lucero, a city councilman in the town of Dayton, did not respond to several interview requests. Instead he e-mailed a prepared statement: “I am challenging David FitzSimmons for the Republican endorsement for State Representative with the goal of restoring the faith people in District 30B want to have in those elected to represent them.”
So far, FitzSimmons is facing the most obvious consequences of those lawmakers whose gay marriage votes were under the most scrutiny. Of three other House Republicans who broke ranks, one — Andrea Kieffer of Woodbury — opted against running again. Pat Garofalo of Farmington and Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie aren’t facing endorsement challenges — at least that have presented themselves publicly — although Autumn Leva of the Minnesota Family Council hinted that opposition could bubble up from the floor of their endorsing conventions.
“We have been doing work in some of these districts where they know the legislators were not supporting the values of their districts,” Leva said. “In those Republican districts in particular there has been some unrest, and that may very well show itself.”
One Republican senator, Branden Petersen of Andover, voted to legalize gay marriage. He’s not up for re-election until 2016, but said he thinks the Republican Party needs to accept that gay marriage has grown nearly inevitable as it spreads from state to state and grows in public support according to polls.
“There’s a time you just need to recognize the will of the people of Minnesota and move on,” Petersen said. “We subjected the state to this debate for long enough, and I think the dust has settled. It’s time to focus on issues that will be more productive uses of our time.”
Only two House Democrats voted against the gay marriage bill, and against the prevailing sentiment in their party. But neither Mary Sawatzky of Willmar nor Patti Fritz of Faribault face endorsement challenges. A handful of House Democrats voted to legalize gay marriage even though they represent districts where a majority of voters supported the 2012 gay marriage ban, and Leva said gay marriage foes would try to make an issue of it in the general election.
Before his vote in May, FitzSimmons wasn’t seen as a likely Republican defector on gay marriage. A soft-spoken farmer and longtime GOP activist and strategist before joining the Legislature in 2012, FitzSimmons is reliably conservative: opposed to abortion, against taxes and spending increases, and frequently affiliated with the party’s libertarian wing. FitzSimmons has sought to highlight his work pushing for the now-approved state plan to widen Interstate 94 between the northwestern Twin Cities and St. Cloud, a high priority in his traffic-clogged district.
But Lucero is trying to highlight FitzSimmons’ shift on gay marriage. Lucero’s website features a copy of an email FitzSimmons sent to a constituent in January 2013, saying he would not support any legislation to change the definition of marriage.
At a Caribou Coffee in Albertville, across the freeway from its well-known outlet shopping mall, people were reluctant to talk about gay marriage using their names. No one expressed outrage at FitzSimmons’ vote; most were unaware of it. But it’s a very small sample of local GOP activists, not the larger citizenry, who will decide whether FitzSimmons or Lucero carries the party’s backing in November.
FitzSimmons defends his vote by saying that he and the other House Republicans saw a last-minute chance to improve a bill that Democrats had the votes to pass with or without them. On the day of House passage, FitzSimmons introduced an amendment meant to strengthen protections for Minnesota churches that don’t want to perform gay weddings. Democrats backed the amendment, but FitzSimmons said their price for doing so was a few Republican votes so the bill would have bipartisan backing.
“The decision we had was whether to vote in favor of getting religious freedom added to the bill. That was the only power that we had,” Garofalo said. He said he has worked to pacify GOP activists in his southern Twin Cities district who were surprised by his vote, by arguing that he’s been with them on every other important issue.
“I think that helped set the table with conservatives,” Garofalo said. “They looked at their top 20 issues and agreed with me on 19 out of 20.”
Now in the fight of his young political career, FitzSimmons nonetheless declined a contribution from Minnesotans United, the pro-gay marriage political fundraising group. FitzSimmons did raise $26,000 in 2013, but donated nearly all of it to fellow Republican candidates — a show of commitment to Republicans retaking the House majority, he said.
FitzSimmons said even if Lucero gets the endorsement and takes his House seat, he won’t be able to undo gay marriage.
“It’s a minimum of three years before you could change the Democratic majority in the Senate, and that assumes you’ve won the House and changed the governor,” FitzSimmons said. “Not to mention the wider circumstances that seem to be going on across the country. It’s an unlikely outcome.”