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As voters prepare to go to the polls on November 5th to decide on gay rights ordinance repeal, MPR’s Chris Roberts reports on the positions in the debate over human rights protection for gays and lesbians in St. Paul.

Campaign 90’s, the group seeking to maintain the ordinance, argues that gay people need to be protected by law from discrimination in housing, employment, education and public services. Citizen’s Alert, the group which successfully organized a petition drive to repeal the ordinance earlier this year, believes the rights protected by the ordinance are nothing more than special privileges.


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CHRIS ROBERTS: Positions in the debate over human rights protection for gays and lesbians in Saint Paul have been clearly staked out for months. Campaign 90s, the group seeking to maintain the ordinance argues that gay people need to be protected by law from discrimination in housing, employment, education and public services. Citizens Alert, the group, which successfully organized a petition drive to repeal the ordinance earlier this year, believes the rights protected by the ordinance are nothing more than special privileges. It also alleges that the ordinance will result in an avalanche of lawsuits filed by gays against churches, and other social organizations like the Boy Scouts.

In recent days, there's been a flurry of debates in the media between the two sides with the appearance that both groups are trying to win new converts. But Susan Kimberly, former Saint Paul council member and manager of Campaign 90s, says not very many minds get changed in this process.

SUSAN KIMBERLY: What really is going to occur in this election, and I think our strategy is the same as Citizens Alert, is the person who gets the most of their supporters to the polls on November 5 wins. And our primary strategy is to get everybody who agrees with us to vote.

SPEAKER 1: Label that stuff.

SPEAKER 2: They've still got material so we'll ask them.

CHRIS ROBERTS: For the last eight weeks, Campaign 90's volunteers have been gathering at Hamlin United Methodist Church in Saint Paul. They've been stuffing envelopes and stamping postcards to be sent to their supporters, arming them with information and encouraging them to vote. Kimberly says Campaign 90s made use of three different computerized phone banks containing detailed voter information, including the state DFL phone bank, and spent a large chunk of the $30,000 it's raised to hire professional canvassers to call voters.

SUSAN KIMBERLY: Some people say, absolutely, I'm on your side, and other people say I'm absolutely on the other side. And other people say, well, I'm not sure. Now, giving a great weight to the Minnesota nice factor, one can assume that a lot of people who say, I'm not sure are not on your side. But what you're really looking for, those people who unhesitatingly say, I'm with you.

CHRIS ROBERTS: A majority of the coordinators and 500 volunteers within Campaign 90s are gays and lesbians, some of whom were on the losing side of the first referendum on the ordinance held in 1978. Most of the group's money has come from individual contributors in the gay and lesbian community. Less is known about the composition and strategy of Citizens Alert.

Calls to its members, including its founder, Larry Putnam, were referred to Citizens Alert spokesman and former Saint Paul mayoral candidate Bob Fletcher. Fletcher declined to be interviewed by MPR for a profile of his group because he said he wanted to maintain a strict focus on the ordinance as a public policy issue. When asked about his group on Minnesota Public Radio's Midday program a week ago, Fletcher had this response.

BOB FLETCHER: The person really behind the drive is a man named Larry Putnam, a very fine family man with an insurance company out on White Bear Avenue. And it's just something that he felt strongly about. He was involved in '88 when the council attempted to ask the voters, would you like to give up your right to vote on these in the future? And then there's a group of about five or six people who are ultimately responsible for circulating the petition of 6,000 signatures and then probably a group of about 100 volunteers that went out and got the signatures.

CHRIS ROBERTS: Fletcher says his group has raised about $20,000. While observers contend that both sides have kept a low profile so as not to motivate voters on the other side to go to the polls, the two groups say that's not the case. Campaign 90's organizers say basic human rights for gay people is no longer the inflammatory issue it was in 1978, largely because more people today actually know someone who's gay. Citizens Alert spokesman Bob Fletcher says a knock out, drag out debate would probably help his group.

BOB FLETCHER: I think our side would be better served if it was an inflammatory debate, but I don't think the city would be best served. There are probably a dozen more important issues facing Saint Paul, ranging from economics to crime. This is an important issue, but certainly not so important as to divide the city.

CHRIS ROBERTS: But members of Campaign 90 say the debate is much uglier behind the scenes. Campaign 90's chair BJ Metzger says her group has received hate mail and numerous threatening phone calls. Metzger says Saint Paul City Council member Dave Thune, who authored the ordinance in 1989, has also been the recipient of hate messages.

BJ METZGER: There was a minister in a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in my neighborhood, and I'm in Dave Thune's ward, who had a sign in his yard saying, vote against Dave Thune because he supports queers. And Dave's wife told me that their children were harassed on the way to and from school because of that sign in that minister's yard. Those are inflammatory things. Those are hate-filled hateful things. And if Citizens Alert let you see what their followers express and say to us behind the scenes, it would inflame the masses against them.

CHRIS ROBERTS: There is also speculation about why Bob Fletcher is so active in the struggle over the ordinance. Some say Fletcher is laying the groundwork for another mayoral bid. But Susan Kimberly of Campaign 90 says if that's true, it's probably a mistake.

SUSAN KIMBERLY: In politics, you succeed by making friends, not enemies. He's gone all those votes already. He's not broadening his base in this. He's narrowing his base. And so I tend to think that it's not a very smart move.

CHRIS ROBERTS: For his part, Fletcher, who disassociated himself from Citizens Alert during their petition drive, says he decided to enter the fray when the battle over the wording of the ordinance began to heat up. On Midday Fletcher said his involvement has nothing to do with political ambitions.

BOB FLETCHER: The smart political thing to do on this issue is to run as far away from it as you can in Saint Paul, and most politicians have done just that.

CHRIS ROBERTS: One factor that could play a role in the election is the way the arts community has rallied to support the ordinance. Bob Tracy presides over the Saint Paul Foundation's grants program for cultural programs and institutions. Tracy says when a landlord began to renege on a lease with Film in the Cities because of its annual gay and lesbian film festival, the arts community was served notice. He says people who work in arts understand the parallels between censorship and discrimination.

BOB TRACY: It's a community that employs a lot of people in this town. And by raising awareness at arts worksites, we are raising awareness among potential voters, and I might add, voters who probably would not have been engaged with this campaign.

CHRIS ROBERTS: Some Campaign 90s volunteers believe the outcome of the referendum will have a major impact on the fight over a statewide human rights ordinance for gays and lesbians. However, at this point, neither side is willing to predict what the outcome will be. Fletcher says if voters repeal the ordinance, his group will meet immediately with city council to fashion a compromise. And if the ordinance isn't repealed.

BOB FLETCHER: I think this is probably the final battle, at least for this decade.

CHRIS ROBERTS: Susan Kimberly of Campaign 90 says if the ordinance is repealed, her group will return to have it reinstated as soon as the law permits. This is Chris Roberts.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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