Listen: TR4903 AUDIO Marriage Conversations (Aslanian)

With two polls out showing that Minnesotans favor a proposed constitutional amendment that would make marriage only between a man and a woman, opponents of the measure are in the midst of a strategy they think will sway voters. A key component will be conversations with voters designed to elicit compassion for gays and lesbians.

Meanwhile, amendment supporters also are talking with voters, but not so much to change minds. Instead, they largely aim to determine how many people are on their side.


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SASHA ASLANIAN: About 20 people gather at All God's Children Metropolitan Community Church in South Minneapolis to learn how to do something a lot of people might dread. They plan to start conversations with friends or family members on a controversial topic-- same-sex marriage. 25-year-old Alison Froehle leads this conversation training for Minnesotans United for All Families, the group working to defeat the amendment.

ALISON FROEHLE: Who here has been already having conversations with the people in their lives?

SASHA ASLANIAN: Some hands in this crowd of young to middle-aged men and women go up.

ALISON FROEHLE: That's fantastic. Who here has not been, but after today, will be? Awesome, yes. These conversations are really how we're going to win this election in November. Talking to the people in our lives, having personal conversations is why we are going to be the first state to defeat this amendment.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Her co-facilitator, 26-year-old Jen Arnold, is blunt about the challenge ahead. They're behind in the polls and recent history isn't on their side.

JEN ARNOLD: 30 states have passed amendments that are similar to this one. And so we've done a lot of research about what works and what doesn't. And what we discovered is that people have emotional concerns about marriage for same-sex couples. They're not rational arguments, they're more about feelings. So we're learning how to react to that.

SASHA ASLANIAN: The campaign found arguments in favor of same-sex marriage failed in other states because talking about rights, equality, and discrimination didn't move hearts. The training here is to reframe the discussion from one of rights to one of personal stories. Jill Mueller came to the training from Lakefield, a small town in Southwestern Minnesota, where she says pretty much everyone is voting yes.

JILL MUELLER: It's really hard to talk to your parents. I mean, for me, like my dad is a pastor and we've had that conversation a couple times, but we talk over each other. And my mother won't engage me in the conversation at all. And that's what we talked about that in the meeting is who were you most scared to talk to. And I said my mom, and I am trying-- I'm trying to think of now when I go home, if I could even bring it up to her and I'm still scared.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Three days after the training, Mueller sent an upbeat email that she and her parents had managed to have what she called a solid and thoughtful discussion about the amendment. Her father, a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, told her he believes it's possible to support gays and lesbians and before the amendment. Mueller disagrees, but hopes they can find common ground in their support for gays and lesbians.

The conversation with her mother was shorter, but perhaps yielded more change. Her mother admitted she'd never really known a gay person, and said maybe if she met someone and can talk with them, it would change her mind about voting yes. These kinds of conversations are already proving to be more effective, according to Minnesotans United spokesperson, Kate Brickman.

KATE BRICKMAN: We know from the conversations that we have all across the state, that after we talk to someone, 25% of those people, 1 in 4, move along the spectrum to a no vote. So maybe they move from undecided to leaning no, or maybe they were really voting yes, but now they might have some doubts. And you've planted the seeds of just getting them thinking about it.

SASHA ASLANIAN: So far, Minnesotans United has logged a quarter of a million conversations from efforts like this, where volunteers each pledge to talk with 25 people, and phone banking and door knocking. The campaign plans to have three-quarters of a million more conversations in the final seven weeks of the campaign.

On the other side, Chuck Darrell, communications director for Minnesota for Marriage, the group working to pass the amendment, thinks these conversations will do little to weaken support for the marriage amendment.

CHUCK DARRELL: It's the content of the conversations that matter. And when you're trying to convince people, when you're trying to redefine an institution, when you're trying to convince people that marriage is just about the adults and their relationship, that kids don't need a mom and a dad, people just don't buy it.


SASHA ASLANIAN: Minnesota for Marriage phone bank volunteers are also reaching out to identify their supporters.

KAREN: I'm just actually calling tonight as a volunteer supporting the Minnesota Marriage Protection Amendment. And I'm just wondering if you've heard of that.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Karen, a volunteer from Eden Prairie who wouldn't give her last name, has reached a voter in Mankato.

KAREN: You have. You have. Well, great then you know that the amendment will preserve Minnesota's traditional definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman and put it in the state constitution. So the judges and politicians can't redefine marriage in the future without the approval of voters, which is sadly happened in other states. It's looking very favorable, actually. If the election were being held today, do you think that you'd vote on the Minnesota Marriage Protection Amendment?


KAREN: Definitely. yes, probably yes, probably no, definitely no, or undecided.

SPEAKER 2: Please learn more about the--

KAREN: OK, that's great. That's super.

SASHA ASLANIAN: In an hour's time, callers find their yes voters, others who declined to state their views, and some no voters who want to debate the issue. Minnesota for Marriage statewide political director Crystal Croker, says the point of the phone calls is voter identification more than persuasion.

CRYSTAL CROKER: These calls right now for our volunteers are just to identify where the callers would vote if the vote was today. If they are a yes vote, a definite yes vote, or a definite no, that identifies those. And then certainly the undecided that hasn't heard of it yet or hasn't dialed into the issue, we just give them a brief little bit of information about it and ask how they would vote. And if they're still undecided, then yeah, that goes into the database.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Undecided voters will likely get a follow-up call, and yes voters will get a reminder to show up at the polls. Minnesota for Marriage reports having reached 80,000 voters so far, with plans to double that in the weeks ahead. But it's not just the campaigns that are trying to engage Minnesotans on the marriage question, for those who want a deeper exploration of the issue in a calm and neutral setting, the Minnesota Council for Churches has launched a statewide, respectful conversation series. The council doesn't take a position on the amendment.

Project director Gail Anderson says in a media culture that promotes division, and where public debate can play out largely through ad wars, the council saw an opportunity not to change minds, but to soften hearts.

GAIL ANDERSON: Well, there's some biology, some neurology involved in this. When you're faced with an opinion that is a strong opinion and it's different than your opinion, it can feel to you like an attack. Neurons fire, things happen in your body that make you want to fight back or run away. So we've structured this so that it's calm.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Participants share a meal together. Each person gets a chance to speak without interruption. About 600 people have participated in the Minnesota Council of Churches's respectful conversations, with at least that many signed up to participate in future meetings before the election. Anderson says their evaluations show people leave feeling clearer about their own point of view because they've had to articulate it, and they report feeling more empathy for people who disagree with them.

In a tight race that could leave half the electorate elated, and the other half disappointed, that empathy could come in handy. Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio News.

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