Secret tape stirs Minnesota gay marriage debate
Friday, March 24, 2006; Posted: 2:26 p.m. EST (19:26 GMT)
Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson listens as Republican leaders file a complaint against him on Friday.
ST. PAUL, Minnesota (AP) -- One of Minnesota's top Democrats is catching grief after getting caught on tape telling a lie -- or, as he put it, "sanding off the truth."
Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson was recorded assuring a group of pastors that several state Supreme Court justices had told him they would not legalize gay marriage.
His remarks, which surfaced last week, drew a rare public rebuke from the chief justice, who denied the statements, and caused a firestorm of criticism from Republicans and gay marriage opponents.
Johnson, who is also a pastor, said he did not lie, but admitted "embellishing" and making misstatements. He has tried hard to get past the issue, but Republicans and foes of gay marriage have seized on it.
Johnson's political opponents have issued daily press releases, called news conferences and even launched a Web site, www.sandingoffthetruth.com
, to track Johnson's "ever-changing stories." This week, Senate Republicans also filed an ethics complaint; to resolve the complaint, Johnson agreed to apologize on the Senate floor.
"Dean Johnson has certainly made a fool of himself, hasn't he?" said Adrienne Christiansen, a professor of political science at Macalester College.
The story behind the tape is rooted in the tense fight over whether Minnesota should have a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Johnson has consistently blocked the proposal, calling gay marriage opponents mean-spirited and divisive.
Speaking in January to a group of rural pastors, Johnson said he had spoken with at least three current or former Supreme Court justices, who told him the high court would never overturn the state's Defense of Marriage law. In other words, a state law banning same-sex marriage was safe, so why amend the constitution?
Unknown to him, a pastor with close ties to gay marriage opponents was in the audience, with a tape recorder clipped to his backpack.
"Dean, we're not going to do it," Johnson, on the tape, quotes one justice as saying.
When the controversy broke, Johnson revised his story, saying the remarks were based on a quick encounter with one justice.
That was not enough for Supreme Court Justice Russell Anderson, who called a news conference to deny that any justices spoke with Johnson about the issue. Anderson criticized the senator for "attacks on the integrity of court members and this institution."
It is unclear whether the mess will affect the proposed amendment's chances; some Democrats say the blowup has hardened their opposition.
Johnson was elected as a Republican in 1978 and rose to that party's top Senate post before defecting to the Democrats in 2000, saying the GOP had moved too far to the right. In 2004, Democrats chose him as their Senate leader, where he has been a formidable opponent for Republicans.
Besides being a longtime pastor, he is also a brigadier general in the Minnesota National Guard known for folksy asides about the upright Scandinavian descendants who populate his central Minnesota district.
Some of Johnson's allies say it is a dangerous precedent to punish a politician for exaggerating. But Republican Sen. Mike McGinn, a former police officer, said some lies are too big.
"The consequences of this lie are far more serious than lying about the size of the fish you caught at the governor's fishing opener," McGinn said. "It's not just a little white lie. It's a huge lie."