NOTE: This commentary was first published November 2, 2012 on Javier Morillo's blogsite, Thug in Pastels.
I attended last night’s MPR debate about Minnesota’s upcoming vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, which featured two national figures on each side of the issue as well as two local leaders. Representing the No Side: Bishop Gene Robinson, Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire and Sarah Walker, a leader in restorative criminal justice and Board Member of Minnesotans United for All Families. Representing the Yes side were Brian Brown, President of the National Organization for Marriage and the Reverend Jerry McAfee of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis.
While the two men of the cloth disagreed a lot over scripture, I’d like to focus this post instead on one of the political arguments made by Reverend Jerry McAfee of Minneapolis, one he has made in public before – that the progressive political infrastructure has been singularly focused on marriage, to the detriment of the campaign to defeat the Voter Restriction Amendment. McAfee has received a lot of press attention by MPR and other press outlets for his complaint that the DFL was not doing enough to defeat the Voter Restriction Amendment, a top priority for the African American community.
I have been in meetings with Reverend McAfee where I heard –and agreed with–his frustration with the relative lack of attention that was being paid to the Voter Restriction Amendment. I disagreed with his analysis of the why, but I could relate to the frustration many of us felt earlier this year that there was a collective failure on the part of the progressive left to take the Voter Restriction Amendment seriously. While the Reverend sought to blame “the DFL,” I thought the problem was broader. While the progressive infrastructure had, in the past two years, mobilized to keep “Right to Work” and other budget amendments from getting on the ballot, polls showing big support for Voter ID in concept were met with a collective shrug of “we can’t win that.”
That has changed. Polls show the more Minnesotans learn about the Voter Restriction Amendment, the less they like it. And the resources have finally begun to flow. We are outspending proponents in the final week and have a broad coalition of faith, labor and community groups educating voters about this Amendment and flipping people in droves to the position that, however you feel about Voter ID, we can agree that this particular legislation was poorly written and will be expensive, and therefore we need to Send It Back to the legislature. DFL sample ballots include the Vote No on Voter Restriction position printed on it, and the party’s field operation, together with the work of TakeAction and the faith-based coalition ISAIAH, has had tens of thousands of conversations with voters. These have been at the core of the shifting poll numbers.
Although at the MPR debate last night the Reverend noted the same complaint about the relative lack of attention to Voter Restriction, it’s not his failure to note that progress has been made that I found frustrating. The change that stood out to me was that, since those first stories the Reverend McAfee has, as he was last night, become a prominent voice for the Vote Yes on the Marriage Amendment campaign.
How can the same person who blasted the DFL for its supposed indifference to Voter ID now stand with Archbishop Nienstedt of the Catholic Church, probably the single largest institution in the state of Minnesota that is actively silent on the Voter Restriction Amendment? And I don’t mean “stand with” figuratively. The Reverend has a featured speaker along with the Archbishop when Nienstedt rallied religious leaders in mid-September to Vote Yes.
And yet, under the iron fist of an Archbishop pathologically obsessed with same-sex marriage, the Catholic Church has changed its position on Voter ID from opposed to neutral – neutral on this issue of extreme importance to communities of color.
All the Archbishop’s Men: Singularly Focused on Marriage
Before engaging the Catholic Church’s sleight of hand when it comes to the Voter Restriction Amendment, let us recall that not all of the faithful are silent on an amendment that will keep many poor and elderly citizens from voting. In mid-October, the Minnesota Council of Churches announced its opposition to the Voter Restriction Amendment:
In a written statement, the Council’s President, St. Paul Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Bishop Peter Rogness said “the fundamental issue that brings us here is our concern for those for whom this step – which seems easy for most in the mainstream – becomes a barrier to participating in the shaping of our public life together.”
It was an issue of “defending the right of the last, lost and least to vote and therefore oppose the amendment,” he added.
On the day of the Council of Churches announcement, Our Vote Our Future, the campaign to defeat the Voter Restriction Amendment, sent out a press release listing among the faith groups opposing the Amendment the the Minnesota Catholic Conference. They then sent a corrected press release stating, “In fact, the Minnesota Catholic Conference changed its position a year after originally opposing it. They are no longer taking any position on this amendment.”
Wait, what? Changed its position? Back when Voter ID legislation was being debated at the Capitol, The Catholic Spirit reported it opposition:
Opponents, including the Minnesota Catholic Conference, say the requirement would disenfranchise the elderly, college students and minorities.
Katie Conlin, interim social concerns director for MCC, told The Catholic Spirit: “The reality is that a lot of people don’t have photo identification. And while these bills would create a free government-issued ID for people . . . that doesn’t address the difficulty in getting that ID for some folks.
“You would still have to have some sort of supporting documentation in order to get the ID,” Conlin explained. “Let’s say you’re a woman who got married and had a name change. Then you would have to have your birth certificate, your marriage license and proof of your current residence.
“Then you’d have to get to wherever it is that the ID is going to be issued,” she added. “It would affect anyone with limited access to transportation.”
(See State Catholic Conference Opposes Voter ID Bills, The Catholic Spirit)
So, what happened? Sources tell me the Catholic Conference position changed after a meeting they had with Dan McGrath, the one-man-show at Minnesota Majority running the effort to pass the Voter Restriction Amendment. I asked Our Vote Our Future if they had been invited to address the Catholic Conference as well. Communications Director Eric Fought had this to say:
There was a sudden shift in the position of the Minnesota Catholic Conference earlier this year, as they moved from being opposed to the Voter Restriction Amendment to ‘neutral.’ Recently, Mr. Adkins told a reporter covering the race that he offered a meeting with the bishops to a representative of our campaign in September.
No such offer was received. We most certainly would have welcomed the opportunity to address the bishops about the many costs and consequences of the Voter Restriction Amendment. There is no doubt, Minnesota Catholics will be greatly affected by this poorly written amendment.
Where is the Outrage?
Can we imagine what it might be like if, from every Catholic pulpit, priests were giving sermons against the Voter Restriction Amendment, they way they are being instructed to speak for the Marriage Amendment? Might the polls showing an evenly split electorate on Voter Restriction tip in the direction of a No Vote?
That is a good question for Reverend McAfee. As I said, I agreed with his frustration about the lack of resources going to the effort to defeat Voter Restriction even as I disagreed with this analysis of why it was happening. For him, this was about the DFL privileging a wealthier gay (and white) constituency. To me, there were some benign reasons and some deeply problematic. First, marriage was put on the ballot two years before the election, giving the campaign time to mount an enormous effort, and the broad, multi-partisan coalition to defeat that amendment required that campaign–early on and when no other amendment was on the ballot – to decide to be singularly focused on the marriage amendment.
More problematic, however, there was also a collective failure of the progressive (not just party) infrastructure to take on the Voter Restriction fight early on. With a few exceptions, for example, unions were very slow to take on this fight. After Tuesday, when I believe we will edge out a narrow victory and defeat the amendment, we should look at the representation of organizations representing people of color at the tables that make decisions about what fights to take on and which to sit out.
But, I must ask again the Reverend McAfee — how can someone so upset about the perceived singular focus of the left on marriage now stand with the Vote Yes campaign? If there is a Vote Yes GOTV operation out of New Salem Baptist Church, it is presumably funded by the “Minnesotans for Marriage” campaign. That campaign, as has been widely reported, is being funded almost single-handedly by Archbishop Nienstedt and the Catholic Church, the single most powerful institution in the state of Minnesota that is doing what Reverend McAfee accused the DFL of doing — being singularly focused on marriage, to the detriment of the efforts to defeat Voter Restriction.
Will the Reverend, before Tuesday, denounce the Archdiocese silence on Voter Restriction?
People of Faith Call to Action
If you are a Catholic, you might want to call the Archdiocese and ask the Church why it is silent on a ballot question that, if passed, will restrict the representation of the poor and dispossessed in the electorate. Even better, volunteer with other people of faith to phone bank this weekend. You can do so through ISAIAH.
If you belong to a Church that is turning you out to Vote Yes on Marriage and No on Voter ID, ask your Pastor – why are we standing with the Catholic Church, which is hurting our effort to defeat Voter Restriction? Then, VOLUNTEER.
I just heard from a Catholic friend, parishioner at St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis, who called the Archdiocese to ask why the Church was only speaking out on one Amendment. The person who answered the phone first claimed the Catholic Conference had spoken out against the Voter ID Amendment [they had, then changed their minds]. After my friend pointed out that the Catholic Conference’s website is filled with marriage amendment missives alone, this person told my friend that “there is no evidence” that communities of color will be disenfranchised if the Amendment passes. Sounds like this “neutral” person has some talking points from Minnesota Majority.
In reality, according to the League of Women Voters:
Approximately 11% of the voting population does not carry a photo ID that meets these rigid requirements. The percentage is higher among certain groups: the elderly (18%), younger adults (18%), minorities (25% of African-Americans) and people who are low-income (15%).
Looks the Archdiocese needs to update its talking points.