The organization that led the charge to legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota is now under fire for backing legislators who oppose abortion.
The political-action affiliate of Minnesotans United for All Families is being asked to yank — or reduce — support for candidates who are not 100 percent in support of abortion rights.
"We are truly saddened that the Minnesotans United PAC does not have our back when we need them," said Sarah Jane Johnston, president of Minnesota National Organization for Women.
It's the first sign of a fraying alliance among a once rock-solid coalition of 700 groups that Minnesotans United cobbled together to legalize same-sex marriage this year.
The shifting support could affect Minnesota's legislative races and could have national implications. Same-sex marriage supporters have tried to convince uneasy legislators in other states that their vote on marriage will not sink their political careers.
The fresh criticism comes just days before the Big Gay Race, a fundraiser for Minnesotans United as it gears up to defend legislators whose support for same-sex marriage could cost them their seat.
Ann Kaner-Roth, co-chairwoman of the Minnesotans United PAC, said the group has no plans to change course.
"We've been very transparent all along about a singular focus on gaining the freedom to marry for same-sex couples," she said. "We were very laser-focused on this issue, and I think that is what brought together a coalition of such a broad base and interests."
Leaders of Minnesotans United spent two years raising millions of dollars and building an unprecedented network of support — business leaders, unions, religious groups and progressive activists. Minnesotans United's lobbyists worked around the clock trying to assure uncertain legislators their vote would not lead to being turned out of office.
Many of the legislators they targeted came from more conservative areas in Minnesota. In the end, Minnesotans United persuaded several rural DFLers to come aboard and a handful of Republicans to break with many in their party.
Republicans, including Sen. Branden Petersen and Rep. David FitzSimmons, returned home to blistering attacks from supporters and energized challengers eager to take them on. The National Organization for Marriage vowed to spend $500,000 to defeat any Republican who voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Minnesotans United formed a political-action group and vowed to defend them.
Minnesota NOW leaders say that some who gave to Minnesotans United's political-action group had no idea the money would support candidates who oppose abortion.
"I think it's important that people know where their money is going to," said Beth Johnson of the executive committee for Minnesota NOW, which is committed to a range of progressive causes, including abortion rights and marriage equality.
Minnesota NOW is asking progressive contributors to give to them rather than Minnesotans United, which expects to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend the legislators.
Kaner-Roth said she does not expect her group's fundraising to slow.
"There's a huge base of support for folks who want to support these legislators for this specific issue," she said.
Johnson said that by working for candidates who oppose abortion rights, Minnesotans United disrespects many of the coalition members who worked so hard for their cause.
"Their success in getting same-sex marriage passed was coalition work," she said. "This ignores the needs of a really large contingent that went into it. To me, that's turning your back on your coalition partners."
Of the 15 legislative races that Minnesotans United has targeted, Minnesota NOW has identified 11 legislators — six DFLers and five Republicans — who it says do not meet a 100 percent criteria from an abortion rights group that grades candidates.
Petersen said he never would have joined with Minnesotans United if it were contingent upon support for abortion rights or some other cherished cause of a coalition member.
"It is abundantly clear that marriage equality never would have happened if that was the standard," said Petersen, an Andover Republican whom Minnesotans United has vowed to defend.
In countless conversations he had with same-sex marriage supporters, Petersen said they never spoke to him about another single issue.
"In my opinion, they have always been focused on one issue," he said. Had they tried to tie marriage to other interests of its coalition, "it would have taken me less than a second to say, 'Sorry, I can't help you.' That's a no-brainer."
Not everyone who supports abortion rights is critical of Minnesotans United and the candidates it is backing in the upcoming election.
"We understood that they had a single focus, and we were very happy to help in any way we could," said Linnea House, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota. "I support them in doing whatever they need to do to support these people who voted with them."
Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044