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Capitol notebook: Controversial prayer steals legislative focus

ST. PAUL -- The final hours of the Minnesota Legislature's 2001 session may well have needed a prayer, given problems in reaching a budget deal, but one the House heard was not that prayer.

Controversial talk radio host Bradlee Dean delivered Friday's opening prayer, which upset both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and dominated discussion in a day that should have belonged to debates about a marriage amendment, state spending, a new stadium and hundreds of other issues that need to be resolved by midnight Monday.

Dean delivered his prayer as chants from both sides of the gay marriage issue filtered into the House chamber.

"I know this is a non-denominational prayer in this chamber and it's not about the Baptists and it's not about the Catholics alone or the Lutherans or the Wesleyans or the Presbyterians, the evangelicals or any other denomination but rather the head of the denomination and his name is Jesus, as every president up until 2008 has acknowledged," Dean prayed. "And we pray it. In Jesus' name."

Guest chaplains are asked to make their prayers non-denominational, but it seemed that no one heard that from Dean.

"It seems to me like he is a somewhat misguided individual," Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said. "I will just say a prayer for him."

Two hours after the Dean prayer, House Speaker Kurt Zellers told fellow lawmakers: "You will have my commitment that that type of person will never, ever be allowed on this House floor again as long as I have the honor of serving as your speaker."

Rep. Ernie Leidiger, R-Mayer, invited Dean to deliver the prayer, but said he did not know that Dean is considered anti-gay. Dean appeared the day many expected the constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriages to receive a vote. It had not come up in the House by late Friday.

For about 15 minutes after the prayer, Republican leaders talked to staff members and then Zellers, R-Maple Grove, rapped the gavel and called the House into session again, without any explanation.

The House's normal chaplain went to the microphone and offered a prayer that included: "Thank you for the grace that is among us as individuals in this House."

More than two hours later, after the House returned from a recess, Zellers made a rare speech from the House floor.

"I apologize to each and every one of you," he said. "This is the people's house. Each member who comes before this body deserves the respect, the dignity of all of us."

Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, was upset.

"In my 30 years in the House, I have never seen such a hateful person be allowed to deliver the opening prayer," the openly lesbian lawmaker said. "Bradlee Dean has a documented record of hate speech, and has suggested that extremists who call for the execution of American gays are morally justified. The decision by GOP leadership to allow his intolerance, fear and outright bigotry into the 'people's house' is reprehensible."

Clark and Zellers held a serious conversation after the prayer.

Dean's prayer came on an already-charged day in which people on both sides of the gay-marriage issue were gathering outside the House chamber shouting chants in anticipation of a vote on a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.

Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, said leaders were being tight lipped on whether there would be a vote, "maybe because it's wrong."

Kriesel and Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, are the only Republicans to say they would vote against the amendment, which would define a marriage as between a man and a woman.

Hoffman accused

A freshman senator faces an ethics charge over a Tweet she sent saying a fellow lawmaker called mentally ill people idiots and imbeciles.

The Wednesday Tweet got Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vergas, in hot water.

Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, however, said she was talking about what institutions for the mentally ill used to be called.

The Ethics complaint, filed Friday by Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, alleges that Hoffman "misled the public by writing and publishing a statement which falsely describes Senator Goodwin as personally using derogatory labels for those with mental illnesses." Rest said that violates Senate ethics rules.

"On Wednesday, May 18, Sen. Barb Goodwin referred to people with mental illnesses as idiots and imbeciles in the Minnesota State Senate floor," Hoffman said in a statement. "As a registered nurse who has worked with patients with mental illnesses for many years, I was offended by her remarks.

"I shared Senator Goodwin's remarks with my Twitter followers. Until the Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct completes their work, I have no further comment."

Cheese burger success

Rep. Dean Urdahl won his cheeseburger bill vote in the House Friday, with a 76-56 tally, restricting lawsuits by people blaming food and drink for getting fat.

The Grove City Republican has sponsored the bill for years, but never got it signed into law.

GOP attacks

Republicans are attacking the Capitol press corps for presenting a biased view of the on-going budget battle.

"The media will most likely incorrectly report that the GOP has been unwilling to compromise with the governor's budgetary requests," Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, wrote in his weekly newsletter. "However, the Legislature has already compromised with the governor in formulating its $34 billion budget from the beginning and not starting low only to negotiate upwards."

In what he called a "personal note to the Capitol press corps," GOP Chairman Tony Sutton agreed with Newman's assessment.

"The media bias I see, which is a common perception, is the belief that compromise is ALWAYS a good thing, that the best solution is ALWAYS somewhere in the middle and that compromise is ALWAYS a win for the people of Minnesota," Sutton said. "That is far from ALWAYS the case."

"I think the media is missing out on a more thoughtful and more interesting perspective of more service to readers and viewers: Does compromise necessarily yield a better solution?" Sutton said.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.