Johnson comes under fire from marriage group; Senate majority leader expresses disappointment with clergy who secretly recorded conversation

The old saying, "No good deed goes unpunished," probably rings true for Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson right about now. Johnson, a Lutheran pastor, thought he did a good thing when he attended several meetings with clergy in his district thi...

The old saying, "No good deed goes unpunished," probably rings true for Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson right about now.

Johnson, a Lutheran pastor, thought he did a good thing when he attended several meetings with clergy in his district this past winter.

It was an attempt to broaden the local discussion about a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages and civil unions in Minnesota.

After Wednesday, he may have changed his mind. It turns out that he was secretly recorded while he met with pastors from the New London-Spicer area in January.

On Wednesday, amendment supporters released the recording and even called for his resignation for comments he made about the Minnesota Supreme Court and the current state law outlawing gay marriage.


Johnson, DFL-Willmar, has been the primary target of amendment supporters, who accuse him of spearheading efforts to stall it in the Senate.

The House approved the amendment last year, but it won't go on the November general election ballot for voter approval unless the Senate approves it, too. The amendment is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In a telephone interview Wednesday evening, Johnson said he has been disappointed by the actions of some members of the clergy since those meetings.

In his roles as a National Guard officer and a member of the clergy, "two things you have is your integrity and your word," Johnson said.

"I am disappointed that a colleague in ministry would violate confidentiality," he said. "You just lose respect for people when they do that."

Johnson and other Democrats have argued that the state's law prohibiting gay marriage is sufficient, and doesn't need to be placed in the constitution. Johnson told the pastors that Supreme Court justices had told him the current law wouldn't be overturned.

In the recording he said two of the three justices named Anderson told him, "Dean, we're not going to do this. We're not going to do this." He also said former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, who recently stepped down, told him, "We're not going to touch it."

The tape was released by Minnesota for Marriage, one of the groups leading the charge for the gay marriage ban. Another group, Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage, called for Johnson's resignation and said he was the "chief obstructionist" to putting the marriage question on the ballot.


Johnson is currently on military duty at Camp Shelby, Miss. He has joined legislative leaders from Minnesota there this week for a sendoff for 2,600 Minnesota National Guard troops about to leave for Iraq. Johnson is a chaplain and brigadier general in the Army National Guard.

He had eaten a steak dinner with some families from Kandiyohi County earlier in the day and was on his way to dinner with legislative leaders Wednesday evening, he said.

Spending time with the soldiers and their families helped him put the tempest over the recording in perspective, he said.

In a statement from his Senate office, he said his remarks were poorly worded and had been misconstrued by his opponents. He apologized "if any damage has been done to the integrity of the court."

He also said he had only one conversation with a Supreme Court justice about the gay marriage issue when they bumped into each other at the Capitol, and that the conversation was brief and casual.

"I apologize," he said.

"I'm not trying to influence the court or tamper with the court," he added. "I couldn't, and I don't operate that way."

Johnson explained the conversation he recalls from the January meeting.


"It was a group of pastors having lunch and wanting to talk," he said.

"I was sitting with my professional colleagues in ministry," Johnson said. "Little did I know the whole conversation was being taped. ... I should have known better." Johnson said he thinks he knows who taped him, but he can't prove it.

During the meeting, he said, he tried to point out the difference between a Massachusetts law that courts threw out and the Minnesota law, which is stricter.

He also talked about the casual conversation he'd had with a friend who served on the Supreme Court, he said.

Told of the call for his resignation, Johnson response was swift: "I don't answer to them," he said. "I answer to my constituents."

The organizations attacking him are "intent on disrupting the legislative session," Johnson said. "For me, just their behavior and attitude of discrimination and hate tells me I don't want to be a part of that, a part of that movement."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

What To Read Next
Get Local