Johnson comments energize both sides in battle over gay marriage

ST. PAUL (AP) -- The gay marriage debate got another jolt Friday as the Senate's top Democrat acknowledged he ``embellished' comments about the Minnesota Supreme Court and apologized. Meanwhile, Republicans said they would use the taped comments ...

ST. PAUL (AP) -- The gay marriage debate got another jolt Friday as the Senate's top Democrat acknowledged he ``embellished' comments about the Minnesota Supreme Court and apologized. Meanwhile, Republicans said they would use the taped comments in an attack ad.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar stopped short of saying he lied when he said he had assurances from justices that the high court wouldn't overturn a state law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. He characterized his statements as ``sanding off the truth.'

``I embellished it. I did. And it's wrong,' he said at a news conference in his office.

He added: ``I apologize to all of you and to the people of this state. I made a mistake.'

Opponents of gay marriage want to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex unions, and they see Johnson as a key roadblock. On Wednesday, Minnesota for Marriage -- a group pushing for the constitutional amendment -- released the tape recording, made by a minister at a January meeting of the New London-Spicer Ministerial Association without Johnson's knowledge.


The Republican Party on Friday unveiled a radio ad -- featuring a snippet of Johnson speaking on the tape -- that will air in the senator's district and the Twin Cities.

GOP Chairman Ron Carey read a dictionary definition of the word ``lie' at a Capitol news conference Friday before playing the radio ad, which says, ``Dean Johnson isn't being honest.'

Carey suggested unseating Johnson could become a top GOP priority in the November election. He also said the controversy could help the effort to enshrine a ban on gay marriage in the constitution.

``It can only help the chances that this will come before voters in November,' Carey said.

Johnson attributed the timing of the tape's release to the gay marriage debate, saying the supporters of a constitutional amendment were trying to put him under pressure and embarrass him. But he stuck to his position Friday, saying the bill will get a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee and beyond that, he can't predict what will happen to it.

The flap over Johnson's comments have given those on both sides of the gay marriage ban a new flash point. Another group called Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage on Wednesday called on Johnson to resign -- which the Senate Majority Leader said he's not planning to do.

``It's gone both ways. It's energized those people but it's also energized the other side like I've not seen -- the phone calls and the e-mails and the folks who are saying no we do not want to put this into the constitution,' Johnson said.

The brouhaha -- and the fact that Johnson was secretly taped -- has been on the minds of many opponents of the amendment, said Ann DeGroot, who heads Out Front Minnesota, a gay rights group.


``People who are opposed see this taping of Senator Johnson's conversation and things like that really as a political ploy just to divide people more and more, which is what the constitutional amendment is about,' she said.

The DFL-controlled Senate has never taken a direct vote on the constitutional amendment, but it was approved by the Republican-controlled House last year. There are no pending cases on the issue of gay marriage before the Supreme Court.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said he didn't want to comment on Johnson's actions. But he said the senator could easily make the entire controversy disappear.

``The whole thing would go away -- the whole issue would go away if the Senate would just vote. Just vote,' Sviggum said. ``All they need to do is vote. You don't need to do any more rationalizations, any more covering their butt if they'd just vote.'

Meanwhile, the pastor who secretly recorded Johnson's comments said he has no regrets.

Brent Waldemarsen, senior pastor at Harvest Community Church of God in Willmar, acknowledged in an interview published Friday in the West Central Tribune that his recording had opened up a can of worms.

``Unfortunately, it's the senator that opened it,' he told the newspaper.

He said his recording of Johnson without telling him should not ``overshadow the fact that Senator Johnson said some things that should not have been said.'


But Bill Miller, president of the New London-Spicer Ministerial Association, told the West Central Tribune that Waldemarsen's action was ``unethical' and a ``reprehensible thing to do.'

On the recording, Johnson can be heard saying he had spoken with three Supreme Court justices about the issue, including former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz.

``I have had a number of visits with them about our law. All of them, every one of them, including the lady who just stepped down, Kathleen Blatz, was my seat mate (in the Minnesota House) for four years. She was the chief justice. You know what her response was? 'Dean, we all stand for election too, every six years.' She said 'We're not going to touch it.''

He also said that he had talked with two of the three justices named Anderson and that they had told him, ``Dean, we're not going to do it.'

Such conversations might violate the ethical rules that bar justices from discussing cases that might come before the court. Blatz has denied giving such assurances, and Chief Justice Russell Anderson said Thursday the justices made no commitments to Johnson.


Patrick Condon contributed to this report from St. Paul.

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