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With fewer anti-abortion DFLers, hurdle removed for access protections

The last remaining DFLer in the Minnesota House who would oppose codifying abortion protections into law appears to be Winona Rep. Gene Pelowski.

The Minnesota House chamber is packed with state representatives and senators Feb. 22, 2017, gathered to elect University of Minnesota regents.
The Minnesota House chamber.
Don Davis / 2017 file / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — Now that the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party holds control of the Minnesota House, Senate and governor’s office, Democratic leaders say one of their top priorities is to codify abortion rights protections into state law to ensure access to the procedure in a post-Roe v. Wade U.S.

But it wasn’t too long ago that even in the DFL-controlled House of Representatives there was not an abortion-rights majority. There were several Democratic lawmakers vocally opposed to abortion, all from rural districts outside the Twin Cities metro, meaning the 68 votes needed to pass any legislation codifying protections remained out of reach in the House — even after the DFL took control back from Republicans in 2018.

Minnesota’s evolving political landscape, however, appears to be playing in favor of abortion-rights supporters, who may have very well secured majorities due to voter reaction to the end of federal abortion protections with the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade in June.

Republicans this year made advances in rural DFL strongholds such as Northeastern Minnesota’s Iron Range, where the handful of anti-abortion DFLers held seats. But despite some success in rural areas, they lost multiple House seats in Twin Cities suburbs, allowing the DFL to maintain their majority but with fewer anti-abortion members in their caucus.

House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, looks on during a pre-legislative session briefing for the media in the Minnesota State Senate Building in St. Paul on Feb. 13, 2018. Michael Brun / Forum News Service
House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, looks on during a pre-legislative session briefing for the media in the Senate Building in St. Paul in 2018.
Michael Brun / File / Forum News Service

The House is now 70-64 in favor of the DFL, and Speaker Melissa Hortman told reporters following the election that if the current results hold, she expects 69 votes to back a bill protecting abortion access. Meanwhile, the DFL also won back control of the Senate, increasing the likelihood a bill will end up on Gov. Tim Walz’s desk.

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Currently, there is no law protecting abortion in Minnesota, though it is constitutionally protected under the 1995 Minnesota Supreme Court decision Doe v. Gomez.

The last remaining DFLer in the House who would oppose codifying abortion protections into law appears to be Winona Rep. Gene Pelowski, who was first elected in 1986. Of the three incumbent House DFLers opposed to abortion who were on the ballot this November, he’s the only one who was reelected.

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State Rep. Gene Pelowski speaks during a reopening ceremony for the Winona bridge July 1, 2019, in Winona.
Andrew Link / File / Post Bulletin

“This parallels the decline of the DFL in greater Minnesota,” Pelowski said. “The greater Minnesota DFL has declined so did those legislators in the DFL that were pro-life.”

Pelowski, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee, remains after Dilworth DFL Rep. Paul Marquart retired, and Northeastern Minnesota Reps. Mary Murphy and Julie Sandstede lost to their GOP challengers this November.

Duluth's Natalie Zeleznikar unseated Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, in House District 3B by margin of 50.01%-49.85%, according to unofficial results.

Murphy’s race is subject to a recount as it came down to just 35 votes, but even if she wins, the DFL would still hit its threshold if Hortman's estimate is right.

Mary Murphy Web.jpg
Rep. Mary Murphy

Pelowski says his opposition to abortion is a personal value rooted in his Roman Catholic upbringing.

The Grand Rapids Republican, who currently represents House District 5B, defeated Rep. Julie Sandstede, a Hibbing DFLer who represents House District 6A.

"You don't see me giving speeches on it," he said. "It's something I grew up with. And with that, I've never really thought of it as a political value."

It's increasingly uncommon to hear an elected DFLer to say something like that, and the trend goes beyond the Minnesota Legislature. As recently as 2010, Minnesota had two longtime Democratic congressmen opposed to abortion: Jim Oberstar in the northeastern 8th District and Collin Peterson in the western 7th District. Oberstar lost to a Republican in 2010, and a decade later Peterson met the same fate.

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Hamline University political science professor David Schultz, a longtime observer of Minnesota politics, said the state aligns with national trends.

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Then-U.S. Senate candidate Walter Mondale, left, and U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar share a laugh at the start of a Mondale town hall meeting at the University of Minnesota Duluth on Nov. 2, 2002.
Derek Neas / File / Duluth News Tribune

“I always tell people the best way to describe the change in Minnesota and national politics in the last 30 years, is that in 1986, a pro-life Democrat Rudy Perpich wins election (as governor) to only lose four years later to a pro-choice Republican Arne Carlson. Would that political alignment ever occur today? Not a chance in the world.”

Minneapolis DFL Rep. Jamie Long, the incoming House Majority Leader, said characterizing abortion as a rural vs. urban or suburban issue doesn’t tell the whole story, as most Minnesotans oppose more restrictions.

“I think if you look at where the Minnesota public is, they support reproductive rights by big margins all across the state. It doesn't matter whether you're in the metro or the suburbs or greater Minnesota,” he said. “So I don't think the question is, where in the state of do Minnesotans support reproductive rights? But we certainly are seeing a polarization of the state parties.”

What's next?

The DFL controlled state government in 2013-2014, but why didn’t they act to pass abortion protections then? At that point Roe v. Wade remained intact, meaning there were two layers of protection for abortion rights: one through the Minnesota Supreme Court and another from the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court was going to weigh in and basically prevent you from doing whatever you wanted, at least if you were to try to restrict abortion," said Schultz. "And I think some Democrats in tougher swing districts, which were more conservative, especially when the Democrats were still representing rural areas, would say well, OK, I'm pro-life. And that probably aligned them like Oberstars of the world.”

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Now that federal abortion protections are gone, Democrats are moving to create additional lines of defense should the issue be overturned by a future state supreme court with justices appointed by a Republican governor (Minnesota last elected a Republican governor in 2006, and most of the current justices were appointed by Democrats).

What would codifying abortion access in Minnesota look like? Democrats have a few options now that they have complete control of state government.

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One option would be to pass legislation similar to the Protect Reproductive Options Act , a bill introduced in the 2021 legislative session that never gained any traction due to obstacles in the House and Republican control of the Senate. That bill would establish rights to contraception, abortion and privacy in state law.

Another option for the Legislature would be to send the question to voters by placing a constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights on the ballot. In the aftermath of the Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe earlier this year, Kansas, Kentucky and Montana had ballot measures to restrict abortion. All three failed. Voters in California, Michigan and Vermont all approved measures to create a constitutional right to abortion.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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