The Senator Who Came Out from the Cold
Among those who knew him, it was never any secret that state Sen. Paul Koering was gay. Neither, though, was it something he wanted to discuss. Through the course of three state Senate campaigns (he lost the first two), Koering managed to defer the subject. ("I didn't think it was anybody's business," he says, "and I still don't think it's anybody's business.") Nonetheless, on April 13 Koering sat down with reporters from the Star Tribune and Pioneer-Press to confirm what they had long known: The Republican senator from one of the state's most conservative districts was also a gay man.
It was one of Koering's own Republican colleagues who forced his hand in the end. The previous week, Sen. Michele Bachmann, the most opportunistic of the Legislature's claque of hard-right Christians, made a motion to pull a bill proposing an anti-gay marriage ballot referendum out of committee and directly to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Koering broke ranks and voted against the motion, and immediately came under fire.
A month and a half after his announcement, the former dairy farmer and small business owner from Fort Ripley says the fallout has been a lot less odious than he feared. He remains resolute about running for reelection next year as a member of the Republican Party, and seems to like his chances of winning. I talked to Koering as he was about to travel back to the Brainerd area for the Memorial Day weekend.
City Pages: You came out a few days after voting against an anti-gay marriage ballot referendum. Was that entirely the reason for your announcement, or did other factors play in the decision?
Sen. Paul Koering: There were a lot of factors. That vote was certainly part of it. But I guess in my mind, I knew I was going to have to do something sooner or later. I just didn't know when it was going to happen. But I never, ever tried to keep anything a secret from anybody. Everybody knew at the Capitol.
Things got ratcheted up so much that I felt--what really made the final decision for me was when it started to affect my job to be so preoccupied with this. Then I made a decision that it was time to come out and say, here it is, and let's get back to work. And that's virtually what I did. I just wanted to end all the speculation.
My vote on that [amendment] was a procedural vote. People don't understand that I wasn't voting for or against the gay marriage amendment. I was voting "no" on departing from the way we normally do business in the Senate. Normally you introduce a bill, it goes to committee, and it works through a process. People have input, and it's changed by the time it gets to the Senate floor, probably for the good. To make a motion to pull this out of committee and drag it right to the Senate floor, I just thought it was the wrong thing to do.
I'll tell you another reason I voted that way. If it had been two weeks earlier or two weeks later, I might have voted different. But I honestly believe the good Lord works in mysterious ways, and it just happened that April 7, the day of the vote, was the two-year anniversary of my mother's death. The people who know me know that my mom was everything to us kids. It's been hard the last two years. So on April 7, as you might imagine, I was very emotional.
It also happened to be Gay & Lesbian Day at the Capitol. Those folks were up there trying to express their views. Not bothering anybody, just doing what it was their God-given right to do, which was coming up there and expressing their opinions to their legislators. And so, for this vote to come up on that day--as I sat there and tears rolled down my eyes, I just thought it was wrong.
So I said no to it, and one of the groups that supports the gay marriage ban started running radio ads in my district the very next morning. They gave my home number in the ads, and that weekend I had a very difficult time, not only with the anniversary of my mother's death but with all these people who were angry and calling me at home. So after the weekend went by, on Monday morning the Star Tribune and Pioneer-Press asked me again. I had a call from my local paper asking me again. I said no, I don't have anything to talk about.
It was common knowledge over there [at the Legislature], and I will say I totally respect the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press. They all knew, and when I said I didn't want to discuss it, they respected that. I thought that was a pretty standup thing to do. So finally, on Monday afternoon, when I saw that it was affecting my ability to get my work done, I said, "You know what, let's sit down on Wednesday and I'll talk about it." It was hard, you know. I don't want to be perceived as a gay activist, because I'm not. I'm a former dairy farmer, I'm pretty conservative, I vote conservative. I am not for gay marriage. But I try to do in my job on a daily basis what I think is right, and I try to weigh out the good and the bad and vote the right way.
Another thing, too, is that my dad--he knew [I was gay], but at the time he didn't really want to know. So I was worried about how he would feel about me. And I guess I was worried about how people were going to treat me back home.
CP: Did your mom know you were gay? Had you discussed it with her?
Koering: Yeah. She knew, and she was very, very supportive of me. She always taught me and my three older brothers and my older sister to do the right thing. And I guess I felt in that moment when I was voting no, she was looking down on me and making sure that I did the right thing. When she was alive, if we would go to a restaurant and I'd go walking in ahead of her, she'd wait outside for me to come back and hold the door for her. It was her way of trying to teach me how to be a gentleman. How to be a good person.
CP: What was her feeling about public disclosure?
Koering: I never really discussed that with her. I sure wish she had been here. I know she would have been my number one supporter. But I've also got to say that I'm so proud of my dad. He's more supportive of me now than he's ever been. So it's turned out to be a good thing.
CP: What did he say to you about it?
Koering: On Wednesday, when I did the interviews, I called over to my dad's place about 9:30 p.m. He has a girlfriend, and when I called his house, she answered. I said, "Marian"--I'd talked to her about it before--"everything's going to be public in about half an hour." And I said, "Do you think you could talk to my dad?" Because I just--Wednesday was a hard day, and I couldn't talk to him.
She said, "Sure, I can talk to him." About an hour later she called and said, "How you doing?" I said, "Fine. How's my dad doing?" She said, "Oh, he's just fine. Do you want to talk to him?" And I said, "Not really." She said, "Well, he wants to talk to you."
So he got on the phone and the first thing he says is, "Well--you'll do anything to get press, won't you?"
We kind of laughed about that, and he said, "Are you coming home on Thursday night?" I said I was. And there was a little awkward silence after that, and I finally said, "I love you, Dad."
And he said, "Me too."
CP: You said you've known this day was coming for some time. Since when?
Koering: When you're running for office--and I ran three times before I got elected--you see how the whole game works. How nasty politics can get. I thought that eventually someone was going to try to use this against me, or somebody would pop up and ask me the question. Nobody had yet, but I knew it was coming. I'm sure there's people who would rather not see me reelected, and I'm sure there are also people who'd do anything it took to try to defeat their opponent. I didn't know when or how it would come up--I had no idea a year ago that this would be the time--but it seemed to all come together as if it was meant to happen.
And I will say it's turned out better than I thought. I was afraid that I was going to get a lot of hate mail, and that people would shun me up in my district. I haven't found that at all. I was invited to a Vietnam veterans' dinner that was being held a couple of weeks after my big coming out. I had RSVPed for it a long time before all this. I have to say, when I went back home for the weekend knowing I was going to attend that dinner, I was really scared to go. I didn't know how these veterans were going to react. When I got there, it was unbelievable the amount of support I got. Just unbelievable. I said a few words at the dinner, and afterward there were probably 25 people in a line to come up and shake my hand and tell me they still supported me. I had all I could do to keep the tears from coming, because it was so emotional and so positive.
CP: Has this episode changed your attitude about your public role, as a politician or a citizen? Now that you're identified as a gay politician and a gay Republican, does it create any obligations or burdens you didn't face before?
Koering: No, I don't believe it does. I believe I'm still the farm boy from Fort Ripley, Minnesota, who happens to be representing Brainerd and Little Falls, who happens to be pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, Republican, and who happens to be gay. I don't think the latter makes any difference in my job representing my district. I don't think that my job has changed at all. I just opened myself up, inside and out, and people can make a judgment if they want to, but I'm still going to focus on the issues I think are important. To me that's health care, making sure that we provide some type of a safety net for folks that are the poorest in society. I'm going to continue to fight for education, and make sure we've got good funding for our schools so that kids can get out and get a good education. I'm going to continue to fight for agriculture and the pro-life movement and to do the job I always did.
CP: The Crow Wing County Republican Party chair said your announcement amounted to "political suicide." You've said you intend to continue in politics. When you run for reelection, you'll be up against a constituency that seems to place a lot of emphasis on anti-gay rights issues. How do you get across with them?
Koering: I would say first of all that the Crow Wing County Republican chair's comments were the only negative comments I've received thus far. I've gotten over 700 e-mails, and they're all positive. I have not gotten any death threats or even nasty e-mails. Honest to God. I have talked to a lot of the Crow Wing County and Morrison County Republican delegates, and I still have a lot of support. I think some people are still trying to digest this, and they're trying to figure out if they want to support Paul Koering. I'm hoping that I can earn their support. I hope that they'll just look at my voting record and see that I do represent their views. Probably not 100 percent of the time, but who could do that? You're never going to find that.
I am a Republican. Nobody's going to take that away from me. I'm going to seek the Republican endorsement. If, by chance, I do have a challenge for the endorsement and fail to win the endorsement, I am going to run regardless, and I'm going to run as a Republican, not as an independent or a Democrat. And I'm sure people who saw me run three times to eventually beat out a 34-year incumbent know that I don't give up easy. I'm not going to give up without a fight.
CP: You said that you do not favor gay marriage. What about other sorts of legal protections--the whole area of civil unions?
Koering: I do support that.
CP: How do you rationalize belonging to a political party that's increasingly made a habit of scapegoating gays and gay-rights issues for electoral gain?
Koering: First of all, I'd say that I don't know the Republican Party is necessarily--at least the senators I know and work with are very good and kind people who are trying to look out for their constituents the best that they can.
CP: But there are larger issues than ones of personality here.
Koering: I don't agree with everything that the Republican Party stands for 100 percent of the time. I know for a fact that there are Democrats who don't agree 100 percent with the Democrats. It would be easy for me to say I was going to bail out because I don't agree with the Republican Party on this or that issue. I just think it's important for me to stay where I'm at. And I'm hoping the folks back home will send me back for another term.
I'm sure some people would say I should be an activist for gay people. Well, why should I? That's not my job. I'm not up there bashing anybody, however, and I never have. But I'm not a flag-waver. I don't need to wave the flag and throw it in somebody's face. This is just who I am, and I can't change the way the Lord made me, nor would I. I'm totally comfortable with who I am and I like my work.
And if by chance I don't get reelected, life is going to go on for me. There are a lot of people out there who are miserable. They'll be just as miserable after I'm gone. Life is good, you know. I have people on both sides who disagree with me, but at least they can't say I'm a hypocrite. I don't say one thing and do another.
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