WASHINGTON -- Minnesota businessman Wheelock Whitney, Jr. is a lifelong Republican. He ran for U.S. Senate in 1964 and governor in 1982. He believes in a strong national defense, limits on government spending, less regulation and individual rights.
That commitment to individual rights includes the right for gays and lesbians to get married. Whitney, who was once a part-owner and president of the Minnesota Vikings, is now one of the leaders in the fight against a state constitutional amendment barring marriage equality, and he's calling out many of his fellow conservatives for abandoning their principles.
"This is more government, and it's not promoting individual liberty. It's taking it away. It offends me as a Republican," he said of the proposed amendment in an interview with The Huffington Post.
State lawmakers voted in May to let voters decide whether gay and lesbian couples should have the right to get married. The issue will appear on the ballot in November 2012. State law already restricts marriage to being between one man and one woman, but such a law is subject to court challenges. A constitutional ban would be much harder to overturn.
Whitney is on the steering committee of Minnesotans United for All Families, the umbrella group representing all the organizations working to defeat the amendment. Groups involved include OutFront Minnesota, the Log Cabin Republicans, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Organization of Women.
Whitney has already donated $10,000 to the effort, and he plans to spend the next year encouraging other Republicans to donate as well. He said his goal is to convince 15 to 20 percent of the state's GOP voters to oppose the amendment by November 2012.
"It's an uphill battle, of course," he said. "When you have 30 states that had this on the ballot, and all 30 voted for a marriage ban, it places you as an underdog to try to defeat one. I'm a proud Minnesotan, and I would be a lot prouder of my state if they were the first state in the country to get it right, and to stop this madness that I think is the wrong thing to put into the constitution of a state or a country."
Whitney's motivation stems partly from the fact that his son and grandson are both gay, and he wants them to be able to live their lives without discrimination.
"I really love them with all my heart," he said. "I hate to see them have restrictions on their lives, and I hate to have them be discriminated against. I feel it's an attack on my family and many many many other families in Minnesota who would be affected by this, and I'm not willing to just sit by and let that happen."
In May, every single GOP state senator voted in favor of putting the constitutional ban on the ballot, as did all but four House Republicans. But according to the Associated Press, "[f]ew House Republicans spoke in favor of the ban ... a contrast to similar debates in past years."
Among the dissenters was State Rep. John Kriesel (R), an Iraq war veteran who lost both his legs in combat.
"Happiness is so hard to find for people, so they find someone who makes them happy and we want to take that away?" Kriesel asked. "We say you can be together but you can't marry them? That's wrong and I don't agree with it."
Many of the groups that pushed these GOP legislators to vote in favor of putting the amendment on the ballot are now plotting an aggressive campaign to convince voters to approve it.
The Minnesota Family Council, Minnesota Catholic Conference and the National Organization for Marriage are all working to mobilize support for the amendment among voters.
Catholic and evangelical churches have formed a group called Minnesota for Marriage, which will try to mount the "the largest and most intensive grassroots political campaign the state has ever seen," according to Jason Adkins, director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.
Whitney argued that key to defeating the ban will be turning out young people, who are much more accepting of marriage equality.
"They don't consider this to be an issue for them," he said. "And they're going to be alive, and the older people, who are going to vote for a ban, are going to die -- by the natural order of things. So I know it's going to eventually be a non-issue. But I want that to happen in my lifetime. I'm 85, and I have to hurry a little bit, because it might take 20 years naturally. I'd like to see it happen in 2012."
Minnesota is not the only state putting marriage equality up for a vote in 2012. North Carolinians will vote on the issue in May, after state GOP legislators approved putting a similar constitutional amendment on the ballot. In the GOP presidential field, the vast majority of candidates all oppose same-sex marriage, support the Defense of Marriage Act, and supported upholding Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
When asked whether he has seen a change in the Republican Party over the years, Whitney replied, "Are you kidding? Come on! It's changed radically in Minnesota. ... If I were trying to get endorsed by the Republican Party [now], I'd get zero votes, and I'd certainly lose any primary I entered supporting gay marriage and women's rights to choose on abortion, which I have consistently since I was active in politics. It's a different party."
"I believe in marriage, and I know that there are all kinds of ways you can undermine a marriage," added Whitney, "but I don't know my own happiness has ever depended on an effort to deprive others of their happiness."