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A conversation with Minnesota House Speaker Paul Thissen on gay marriage

Minnesota is poised to become the 12th state to legalize gay marriage after the state House signed off on it Thursday on a 75-59 vote. The bill is expected to pass the state Senate next week and Gov. Mark Dayton (D) has said he will sign it.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, left, and Rep. Michael Paymar, both Democrats, walk by demonstrators on both sides of the gay marriage issue as they head to the House chamber to take up the gay marriage bill at the State Capitol, Thursday, May 9, 2013 in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

We spoke with state House Speaker Paul Thissen (D) about the bill, what it took to win passage, and what it means for the larger debate.

FIX: Walk me through your Thursday. When did you figure out you had the votes to win passage?

PT: We felt we had the votes to pass on Tuesday when we called the vote. And I've got to say, it was a much more emotional debate for me than I thought was going to be. It was a pretty powerful three hours.

FIX: What made it an emotional debate?

PT: A couple things. A lot of the speeches people made. It was a very serious and respectful debate befitting the gravity of the topic. But also, just all the faces in the crowd, and just thinking how this is going to really change the lives of so many people in Minnesota and seeing them in the Capitol as we were taking up this vote. Those two things together.

FIX: Did you know that you were going to get some Republican support when you called this vote? (Four Republicans voted for it.)

PT: No. I did not. I had an inkling we might, but we didn't call the vote until we knew we had the votes on our side.

FIX: What did it mean to have Republican support?

PT: I think it's hugely significant, because it shouldn't be a partisan issue. And nationally, it's really not. There are so many Republicans across the country that do support moving in this direction. And so what that means, for the state, for the conversation we're having, is that it has moved beyond being a partisan issue to being an issue about Minnesotans and their freedom and equality. And I think that's hugely important.

FIX: How has Minnesota gone from being a state that last year proposed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage to a state that is now on the verge of legalizing it?

PT: I think because the strategy the folks adopted to defeat the amendment, which is really a strategy of going out and talking to people and engaging people in conversations about what this really means, made a huge difference in how people thought about it and talked about. It personalized the issue for people ... and it was one of the examples where it really did change people's hearts and minds.

FIX: When you first started this process, how confident were you that gay marriage could be passed and be signed into law?

PT: Earlier in the session? I wasn't particularly confident at all that we would get there. I mean, I wasn't un-confident, but i just didn't know. We really adopted a similar approach to the campaign, within the legislature, which was engaging in individual conversations with members and having them talking to their constituents. Never saying, 'you need to vote for this,' but really kind of talking through the issues -- the meaning of it, the politics of it, the importance of it, and what it could do for Minnesota. And everybody just kind of got to this point on their own.

FIX: What do you mean by that?

PT: It was every individual member searching their own heart, talking to their constituents and coming to the decision to support it on its own. And so it wasn't that we were going to take up this bill no matter what. We allowed the individual members of the House to get there. And I think that kind of process made a big difference.

FIX: Minnesota is set to become the 12th state to legalize gay marriage. What's the significance of this in terms of the larger debate taking place across the country right now?

PT: Two things. Clearly the momentum is picking up in this direction. I think just that is what you are seeing in other states as well as Minnesota. I also think it's very significant though that Minnesota is the first state in the middle of the country, or at least in the Midwest, to have a legislature make marriage equality the law in that state. And so it's not just kind of an East Coast/West Coast phenomenon. I think the significance of Minnesota's vote is it makes it truly a national wave and movement.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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