Gay marriage now an issue in SD House primaryMatt Varilek, one of two Democrats running for the party's nomination for the state’s lone congressional seat, told a newspaper editorial board Tuesday that he opposes gay marriage.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Gay marriage has suddenly become an issue in South Dakota politics.
Matt Varilek, one of two Democrats running for the party's nomination for the state’s lone congressional seat, told a newspaper editorial board Tuesday that he opposes gay marriage.
That sparked a bit of an outcry.
Varilek said he supports civil unions for same-sex couples but is not in favor of allowing them to marry.
“As far as the definition of marriage itself, I think we should leave that to states and churches, as it traditionally has been the case,” he said.
But Varilek said he supports rights for same-sex partners.
“Under the law, every American should have the right to have health care and visit a sick partner in the hospital,” he said.
Meanwhile, his opponent in the June 5 primary, Jeff Barth, said he would vote to legalize gay marriage if such a bill was presented before Congress.
Barth said he is more concerned about Social Security, Medicare and national security, but he feels gay marriage is an issue worth supporting.
He said Varilek’s opposition to it has done two things: It struck a chord with voters who wondered where he stood on issues important to them, and it raised the question if Varilek was acting out of political interests, not speaking from his heart.
“I call it as I see it,” Barth said. “I don’t base my answer on who’s in the audience.”
He said he wondered if Varilek, a former longtime staffer for Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., learned political games in Washington, D.C., that he is trying to use in this campaign.
Varilek said he is only saying what he feels and honestly believes.
“This view is based on me trying to strike an appropriate balance on what I think it important,” he said. “I understand it’s an important issue.”
He said he knows he could lose votes over this or he may gain support from other people.
“I don’t really know,” Varilek said. “I’m going to keep on working hard in the primary and beyond.”
Barth said Varilek’s announcement may have breathed new life into his campaign. He badly trails him in fundraising and Varilek has been endorsed by most top Democrats, including Sen. Johnson and former Sens. Tom Daschle and George McGovern.
“This may have destabilized things a bit,” Barth said.
He said other issues may come to the fore.
Barth said he was pro-choice and wondered what Varilek’s stance on abortion was. He said the media and public have not vetted Varilek to learn what his views are on hot-button social issues.
Varilek said South Dakota voters twice voted against sweeping bans on abortion and he backs those results.
“I agree those bans are not right because we need to preserve the right to abortion in early stages,” he said. “I think we have broad agreement we should reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.”
Barth said his view was clear: Abortions should be “safe, legal and rare.”
He said he welcomed a discussion on the issue with people on all sides of it.
Varilek’s announcement that he opposed gay marriage drew fire from people who had been supporting him, including Steven Hildebrand, a Mitchell native with a long track record of political involvement.
“I spoke with Matt at length after his editorial board interview yesterday and told him that I was angry with his position and that I could not help him anymore,” Hildebrand said Wednesday.
Varilek termed it a “private conversation” and declined to disclose what was said.
“Again, I understand a lot of people are disappointed with my view and I respect their view,” he said.
Hildebrand has criticized South Dakota Democratic candidates before. In 2010, he considered challenging Stephanie Herseth Sandlin for the party’s nomination for Congress after she voted against President Obama’s sweeping health-care overhaul.
Hildebrand elected not to run but he urged a Rapid City doctor to oppose Herseth Sandlin. He didn’t after gathering names to get on the primary ballot, but Herseth Sandlin lost to Rep. Kristi Noem in the general election.
Varilek’s anti-gay marriage stance drew fire on two campaign Facebook pages, and on a liberal-slanted blog, Madvilletimes.com.
Hildebrand said gay marriage is a crucial issue for him.
“I’m unhappy with any candidate, Democrat or Republican who oppose equal rights for gay people,” he said. “It’s time to end the bigotry and injustice and move forward. Gay people are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, teachers, doctors, farmers and carpenters.
“We are no different than straight people and we deserve all the rights afforded to straight people.”
Hildebrand said he would like to be married to his partner Mike Pierce.
“I’m not married because it’s illegal for me to be married,” he said. “I have a partner of 20 years here in Sioux Falls.”
Hildebrand managed Sen. Tim Johnson’s 2002 Senate campaign and Tom Daschle’s 2004 Senate campaign. He has served as the executive director of both the South Dakota and Minnesota Democratic parties.
In 2008, Hildebrand was a key player in the Barack Obama presidential campaign and was named deputy national campaign director.
He has since returned to South Dakota, where he has opened a consulting firm and is now readying Josiah’s Coffeehouse & Café, which will open in Sioux Falls this summer.
Hildebrand was an early backer of Varilek and helped launch a Facebook page in 2011 that urged him to run for Congress. But his support for Varilek is over, he said Wednesday, and he’s not sure the state is as anti-gay marriage as some people may think.
“I do think it’s important to note that of the 30-some states who have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, South Dakota came closest of all of them in defeating the proposed amendment back in 2006, Hildebrand said. “In other words, our state isn’t as conservative on this issue than most other states.”
Sen. Johnson released a statement saying he feels it’s an issue best left to individual states. That position mirrors that of Varilek, his former aide.
“In regard to marriage equality issue, each state has the right to make its own marriage laws,” Johnson said in an e-mailed statement. “Some states choose to allow it and some states don’t.
“South Dakota does not allow gay marriage and if and when the voters of our state want to change that provision in our state constitution they have the right to do so,” he said. “Even among the states which permit gay marriages they don’t require individual churches to participate in any way.”
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Sen. John Thune said he remains opposed to gay marriage.
“The senator’s position has not changed,” Strong said. “He still believes marriage is defined between a man and a woman.”
Rep. Kristi Noem said she agrees with Thune.
"I continue to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman,” Noem said in a statement e-mailed to The Daily Republic Friday.