ST. PAUL -- An emotional Sen. Paul Koering, prompted in part by last week's procedural vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, announced Wednesday he is gay.
The Fort Ripley Republican, who defeated then-Senate President Don Samuelson on the third try in 2002, said inquiries about his sexual preference were taking up an increasing amount of his time. The questions were starting to hamper his efforts to guide his teacher mentoring bill and other important legislation through the Senate. He said he wanted to put the issue to rest with an announcement.
"I've always felt like my personal life is just that -- personal," he said in an interview in the State Office Building. "I don't feel like I ever lied to anyone. I never deceived anyone."
Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, teared up when he recalled breaking the news that he was gay to his mother years ago. His mother, whom he described as his "best friend," died two years ago this month. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
Koering, 40, said on the rare occasion someone asked him if he was gay, he told them the truth. The first-term lawmaker said that although a certain number of people speculated he might be gay -- very few asked him directly.
The former dairy farmer, who drew headlines by using a wooden club to scare off two would-be robbers from his Brainerd liquor store in mid-February, said he planned to run for re-election to the District 12 Senate seat, even if he faces opposition from within the GOP.
"I'm going to run for re-election," Koering said. "I'm going to give it all I've got."
Koering admitted he would be breaking new ground running as an outstate, gay Republican but said he would not switch parties.
"The Republican Party I know is a big tent," he said, but then posed a rhetorical question. "Is the Republican big tent in Senate District 12 big enough to have them endorse me?
"I'm going to put up a vigorous campaign," he said.
Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, posed for a photograph at his desk Wednesday in the Minnesota Senate Chamber. The first-term senator from central Minnesota announced that he is gay. The Senate was not in session Wednesday. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
Koering said he hoped voters would look at his performance during the last two years and conclude that he was a good guy with a good heart. Although he was the only Republican senator to cast a vote against the unsuccessful measure to force a floor vote on the Defense of Marriage Act, he said he continues to staunchly support other core issues he has emphasized in the past.
"I continue to be someone who fights for the unborn," he said.
He said, with three older brothers who are avid hunters, he's a strong supporter of the Second Amendment's right to bear arms.
"I'll never, ever waiver on those issues," Koering said. "I know I'm a Republican and nobody can take that away from me."
Koering said he's always been an independent thinker and has always done what he thought was right. He said he thinks Minnesotans are more interested in good-paying jobs with health benefits than they are with his personal life.
"Paul Koering has not changed," he said. "I'm still the same Paul Koering I always was."
Koering grew up in the rural St. Mathias community, raising pigs as a young boy and later starting a dairy herd that grew to about 60 cows in 15 years. He said he first knew he was gay when he was about 15 and remembered how difficult it was to share that with his mother, who died two years ago. He described his mother as his best friend.
Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, announced that he is gay Wednesday in his office at the Minnesota State Capitol. The first-term senator from central Minnesota said he want his constituents to know he will carry on with his legislative business. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
He said grappling with one's sexual identity is a struggle for every gay person whether they grow up in the country or the city. He said he's still the person who likes to farm and to bale hay in the summer. He said the fact that gays might have been less visible in the Brainerd area than they might have been in a larger city never posed any particular hardship for him.
"I don't feel the need for a network," he said.
A person doesn't choose to be gay, he said.
"Why would a person choose to be ridiculed?" he asked.
Koering has discussed his sexual orientation with members of the clergy. He said he doesn't consider it a conflict with his Roman Catholic faith.
"I believe God loves us just the way we are," Koering said.
Koering had told members of the media earlier this week he was prepared to make an announcement on this issue. Koering said there was no immediate relief in making the announcement.
"It's not a relief yet," he said. "There's a lot of anxiety, a lot of nervousness."
Koering acknowledged there would be constituents who think homosexuality is immoral.
"I respect their opinion and I hope they respect my opinion," he said. "We're never going to agree on every issue."
Koering does not the think the Republican effort to force a Senate floor vote on a same-sex marriage ban will receive the 41 of 67 votes which it currently needs.
"I don't think there's enough votes to get it on the floor for this year," he said. "The ultimate vote is coming next year."
Koering said he's reserving judgment on how he will vote on the issue until he sees the final bill. Currently, Koering said, Minnesota statutes define marriage as being between a man and a woman and he supports that statute.
"I have to make sure that's good public policy," Koering said of the legislation.
He wonders how people will treat him when he returns to his district, noting that his family has lived in the area for about 100 years. He said he never wanted to embarrass the district.
"I just hope that they'll still just like me for who I am," Koering concluded. "I'm so honored to serve them down here."
MIKE O'ROURKE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5860.
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