Back-Bencher to Mr. President
Senator Allan Spear '58 retires
as president of the Minnesota State Senate this winter, he will
be remembered for many things: his influential legislation; being
the first openly gay senator; and, let's not forget, his steadfast
defense of mourning doves.
the years, a certain senator has tried to legalize the hunting
of doves," explains Robert Whereatt, a Minneapolis Star Tribune
reporter who has covered the Senate for two decades. "Senator
Spear opposed making a peace symbol a target for hunters. But
instead of being heavy handed, he would rise in opposition and
give a recipe for serving doves. He'd talk about the miniscule
amount of meat you get from them and that you'd need a huge number
of these lovely birds for a dinner party. By the end of the speech,
you'd have senators who'd heard it many times before rolling in
the aisles." It was funny, and effective: So far, Minnesota hunters
are still forbidden to bag the beloved birds.
finesse has not always been Spear's forte. In fact, when he began
his career in the State Senate in 1972, he was anything but congenial.
"I wanted to be a voice for, what at that time, were radical concerns,"
says Spear. Having rallied for civil rights at Oberlin and against
the Vietnam War at Yale, where he earned his doctorate in African
American history, Spear was teaching at the University of Minnesota
when he ran for and won a Senate seat as a member of the Democrat
Farmer Laborer (DFL) Party, Minnesota's equivalent of the Democratic
saw myself as a gadfly, which is how I was perceived. For example,
when the issue of bonuses for Vietnam vets came up, I suggested
we also give bonuses to conscientious objectors," he says drolly.
"Such things weren't likely to pass."
In 1974, in a gutsy move for the times, he announced he was gay.
"It seemed to me it was going to come out anyway. I chose the reporter
I gave the story to," he says. The response from his constituents?
"Surprisingly mild," he recalls, though his bombshell drew national
attention and the usual amount of hate mail.
Even so, his revelation did not hurt him politically, and in
1992 he became chair of the State Senate's Judiciary Committee.
Later that year, he was elected by his colleagues as Senate
president. That was also the year he passed his most important
legislation--the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT)
Human Rights Act, outlawing discrimination against these groups
in housing, jobs, and other areas.
was a 20-year struggle," he remembers, noting that tireless
lobbying on his part, as well as a shift in social attitudes,
made the law possible. "The times changed. In 1978, St. Paul
rejected a citywide ordinance guaranteeing such rights. But
in 1991, voters there passed it."
That cleared the way for a new statewide law. "People realized
the world was not going to end, and I was able to put together
a coalition [in the Senate] to pass a state law that I hadn't
been able to do before."
he nears retirement, Spear reflects on his own shift from back-bencher
to political player. "I've maintained my voice for progressive
causes, but I have become more of an inside player," he says.
"Unless you learn and respect the process, you are not going
to accomplish what you want to do. You have to use it for your
the next few months, his goals will shift radically as he retires
from teaching and lawmaking.
like to cook, travel to Europe, read a lot, and listen to music,"
he says of his plans. He also wants to spend more time with
his partner, Junjiro Tsuji.
Alas, the mourning doves are on their own.