U professor to retire next year, does not seek Senate re-election

Amy Olson

The author of a bill to protect gays from discrimination in Minnesota — and the first openly gay legislator in the nation — announced Friday that he will not seek re-election next year.
Sen. Allan Spear, DFL-Minneapolis, who has represented part of Minneapolis for a quarter century, said he will have been in office for 28 years when his term expires.
“I think that’s probably long enough for anybody,” said Spear, 61.
Spear, who was elected president of the Senate in 1993, is also a history professor at the University, where he has taught classes since the mid-1960s. He said he also intends to retire from teaching after the 1999-2000 academic year.
When Spear, the first non-attorney to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Finance Committee, disclosed his sexual orientation during his first term in 1974, he said his announcement made the front page of the Minneapolis Star. The story was also carried by the wire services.
“In the ’70s it was a bold move,” Spear said. Although he did not get hate mail, Spear said he did receive letters from constituents.
“It wasn’t hate mail,” Spear said. “It was phrased more like, ‘Can’t we do something to save your soul?'”
Today, there are more than 100 openly gay elected officials — such as legislators and city council members — across the country, by Spear’s count.
Two decades after he was elected, Spear successfully authored a bill to extend protection to gays and lesbians under the Human Rights Act.
The bill made Minnesota the eighth state to protect gays, lesbians and transgendered people from discrimination in employment, education and housing. Spear cited the law as one of his proudest accomplishments.
But Spear’s human rights advocacy extends beyond his support for gay rights. The walls of his office bear a wide array of plaques and awards from organizations like the Minnesota Association for Retarded People and the Abortion Rights Council of Minnesota for his civil rights advocacy.
Spear is regarded by his Senate colleagues as a fair president. In a previous interview, his legislative assistant, Vickie Block, said Spear shares his parliamentary duties with Democrats and Republicans alike.
Spear said he would just as soon hand over the gavel to Sen. William Belanger, R-Bloomington, as a fellow Democrat, citing Belanger’s parliamentary skills and his ability to moderate debate fairly.
Unlike some other politicians who become disenchanted with the legislative process, Spear’s enthusiasm appears to remain high.
“I’m not going to make some statement that the whole thing has gone to hell,” Spear said. “The Senate is a better place (now) than it was when I came.”
Spear said the Senate used to be more of an “old boys’ club,” where legislators would meet with lobbyists over glasses of scotch and cigars to decide which bills to pass.
Back then, Spear said there were no citizen lobbyists to advocate for reform — and there were no women.
“I think the most significant thing since I’ve been here is the coming of women,” Spear said, noting that the sign on the door of the bathroom outside the Senate said “Senators only” rather than “men.” When Nancy Braatas — the first female state senator in Minnesota — was elected, Spear said the Senate passed a bill to create a new women’s bathroom in a broom closet.
Spear said female legislators and citizen lobbyists have balanced special interest groups’ influence and changed the Senate’s focus. He cited citizen lobbying efforts like the Mothers Against Drunk Driving organization’s effect on drunk driving laws as an example.
Spear’s legislative interests also include criminal law. Since 1992, he has been chairman of the Senate’s Crime Prevention Committee, in which he has worked to advocate gun control laws and to resist implementing longer prison sentences for nonviolent offenders.
This has triggered some of his opponents to accuse him of being lenient on criminals.
“Just because we don’t put as many people in prison doesn’t mean we’re soft on crime,” Spear said, emphasizing the importance of efforts to prevent crime before it occurs.
Over the course of his career, Spear has earned a reputation for being an expert on criminal justice issues in addition to his reputation as a fair leader.
Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, has said Spear will be recognized as one of the state’s top 10 legislators in the second half of the century.
Although he is the only openly gay senator currently in office in Minnesota, Spear said he expects other legislators — like fellow Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis — will pick up his human rights advocacy where he leaves off.
Spear said he expects Rep. Myron Orfield, DFL-Minneapolis, will run for the retiring legislator’s open seat in the 2000 election. Orfield currently represents part of Spear’s corresponding House district.