ST. PAUL, Minn. – Spurred by a police chief, Minnesota lawmakers launched a drive Thursday to remove from the state constitution a clause allowing slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crimes.
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, who had been bothered by the language for some time, made it his new year's resolution to get it deleted. He found a sympathetic ear in St. Paul Democratic Rep. John Lesch, who will get a hearing Tuesday on his proposal asking voters in November to remove the offending language from the constitution.
The bill of rights in the 1857 Minnesota Constitution says “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the state otherwise than as punishment for a crime of which the party has been convicted.” The amendment would strike the punishment exception, leaving a total ban in place.
“It's inappropriate that language mentioning slavery still exists in our constitution, even if's narrowly constructed and, some would say, obsolete,” Lesch said at a news conference. “While we've undoubtedly made progress in expanding civil rights, racial bias remains persistent in our state and we see the effects of that in the news every day.”
Axtell said it's important that the constitution reflect Minnesota's shared values.
“This isn't a St. Paul thing. This isn't a Minneapolis thing. This isn't a metro thing. This is a state thing,” the police chief said. “It's important that this wording is removed.”
Colorado voters removed permissive slavery language from their constitution in 2018, while it will be on the ballot in Utah and Nebraska in November after passing Republican-controlled legislatures in those states. The Vermont General Assembly needs to approve a similar amendment a second time to put it on the 2022 ballot. The U.S. Constitution still contains similar language.
If the language is troubling for Axtell and Lesch, who are white, it's personal to Democratic Rep. Rena Moran, the great-great granddaughter of slaves, who said it's unacceptable to sanction slavery or involuntary servitude under any context.
“Black Americans still carry multi-generational trauma from that dark period in our nation's early history," Moran said. She went on to add, “Make no mistake, this amendment won't solve every problem that African Americans still face. It will, however, provide a pathway helping to heal century-old wounds.”
The proposal seems likely to win support in the Democratic-controlled House. It's being sponsored in the Republican-controlled Senate by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, an African American from Minneapolis, who is hopeful he can persuade Senate leaders to take it up. No organized opposition has emerged.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said at a separate news conference Thursday that he's “certainly willing to take a look at it.”