ST. PAUL — The ethics committee of the Minnesota House of Representatives met this week to hear the case of a Republican colleague under fire for repeatedly suggesting that homosexuals were not persecuted by the Nazis.
Part history lesson, part political circus, the hearing featured testimony from a wheelchair-bound Holocaust survivor and calls of “kangaroo court” from the House’s top Democrat. In fact, the proceeding seemed to offer just about everything — but a verdict.
Draped in a gray sport coat, with an American flag pin clipped to the lapel, Rep. Arlon Lindner sat quietly for most of the session, leaving his defense to controversial attorney James Anderson, known for his support of conservative Christian causes. In this case, Anderson was defending Lindner pro bono, against claims that his comments about gays violated “accepted norms of House behavior” and brought the House into “dishonor or disrepute.”
Lindner and his attorney sat opposite the eight Democratic House members who had filed the ethics complaint against the six-term Republican legislator. Within minutes of the hearing’s opening, acrimonious bickering ensued. While leading the charge against Lindner, State Rep. Matt Entenza of St. Paul bitterly addressed committee chair State Rep. Sondra Erickson of Princeton.
“Madam Chair,” Entenza, the House Majority Leader, declared, “you are running a kangaroo court here.”
“Rep. Entenza,” she replied, “you’re out of order.”
The exchange and the rest of the hearing were simply the latest chapter in what has become the political sideshow of the season in Minnesota’s state capital. While the hearing was technically an internal legislative procedural matter — literally a hearing before the ethics committee to determine whether there was probable cause for the complaint to be taken up by the full House — the matter became a contentious debate revolving around varying interpretations of the persecution of homosexuals by the Nazis.
Lindner angered many colleagues last month and prompted a media firestorm when he questioned the extent of Germany’s persecution of homosexuals.
“I was a child during World War II, and I’ve read a lot about World War II,” Lindner was quoted as saying in the March 7 edition of the Star Tribune, a Minneapolis-St. Paul daily newspaper. “It’s just been recently that anyone’s come out with this idea that homosexuals were persecuted to this extent. There’s been a lot of rewriting of history.”
Lindner was attempting to defend his proposed bill, known as the Defense of Innocence Act, that would strip gays and lesbians of any state protection against discrimination. Among other things, the bill would have altered state legislation dealing with World War II insurance policies by removing homosexuals from a list of groups that were victims of the Holocaust.
Days after his initial remark, Lindner fueled the controversy by citing a fringe book titled “The Pink Swastika” in an attempt to argue that the main gay participants in the Holocaust were probably concentration camp guards, not victims. Next, the embattled state representative took the House floor March 10 to defend his proposed bill, arguing that he was simply trying to defend Minnesota children “from the Holocaust” — an apparent reference to AIDS. “If you want to sit around and wait until America becomes another African continent, you do that,” said Lindner, who represents the outer Minneapolis suburb of Corcoran. “But I’m going to do something about that.”
The Democratic complainants called for Lindner’s censure and his removal as chair of the House Economic Development and Tourism Division committee. In his opening remarks, State Rep. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis charged: “Mr. Lindner has disgraced this body.”
State Rep. Ron Latz read excerpts from a host of letters denouncing Lindner, including ones from the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
The Democrats brought the 82 year-old, wheelchair-bound Hinda Kibort before the committee to testify about the Holocaust. A native of Lithuania, the feisty Kibort offered a firsthand account of Nazi persecution of homosexuals. “If anyone thinks that the pink triangle did not exist,” Kibort testified, “then I honestly cannot understand how this can be taken as the truth.”
Kibort later said: “Just as Jews had to wear yellow stars, homosexuals had to wear pink triangles. They were persecuted.”
At one point, Lindner’s attorney posited that “a person who denied the Holocaust would either be woefully ignorant or a bigot.”
Kibort quickly shot back, “I feel that he is both.”
The rejoinder drew laughter from all sides, including from Lindner himself.
The crux of Lindner’s defense was that he had not denied the existence of the Holocaust, but had only questioned the extent to which gays and lesbians were persecuted under the Nazi regime. “I didn’t say that the Holocaust didn’t exist,” Lindner said.
Lindner read a brief, prepared statement.
“If the Jew is my friend, I will be his friend. If the Jew is not my friend, I will be his friend,” said Lindner, who in the past has been criticized for describing Buddhism as a “cult” and accusing a Jewish legislator of having “irreligious left views.”
“If the Jew is my enemy, I will be his friend,” Lindner continued. “If the Jew does me good, I will be his friend. If the Jew does me harm, I will be his friend. If the Jew helps me politically, I will be his friend. If the Jew opposes me politically, I will be his friend. If the Jew should file false charges against me and seek to harm me, I will be his friend.”
In the end, Anderson did the bulk of the talking at the hearing. The lawyer distributed a thick sheaf of papers, numbering more than 100 pages, outlining various points in defense of Lindner. Anderson noted that a Democratic legislator, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, had recently erroneously charged that “the first law the Nazis passed was the repeal of abortion,” but that her grasp of history was not being scrutinized.
After more than two hours of procedural wrangling, partisan bickering, and TV-show theatrics from both sides, the ethics committee opted to recess without taking action. Committee members sought additional time to review materials presented by both sides. No date has been set for the committee’s next session.
Following the hearing, Lindner told reporters that he had received many letters of support since controversy first flared over his comments.
“I’m not convinced that what I said was wrong,” Lindner said.
A day after the hearing, Latz dismissed Lindner’s speech about his positive feelings toward Jews.
“It was a red herring,” said Latz, who represents St. Louis Park and Golden Valley, suburbs of Minneapolis. “This issue is not about whether he’s a friend to the Jews. The fact that I and one of the other complainants are Jewish has nothing to do with whether his statements were offensive or bigoted or brought dishonor upon the House of Representatives. That’s a smokescreen.”
Stephen Silberfarb, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, was not present at the hearing, but noted the unusual nature of the proceeding.
“I don’t remember the last time a Holocaust survivor has testified at the ethics committee,” he said. “This could be a first.”
In fact, it was unclear if a similar hearing had ever been held in any state legislative body in the United States.
While the community relations council strongly condemned Lindner’s remarks, Silberfarb insisted the legislator was not a “horrible” person.
“I wouldn’t want to demonize Rep. Lindner,” Silberfarb said. “I think he doesn’t know much about the Holocaust. This guy is not a walking David Duke, let me put it that way.”
Lindner previously met with Silberfarb’s group, which supplied him with documents from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum outlining the persecution of gays. It also supplied him with a book on the topic called “The Pink Triangle” and invited Lindner to join the group on a previously scheduled trip to the museum in Washington on April 8.
In the end, the legislator did not participate. Entenza told the Forward that he and his fellow Democrats were offering to take up a collection to pay for such a trip, if it would induce Lindner to go.