Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said Friday her decision to support gay marriage, while a change from her previous position on the issue, was the right thing to do ethically.

Heitkamp, who is in her first term as a North Dakota U.S. senator, joined another freshman Democratic senator, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, in releasing statements minutes apart supporting marriage equality.

In a phone interview from Fargo, Heitkamp said in the past few months she has had many conversations with people on the issue.

She said she had always believed it should be a state issue and a legal issue, but that’s not the case anymore.

“This is about equality and what’s fair,” she said.

During the course of her discussions with North Dakotans, Heitkamp said, it became clear to her that people were being discriminated against in many ways because of their sexual orientation.

“In speaking with North Dakotans from every corner of our great state, and much personal reflection, I have concluded the federal government should no longer discriminate against people who want to make lifelong, loving commitments to each other or interfere in personal, private and intimate relationships,” she said in a statement.

Heitkamp, who spoke to the Tribune following a housing conference in Fargo, said there was little feedback on the issue from those at the conference.

“They wanted to talk about housing,” she said. “I think that says something about where people are at on the issue.”

There are now only four Democrats in the Senate who have not expressed support for gay marriage: Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Johnson announced earlier this week he will not seek another term because of health reasons.

Chad Oban, executive director of the North Dakota Democratic NPL party, said the reaction from state Democrats has energized the party and made them proud.

“The reality is, this is bigger than politics,” Oban said. “This is about equality and civil rights. Sen. Heitkamp did what was right.”

Mark Jendrysik, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota, said he believes the move to support same-sex marriage around the nation is a sign that generational values are changing.

North Dakota, with its older population, remains largely opposed to gay marriage because of moral and religious reasons, he said, but he doesn’t think it will hurt Heitkamp politically.

“I feel it is not one of those key issues. I don’t think she will lose votes because of that,” Jendrysik said.

Today’s political climate in North Dakota seems to be trending more toward other issues, he said.

“She’s very early in her time as a senator. ... For people here, it’s more about what she is doing for North Dakota,” Jendrysik said of Heitkamp.

Nationally, Jendrysik said attitudes are changing about gay rights, just as they changed with rights for the disabled, women and minorities.

And, in today’s mobile society, he said many believe the federal government should decide the issue.

Younger people, especially, are more accepting and tolerant of the changing mores in our culture, he said.

“The unusuality, if that’s a word, of it (same-sex relationships) has gone away for them,” he said. “Normal in a society changes.”

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said his position on gay marriage has not changed.

In a statement, Hoeven’s office said, “Senator Hoeven’s position hasn’t changed. He believes that marriage is a union between a man and a woman.”

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., released a statement as well.

“My position is the same as the vast majority of North Dakotans, who, in 2004, voted by nearly 3 to 1 to constitutionally define marriage as between a man and a woman,” Cramer said.

Heitkamp said during debates on the Defense of Marriage Act, stories of discrimination in housing, jobs and other aspects of life, including finances, were especially poignant. Drawing from her own life as a married person, she said she could relate to the hardships that were the result of the discrimination.

“I can’t deny them that,” she said.

And, she said in a conversation with her mother, whom she called her “bellwether” on such issues, it came down to how people treat each other.

Heitkamp said her mother simply asked, “Why wouldn’t you do that?”

Reach reporter Brian Gehring 250-8254 or brian.gehring@bismarcktribune.com.