PIONEER PRESS: Adoption struggle shaped 2nd District candidate Angie Craig
It started with something simple: a desire to have a family.
It turned into anything but: a three-year drama, a stressful legal battle and a defining moment for Angie Craig. It thrust Craig, who is gay, into the middle of a culture war that’s still affecting the country.
Today, 18 years after Craig and her partner first met the infant they named Joshua, Craig is running for Congress in Minnesota’s 2nd District. It’s a tough fight in one of America’s most closely divided districts, and victory here could affect control of Congress and shape public policy for years to come.
In the race to replace Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline, Craig, a first-time candidate, faces Republican Jason Lewis and Independence Party candidate Paula Overby.
Craig has approached her campaign in a district won by a Republican for more than a decade with a cool determination tested in the late 1990s when she was fighting to keep custody of the baby she loved.
“Whether I win or lose on Election Day, I know that that won’t be the hardest thing or the biggest challenge that I’ve ever faced,” said Craig, 44. “When you get up every day and wonder ‘Am I going to (still) have my child the next day?’ you get pretty good at being focused on the big picture.”
SEARCH FOR A CHILD
The struggle began in 1997, when Craig was living near Memphis, Tenn., and working on the executive team at medical device manufacturer Smith and Nephew. Her partner of seven years had unsuccessfully tried to conceive children through a donor, so they turned to adoption.
That’s never an easy process. But Craig and her partner, Debra Langston, faced an additional obstacle: Tennessee had no provisions for same-sex adoption and considerable opposition to the idea that a same-sex household was a good place to raise a child.
An encounter with a young woman named Christina Snyder gave Craig and Langston the break they sought. Snyder was pregnant and wanted to put her child up for adoption. After meeting with Langston and Craig, she agreed to give them her child.
More specifically, to give Langston the child. Under Tennessee law at the time, both women couldn’t appear on the adoption papers. In legal papers, Craig was referred to as Langston’s “roommate.”
A CHRISTMAS GIFT
It was Christmas Day, 1997, and the couple drove from a family gathering to attend Joshua’s birth — Langston in the delivery room, Craig waiting outside.
They didn’t know Snyder’s plan to give her son to Langston was fiercely opposed by Snyder’s parents. Wolfgang and Cindy Snyder didn’t want to give their grandchild to strangers. They didn’t want to separate their grandchild from his 4-year-old brother, whom they had raised. And they didn’t want their grandchild raised by a lesbian couple.
In Craig’s recollection of the story, “the grandparents turned up that day and announced to his birth mom that if this proceeded, she could never come home. She could never see her other son again.”
Under this pressure, Snyder reversed her decision. Craig and Langston went home without the infant they had expected to welcome into their family.
The last thing Craig remembers from that day was staring through the hospital room window at the infant Joshua, crying.
Reached by the Pioneer Press, Wolfgang and Cindy Snyder declined to be interviewed.
‘JOSH NEEDED A HOME’
“It was devastating,” Craig said. “It was painful. Certainly, we thought it was over.”
She and Langston spent the next several months “recovering.” They had no thoughts of trying to overturn Snyder’s decision.
“We had to respect the fact that Josh’s birth mom was in a difficult situation,” Craig said.
The Pioneer Press contacted Langston through Craig’s congressional campaign. She declined to be interviewed.
Circumstances turned in May 1998, when one of Snyder’s friends reached out to them. Snyder had left her parents’ home April 28 and was living on friends’ couches — and she wanted to meet again with Langston and Craig.
They showed up with some trepidation — “we had already had our hearts broken once,” Craig said — expecting an emotional conversation about possibly revisiting the adoption. Instead they discovered that Snyder was ready to transfer custody on the spot. Four-month-old Joshua was in a car seat along with a single garbage bag containing all of his possessions.
“Josh needed a home right then and there,” Craig recalled, tearing up at the memory. “We took him home.”
Within a few days, both Langston and Wolfgang and Cindy Snyder, Joshua’s grandparents, filed papers to adopt Joshua. In the court papers, he would be referred to as “M.J.S.,” a reference to his birth name, Michael.
Tennessee courts would decide: Should Joshua go to Langston or the Snyders?
State law gave considerable latitude to the child’s mother to determine who got custody of the child. Because Christina Snyder had given custody of her son to Langston, her parents had no legal standing to petition to adopt Joshua instead, the courts ruled.
His grandparents could, however, intervene to present evidence as to whether or not Langston was a fit parent. If the court found that she wasn’t, it could give the Snyders a chance to adopt.
Most of the court papers in the case have been destroyed or sealed, as often happens in adoption cases. But existing documents show that the Snyders argued that what a judge called “the nontraditional structure of Langston’s home” meant it was not in Joshua’s best interests to be raised by Langston and Craig.
Nancy Polikoff, a law professor and specialist in gay and lesbian family law at American University, said that, in the late 1990s, most states allowed gays and lesbians to adopt children as individuals, but only a few allowed same-sex couples to adopt jointly. Just one state, Florida, had a law banning all homosexual people from adopting children.
The dominant attitude toward homosexuality in Tennessee in the 1990s was hostile, said Ginger Leonard, a longtime Memphis resident who had two children through artificial insemination with her partner that decade.
“It was not an atmosphere in which anybody should be bringing up children,” said Leonard about how same-sex couples were seen.
CRITICISM OF LESBIAN ‘LIFESTYLE’
The initial court ruling concluded the Langston-Craig home was a fine place to raise a child: loving, stable and financially secure. It was also home to another child, Jacob, whom Craig bore through artificial insemination while the legal battle over Joshua was ongoing.
On appeal, the Snyders “questioned Langston’s living arrangements and her ability to raise a male child in that environment” — and one judge on the three-judge appellate court agreed.
“The child, if allowed to remain with Langston, will be raised in a household consisting of open, practicing lesbians who will co-parent the boy,” wrote Judge Hewitt Tomlin Jr. “In my view, such an arrangement cannot be and is not in the best interests of any child.”
The other two judges on the panel disagreed.
“Regardless of any personal beliefs that members of this court may harbor about Ms. Langston’s lifestyle, the record simply contains no evidence as to what effects, if any, these factors may have on the child in the future,” wrote Judge Alan Highers.
By a 2-to-1 majority, the court approved Langston’s adoption of Joshua, a decision made final when the Tennessee Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2000.
Craig remembers the moment her attorney called to tell her she had won.
“I was in my office, and Josh was in a day care near my office,” Craig said. “I remember just sitting down at my desk and crying. It was like, finally, I could breathe again. Because this beautiful baby boy was going to stay in our lives together.”
FROM TENNESSEE TO MINNESOTA
The case, In Re Adoption of M.J.S., has been cited in a few law journals and subsequent cases over the years. But its impact on the people directly involved was far larger than the limited legal precedent it set.
“Not for a minute did I think about what we’re doing is setting a precedent here,” Craig said. “It was, ‘We want to keep our child.’ ”
Joshua Craig-Langston is now 18 and a college freshman with plans to become an occupational therapist. He doesn’t remember the legal strife resolved when he was a toddler, but has learned about the struggle as he’s grown older.
“It’s not every day that your parents literally go to court for you,” Joshua told the Pioneer Press.
The victory did take an emotional toll, however. Shortly after it was resolved, Craig moved to London with Langston, Joshua and Jacob for work — a much-needed change of scenery.
When that rotation ended, the Arkansas-native Craig looked to leave the South for good.
“I wanted to be somewhere and be part of a community that would be more open and accepting,” Craig said. “St. Jude (Medical) was offering me the least pay. I took St. Jude because the Twin Cities was known as an inclusive and open place …and this community hasn’t let me down.”
Craig and Langston separated in 2006 and agreed to share custody of Joshua, who spent his summers in Minnesota and his school years in Tennessee.
Christina Snyder died in 2007 at age 32. Joshua, Craig and Langston discovered this only years later, when a teenage Joshua tried to reconnect with his birth mother.
QUIET ON THE TRAIL
Running for Congress, Craig rarely mentions the adoption drama.
“This is the first time I’ve ever talked about this publicly,” Craig told the Pioneer Press, sitting in her Eagan living room last month with Joshua by her side.
Chad Griffin, president of the pro-gay rights Human Rights Campaign, said he’s known Craig for years but had never heard about her adoption battle.
Indeed, Craig rarely mentions that she would be the first openly gay member of Congress from Minnesota, and talks about her wife, Cheryl Greene, and their four sons just like any other politician would about her or his family.
That attitude may fit the suburban and rural district she is running to represent. In 2012, when Minnesota became the first state to reject a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, 54 percent of the district’s voters opposed the amendment — even as they handily returned conservative Republican Kline to Congress.
On the rare occasions Republican activists made an issue of Craig’s sexual orientation, GOP nominee Lewis has disavowed the comments. “Private lives are private lives,” Lewis told the Pioneer Press. “I think families ought to be off-limits in politics. It’s just not relevant to the public policy issues.”
The bigger political impact of Craig’s adoption struggle may be on her temperament. The drama of fighting to keep her adopted son, she notes, helps put struggles in perspective. And Craig has approached the ups and downs of a congressional campaign with cool efficiency.
Despite facing a primary opponent who put $2 million into the race, Craig systematically lined up support from every single Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmaker and interest group available. Her Democratic rival, Mary Lawrence, was boxed out and ultimately withdrew.
That gave Craig half a year to methodically build a campaign. She has raised more than $2.5 million, and has support from Democrats and Democratic groups around the country. U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has campaigned for her, and the Democratic congressional campaign arm has spent $600,000 to support her.
She may need more than that to flip the 2nd District from red to blue. Voters of the district, which stretches from the Twin Cities’ southern suburbs to rural Wabasha and Goodhue counties, are veteran ticket-splitters who regularly give majorities to both Democrats and Republicans in the same election.
Lewis is a former talk-radio host who combines policy knowledge with charisma, and he’s focused his campaign around the argument that Craig is too liberal to represent the district.
Win or lose next month, Craig says the 2nd District has given her something she never found in Tennessee amidst her legal battle: acceptance.
“Every time I think about what our community in Minnesota has done to finally make me Josh’s legal parent, there’s no amount of service to this state or the community in Minnesota that will ever repay what Minnesota has been able to complete for me in my life,” Craig said.