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All Things Considered presents MPR’s Sasha Aslanian report on how the Minnesotans United for All Families campaign brought down a seemingly unbeatable amendment that would have added a definition to the state constitution that marriage is only between a man and a woman (which is already state law). The defeat of the marriage amendment was a victory that was surprising, historic, and extremely calculated by gay rights supporters.

In the final week of the race, MPR News got behind-the-scenes access to Minnesotans United for All Families, the campaign working to defeat the amendment, with the agreement that we wouldn't broadcast the tape unless the NO votes prevailed. One reason for the victory was help from some surprising quarters-- including Republican strategists and members in faith community.


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ERIC RINGHAM: The defeat of the marriage amendment on Tuesday was a victory that was surprising, historic, and extremely calculated by gay rights supporters. Similar constitutional amendments defining marriage as a man and a woman had an unbroken winning streak in 30 states.

Today, on All Things Considered, a special report on how the Minnesota campaign to defeat the amendment succeeded. In the final days of the race, MPR News got behind-the-scenes access to Minnesotans United for All Families, the campaign working to defeat the amendment.

MPR agreed not to broadcast the tape until after the election. This access allowed MPR News to see the key role played by money, the faith community, Republican strategists, and a targeted ad blitz in the winning campaign. Sasha Aslanian reports on how the campaign brought down an amendment that once seemed unbeatable.

SASHA ASLANIAN: The campaign against the marriage amendment began almost before it was placed on the ballot. Republicans won control of both the Minnesota House and Senate in 2010, giving them majorities in both chambers for the first time in 40 years. They would make good on a long-sought goal to put a constitutional amendment on marriage on the ballot.

In 2011, at the end of their first session in charge, Republican leaders brought the marriage amendment to a floor vote first in the Senate, then the House. Protesters flocked to the Capitol, urging a no vote.


The proposed marriage amendment passed both chambers on near party line votes. Emotional crowds line the corridors of the Capitol, chanting we've just begun to fight.

PROTESTORS: We've just began to fight.

SASHA ASLANIAN: In the immediate aftermath of the vote, Scott Dibble, an openly gay DFL state senator from Minneapolis, said opponents of the amendment would have to pull themselves together and start the campaign to defeat it.

SCOTT DIBBLE: It's too bad we lost on a very, very close vote. It's going to touch off 18 months of a very angry and divisive and negative campaign. But we're going to overcome all that anger and all that divisiveness and all of that misinformation that they're going to try to tell about us and our families with the truth and with the story of love and hope and positivity.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Gay rights groups had hoped the legislature would defeat the amendment. But they had a plan B just in case. Project 515, a group named for the 515 Minnesota laws that discriminate against gay and lesbian families, and OutFront Minnesota, an advocacy group for LGBT Minnesotans, would co-found the campaign to defeat the amendment. They named it Minnesotans United for All Families. Ann Kaner-Roth is the Executive Director of Project 515.

ANN KANER-ROTH: So we had begun to gather some folks, begun to do some fundraising, and announced that the launch of that organization within an hour of the passage of the bill.

SASHA ASLANIAN: The campaign's board was made up of nearly 40 leaders connected to the most crucial arteries of Minnesota life. It included Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and Greens, movers and shakers from business, labor, nonprofit, and faith groups. It also included key national partners like the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry.

In September of 2011, Minnesotans United for All Families hired 30-year-old Richard Carlbom as its campaign manager. The young politico had run Democratic Congressman Tim Walz's re-election campaign and worked as Communications Director for Saint Paul DFL Mayor Chris Coleman.

Carlbom's gay and hopes to marry his fiancee someday in Minnesota, the state he's always lived in. Carlbom says he was impressed by the diverse forces the board had marshaled to beat the amendment.

RICHARD CARLBOM: And the people I saw sitting around the table was remarkable. I literally saw Representative Tim Kelly, who's part of Speaker Zellers' leadership circle, sitting next to Denise Cardinal, who I knew for the next year would do everything she could to get the Republicans thrown out of the state house, like that was her mission in life, is to win back the legislature for the Democrats. Yet they both were sitting there in the same room willing to set that baggage at the door and actually come together and work arm in arm to beat this thing.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Carlbom said his job was to take what he described as the nucleus of that board, a disparate group of people who shared one goal of defeating the amendment, and grow that statewide. He would need a massive amount of money.

Proponents of the amendment talked about raising $5 million. Minnesotans United would need to match that, and then some. At his last staff meeting before the election, Carlbom reminded his team of the mountain of cash they'd raised.

RICHARD CARLBOM: When I started in September 2011, I was asked to develop a budget to what I thought we'd need to win. And I developed an $8 million budget, a $10 million, and a $12 million budget.

And the board of directors and some supporters told me that I should actually be developing a 4, 6, and 8, and that that's the most we would ever raise in order to beat this amendment. But I knew that it was going to take a lot more to build the kind of massive, volunteer-driven, empowered campaign that it takes to beat this thing.

SASHA ASLANIAN: When it was all said and done, Minnesotans United for all families would raise $12 million, more than double its opponents. The money would come from house parties and spontaneous bursts of fundraising creativity from supporters who wrapped cars in decals, bicycled around the state, held book sales, and hit up relatives.

A huge share would come from Dialing for Dollars by Minnesotans United leaders, including Carlbom. In a tiny room at the front of the Saint Paul campaign office, Carlbom worked the phones while an assistant handed him sheet after sheet of donor prospects, some of them being hit up again and again.

RICHARD CARLBOM: So I'm calling to ask you to dig deep and sacrifice one last time and to make a contribution of $1,000--

SASHA ASLANIAN: Out of the gate. Minnesotans United would dominate the race financially. Their opponents, Minnesota for Marriage, the main group working to pass the amendment, said they expected to be outspent. Minnesota for Marriage campaign chairman John Helmberger said this in June.

JOHN HELMBERGER: For sure, we'd like to be further along than we are, wouldn't everybody? But we've expected all along that the other side would outspend us, just as the opposition to protecting marriage has done in every other state that's dealt with this issue. We don't have to change a lot of minds because the majority of people are with us already.

SASHA ASLANIAN: The campaign finance reports revealed vastly different stories about the campaigns the two sides were building. Minnesota for Marriage testified before the Campaign Finance Board that naming donors could subject amendment supporters to harassment.

Most of the group's money came from the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Minnesota Family Council, and the National Organization for Marriage. Few individual donors were named. By contrast, Minnesotans United reported the name of each and every donor, even those beneath the reporting threshold.

By the end, more than 67,000 people contributed to the campaign, 92% of them from Minnesota. And some of those names would be a who's who of Minnesota, the Pohlad family, Governor Dayton's sons, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic, and the CEOs from General Mills, Cargill, and Ecolab.

Companies took a stand, too. St. Jude Medical, Thomson Reuters in Minnesota, and General Mills came out publicly against the amendment. Marriage amendment supporters staged a boycott of General Mills in June, filmed by the uptake.

SPEAKER 1: General Mills should stay out of the marriage redefinition business and stay in the cereal business.

SASHA ASLANIAN: At the annual meeting with shareholders in September, CEO Ken Powell defended General Mills' position to shareholders.

KEN POWELL: We stated our position on this matter because we do see it as a business issue. We don't believe it's in the best interest of our state or our employees. And so as a Minnesota-based company, we took the position that we oppose it.

SASHA ASLANIAN: In the end, the boycott didn't make a dent in the company's bottom line. The campaign to defeat the amendment needed worldly goods to win. But it also wouldn't overlook the tremendous power of Minnesota's faith community.

[We Are Marching in the Light of God] We are marching,

O, we are marching in the light of God.

Clergy United for All Families launched in June of this year. Catholic, Jewish, Unitarian, Quaker, and every mainline Protestant faith were represented. Carlbom says Minnesotans United harnessed energy that had been mounting in a broad spectrum of faith communities.

RICHARD CARLBOM: In the early stages of this campaign, it was that the faith community was there. They were the ones early in this campaign where-- we had a gathering. And we were hoping to get 100 people. And there were 550, 600 people who showed up. It was unbelievable.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Carlbom says it was that moment, four days into his job when the faith turnout blew him away, that he knew the campaign might really win. Carlbom says many Minnesotans look at the issue of same-sex marriage through a religious lens. The campaign would embrace that rather than cede the religious ground to their opponents who were led by evangelicals and the Catholic Church.

Minnesotans United wanted to turn the religious freedom argument in its favor. Its faith communities want it to bless the unions of same-gendered couples. And a constitutional amendment would limit their religious freedom to do that.

In June, MPR News interviewed Minnesotans United's faith director, Lutheran pastor Grant Stevensen. Houses of worship would be places for Minnesotans to engage with each other on the deeply personal issue of same-sex marriage. Stevensen said the emphasis would be on listening, not lecturing.

GRANT STEVENSEN: I wish this wasn't on the ballot. But there is an opportunity here for congregations to really get to know each other better and to grow in their ability to understand where someone on the other-- someone sitting next to them in church or in the synagogue is at.

There's an opportunity. And we're trying to take advantage of that opportunity. It may be that we'll come through not only defeating the amendment in the fall but with a bunch of faith communities who know each other a lot better than they did a year before.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Clergy United would grow to include 600 leaders from 100 faith communities reaching into every corner of the state. The Catholic Church would play a towering role on the other side of the amendment debate.

The state's bishops had made passage of the marriage amendment their top political objective. Catholic leadership wouldn't allow debate over the issue within the church, so dissension spilled out in the public square.

In May of this year, in two separate events, 80 former priests and three retired priests spoke out against the amendment. Father Tim Power, ordained in 1966, said he was compelled to speak out by the collective silence imposed on priests by the church.

TIM POWER: One of the things that pushed me towards this is people saying to me, where is the voice of the priesthood that believe the way we do? You can't all believe the party line. And I'm thinking, yeah, where are they? That's us.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Lawn signs sprang up saying, another Catholic voting no. It was unclear how many Catholics, the state's largest religion, would vote the way their church leaders wanted them to.

ERIC RINGHAM: You're listening to a special report on All Things Considered on how opponents of the marriage amendment managed to defeat a measure that had once seemed unbeatable. Minnesota Public Radio's Sasha Aslanian continues our report.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Minnesotans United had a clear strategy to not only tap the faith community but also to appeal to voters of every political stripe. The coalition knew it would need to win no votes from Republicans, Independents, and Democrats.

Carlbom had to build a team of political masterminds who could reach into their different bases for support. At its last big rally on Northrop Plaza at the University of Minnesota eight days before the election, that omnipartisan approach was evident.

MATT LEWIS: My name is Matt Lewis. I'm the Communications Director of the Independence Party of Minnesota. And we are a proud member of this coalition.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Lewis told the crowd that the communications teams from the three competing candidates for governor in 2010 were all working together for Minnesotans United. From the Republican camp, a former GOP candidate, Tom Emmer, came Carl Kuhl and Patrick Connelly.

They're political consultants with impeccable Republican credentials. This political season, though, they'd lend their smarts to Minnesotans United. Kuhl says they focused on arguments that would be persuasive to conservatives.

CARL KUHL: I think what this campaign has done an exceptional job of is reminding folks that the Constitution is used to safeguard freedoms and not limit them. That's a message that resonates with Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, and Conservatives.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Kuhl and Connelly thought the campaign could persuade about 15% of Republicans to vote no. It would be a crucial sliver of the electorate. Patrick Connelly says, to do that, Republicans needed to be a visible part of the campaign.

PATRICK CONNELLY: Wheelock Whitney and his grandson Alex went up to the-- they did a northern tour, went to Duluth, Hibbing, and Bemidji. And he's out there stumping.

SASHA ASLANIAN: He's referring to 86-year-old Wheelock Whitney, who'd run twice as a Republican candidate for statewide office and made an ad.

WHEELOCK WHITNEY: When my son told me that he was gay, it was a shock. It didn't take me very long to realize that he deserved the same kind of happiness. Things change. I wanted to change in my lifetime. And I don't have that many years left. So I'd like to start with defeating this amendment.

SASHA ASLANIAN: The Republicans interviewed for this story smiled about the surreal moments of teaming up with former adversaries. After all, Carlbom's a Democrat. And Democrats would deliver the bulk of the no votes the campaign needed. But staff members of both parties seemed moved or at least refreshed by having the chance to work on a campaign that aimed to be truly nonpartisan.

24-year-old Jake Loesch left his job as a Republican Senate staffer to join Minnesotans United. Loesch served as Deputy Communications Director and ran social media, an area where Minnesotans United dominated its opponents.

JAKE LOESCH: It is interesting to sit in these meetings weekly and look around the room and know that there's a lot of us who are sitting around this table who are voting completely opposite. We're voting the same on only one thing. And I think that politics is better because those of us who may disagree on a lot can come together, even on powerful issues like this.

SASHA ASLANIAN: On election night after the victory, Loesch said he believed Minnesotans United had built a coalition so broad, it couldn't be stopped. The coalition had grown to 700 partners and 23,000 volunteers.

Another campaign strategy credited with winning the race was the focus on personal conversations. On Facebook, the campaign playfully called the strategy its secret weapon. The campaign trained volunteers how to talk about the amendment with their friends and family. Jen Arnold and Allison Fraley led one of the coalitions many trainings.

JENNIFER ARNOLD: 30 states have passed amendments that are similar to this one. And so we've done a lot of research about what works and what doesn't. And what we discovered is that people have emotional concerns about marriage for same-sex couples. So we're learning how to react to that.

ALLISON FRALEY: But as Jen said, we have to talk about it a little differently. In the past, our side of the fight has focused on about rights and equality and that this is discrimination. But that frame of mind does not move voters.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Minnesotans United had carefully studied the long track record of losses in other states. The woman who'd done that research for them was Phyllis Watts, a psychologist in Sacramento. Watts says, voters don't see same-sex marriage as a political issue but more about values.

PHYLLIS WATTS: And they're struggling with competing values. And one set of values is tradition. And in that, we could put religion or we can put-- this is just the way it's always been, and then another set of values which is important and equally compelling for them. And that is to do right by others, to genuinely treat others fairly, which is a pretty deep value in most people and, quite frankly, in Minnesotans, I think very, very deep.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Watts would help Minnesotans United put together an ad campaign to try to win over these conflicted voters.

PHYLLIS WATTS: And a lot of times what people need is to hear from folks that they can identify with, who have long-term marriages, solid marriages, good marriages, have kids, and who say, I'm voting no on this. And here's why.

SPEAKER 2: Our parents taught us the Golden Rule, not judging others and treating others the way we'd like to be treated.

SPEAKER 3: And those are the values we're showing our children by voting no on the marriage amendment.

SPEAKER 2: We fought long and hard about it. And we know that someday allowing everyone the freedom to marry won't change our kids' values.

SPEAKER 3: Because they get those values from us.

SPEAKER 2: We've been married-- it'll be--

SASHA ASLANIAN: The strategy of using straight people who've grown to accept same-sex marriage journey parents in the lingo of the consultants is not without controversy. David Fleischer directs the Leadership LAB at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center. Fleischer is a veteran of 40 ballot campaigns affecting the LGBT community across the country. He brought his team of 11 to Minnesota in August to help Minnesotans United beat the amendment.

Fleischer wrote a 500-page analysis of what went wrong with California's Prop 8 which repealed gay marriage. It's a report Minnesotans United staff devoured. Fleischer says Minnesotans United and other campaigns defending same-sex marriage around the country sometimes struggle with how to present gay people in their ads.

DAVID FLETCHER: And part of the reason for that is that when you do polls and focus groups to test potential messages, messengers, and ads, gay people don't test that well. Turns out we're unpopular. Turns out if you give people a choice between chocolate ice cream or chocolate ice cream with added gay, people choose chocolate ice cream. I just summarized millions of dollars of research done for these campaigns.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Fleischer warned Minnesotans United to prepare an adequate response to the inevitable ads the other side would bombard voters with in the final weeks of the campaign. Ads run by marriage amendment supporters in other states warned of young children being taught about gay marriage in school, stoking a visceral fear in many parents that the gay rights side was powerless to overcome. 20 days before the election, Minnesota for Marriage dropped the tough ads Minnesotans United had been waiting for.

SPEAKER 4: When same-sex marriage has been imposed elsewhere, it has not been live and let live. People who believe marriage is one man and one woman have faced consequences, small businesses fined, individuals fired, charities closed down, churches sued, same-sex marriage taught to young children in elementary school. And parents have no legal right to be notified or to take their children out of class that day.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Minnesotans United pounced. They'd prebought $1 million worth of ad time. They hoped the conversations with real people would inoculate voters from the power of the ads. They developed a rapid response team.

One of Governor Dayton's communications staffers was on loan to fact check ad claims and push them out to the media. Clergy United spoke out against the claims in the ad. Several media, including MPR News, fact-checked the claims and found them misleading.

And when it came to claims about children, the vote no coalition helped to neutralize Minnesota for Marriage's arguments by having the Minnesota chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics in its corner.

Toward the end of the campaign, Carlbom seemed upbeat that his campaign could withstand the firepower of $3 million worth of ads the opposition had bought. Minnesotans United countered with an ad from Cottage Grove Republican lawmaker John Kriesel, whose speech against the amendment on the House floor had gone viral.

JOHN KRIESEL: Corporal Andrew Wilford, he gave his life in Afghanistan protecting our freedoms. He was gay. I cannot look at this picture and say, corporal, you were good enough to fight for your country and give your life. But you were not good enough to marry the person you love. I'm pleading with you to vote no.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Vikings punter Chris Kluwe jumped into the fray. His outspoken opposition to the amendment likely brought the vote no message to a new audience of sports fans and men. Four days before the election, Minnesota for marriage released a one-two punch of new ads.

One had sharper imagery of broken glass and talked about broken promises that same-sex marriage wouldn't change society. The other was softer. Women talked about how they could care about gay people and still vote yes.

SPEAKER 5: Everybody knows somebody who's gay.

SPEAKER 6: Gay or straight, we're all entitled to love and respect.

SPEAKER 5: But we can support gays and lesbians without changing marriage.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Having lost the argument decades ago that being gay was an illness, abnormal, or a lifestyle choice, marriage amendment supporters had to finesse how voters could know and care about gay people and still vote yes. They said the amendment wasn't antigay. And it wasn't personal. Carlbom didn't buy it.

RICHARD CARLBOM: I am sorry. What planet do you live on when you don't think that this is hurtful?

SASHA ASLANIAN: But his campaign was careful not to label their opponents or engage in name-calling. 14 months before the election, Carlbom said in his first interview with MPR that he wanted to foster a conversation that Minnesota could be proud of. In his final meeting with his staff eight days before the election, it was clear he felt he had delivered on that.

RICHARD CARLBOM: We've changed lives. We've changed the environment in which gay and lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people live in greater Minnesota because of the work our organizing team have done. We can and will beat this thing.

SASHA ASLANIAN: The campaign would change the state. It would force delicate and personal conversations, many for the first time. While antiamendment orange signs blazed in the Twin Cities metro, the outcome was less sure in exurbs and greater Minnesota. In Hibbing in June, Wendy Griffiths wondered aloud at a meeting of the Iron Range GLBTA what would happen.

WENDY GRIFFITHS: It's weird to think that these neighbors, these people I don't know are choosing for us. It freaks me out a little bit how we make the phone calls and whatever. It's a little disheartening to like-- is there going to be enough support?

SASHA ASLANIAN: As it turned out, a majority of Minnesotans had their backs. 52% cast a no vote or left their ballots blank. Minnesota became the first state to vote down a constitutional amendment limiting the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.

The same night, voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington State backed same-sex marriage. The day after the election, at a rally at the Capitol where the campaign had begun 18 months before, DFL State Senator Scott Dibble reminded supporters of what they'd accomplished.

SCOTT DIBBLE: Guess what? Love prevailed.



SASHA ASLANIAN: The organization Minnesotans United built over a year and a half with an army of donors and volunteers may play a role again as the state ponders whether to legalize same-sex marriage. Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio News.


SPEAKER 7: We had reporting help on that story from Eric Ringham and production assistance from Ellen Guettler. To read the entire story and see photos from throughout the campaign, go to our web site,

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