Listen: The strategist behind Minnesota's gay marriage law

MPR’s Sasha Aslanian profiles Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families. Carlbom led organization to two historic victories: the defeat of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage last November, and the recent passage of the same-sex marriage bill.


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SPEAKER: At a victory rally after last week's Senate vote to legalize same-sex marriage, DFL Senator Dick Cohen praised the man who led the charge.

DICK COHEN: Every war, even a war of love, needs a general. And our general is quiet and self-effacing and brilliant.

SPEAKER: Cohen was describing Richard carlbom who led Minnesotans United for All Families to two historic victories, the defeat of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage last November and the recent passage of the gay marriage bill. Sasha Aslanian has this profile of Carlbom and how he did it.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Richard Carlbom didn't want to be profiled. "I would rather not," he responded in an email. "So many others beside me have made this happen."

RICHARD CARLBOM: Minnesota, you did it.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Even standing at a podium in the Capitol rotunda, Carlbom would rather turn the spotlight on the 27,000 Minnesotans who got involved in the campaign to defeat the marriage amendment and then wanted to push for same-sex marriage. In the Minneapolis campaign office due to be shuttered at the end of the month, surrounded by posters of pivotal legislative districts, rainbow flags, and pizza boxes, Carlbom reflects on what he just witnessed.

RICHARD CARLBOM: These people, for the first time in their lives, came to a phone bank, got trained on how to have a difficult conversation, organized their neighborhood, organized their family, organized their workplace, put a bumper sticker alongside in their yard for the first time. And now, I think, this is the case. They understand what it's like to change the world, and I simply have a front row seat.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Carlbom got his front row seat in September of 2011 when Minnesotans United, the group created by Outfront Minnesota and Project 515 hired him as a campaign manager. Carlbom had worked for the mayor of Saint Paul, run Democratic Congressman Tim Walz's reelection campaign, and been elected mayor of Saint Joseph as an openly gay man right after graduating from Saint John's University with a degree in political science. The 30-year-old had never run a statewide campaign, but Minnesotans United Board Chair Cristine Almeida says, "It was clear he was the right person for the job."

CRISTINE ALMEIDA: What we saw in Richard was a really clear political thinker who could cut to the chase of messaging and also really cut to the chase in terms of his decision making ability. And that was really appealing to us knowing the kind of campaign we were going to have to run.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Almeida says, Carlbom had to deal with something. Most campaigns never face, a flood of interest.

CRISTINE ALMEIDA: Our problem very clearly from the beginning was, how do we harness all of the interest and goodwill and energy that people have around this issue to be able to allow everybody to participate.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Carlbom wanted people from all political stripes and backgrounds to be able to plug into the organization and contribute their talents. Gay rights campaigns in other states had suffered from infighting. Carlbom says he lost sleep not over his opponents, but over people on his own side.

The stakes were high for everyone. They had one shot to defeat an amendment that had won in 30 states. Minnesotans United poured money into research and decided key messages would be love and commitment.

Tracy Call was part of a group that wanted something different. The lesbian and single mother says, she felt a mama bear motivation to defeat the amendment. She thought Minnesotans United wasn't reaching some voters with a message that would resonate.

TRACY CALL: Civil rights and kind of anti-big government would be the key to getting this younger, more male libertarian who was going to vote Republican. But don't mess up the Constitution.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Call runs an ad agency and made a pitch to work with Minnesotans United or MU. She believed talking about marriage discrimination and not tampering with the Constitution were powerful arguments. MU leaders, including Carlbom, disagreed, saying those hadn't worked in other states. So Call and a small group of others launched their own group, Minnesotans for Equality, or MFE in April of 2012. Call hasn't spoken publicly about the falling out until now.

TRACY CALL: So unfortunately, instead of seeing MFE as an ally and an additive voice in this battle, MU name called and they bullied, and they tried to block us from speaking out in almost every way that they could.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Carlbom says. Minnesotans United tried to convince Call's group to work in a cohesive nature, and he and other MU leaders were dismayed and upset that they went off on their own. Call's group was tiny, raising just $30,000 to MU's 12 million. Minnesotans for Equality tapped Chris Kluwe, the then Vikings punter, to run radio ads. Kluwe hammered exactly the points Call felt would appeal to those young male conservative voters. Carlbom admits Minnesotans United was slower to embrace Kluwe, and he turned out to be a surprising force in the campaign.

RICHARD CARLBOM: I think it did matter a great deal. And I give them great credit for not only recognizing the impact he could have, but capitalizing on it and making a difference with Chris in this whole effort.

SASHA ASLANIAN: And now that it's all over, Call says she appreciates everything Carlbom and Minnesotans United accomplished, and she's grateful she can marry her partner. Under Carlbom's leadership, Minnesotans United persuaded a majority of voters to defeat the Amendment in November. Fresh from victory, the campaign decided to push for a marriage bill in the 2013 legislative session. Suddenly, instead of trying to sway millions of voters, Carlbom's target was much smaller-- 201 lawmakers. Unlike the amendment, when no matter what there would come a vote on election day, Carlbom says, the unpredictability of the legislative process was nerve wracking.

RICHARD CARLBOM: Making sure that the vote was taken, making sure that the votes were there, making sure that the bill wasn't amended in a negative way that would have created problems for it, I really got nervous.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Minnesotans United had a seasoned team of lobbyists, including Cristine Almeida, who had spent 23 years navigating the wild ride of Capitol politics. One of her clients is Minnesota Public Radio. As the end of the session loomed, she remembers Carlbom worried there wasn't much time left on the clock.

CRISTINE ALMEIDA: It was like, gosh, there aren't that many days left. Are we-- is this not going to happen? And what does it mean that they're not scheduling?

Does it mean something? Should we be reading something into this? And, I think, that was the aspect of the legislative campaign that was maybe one of the most challenging for him. But overall, he handled the whole thing like a pro and obviously, again, thrilled with the result.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Some people not thrilled with the results were opponents of same-sex marriage. Minnesota for Marriage didn't respond to an interview request for this story. Jason Adkins of the Minnesota Catholic Conference wrote, quote, "Richard seems like a hard working fellow who genuinely believes in what he's doing. I wish him well," end quote.

Frank Schubert, who ran the amendment campaign for Minnesota for Marriage, told MPR News in an email, quote, "His campaign won barely because he had vastly superior resources," end quote. Minnesotans United enjoyed a 2 to 1 financial advantage in the amendment fight. And Carlbom says, the lobbying campaign for the marriage bill cost more than $2 million. During both campaigns, Carlbom says, he tried not to engage his opponents.

RICHARD CARLBOM: They're on an island. And we've ignored them for two years. And we'll continue to ignore them because the island they're on is shrinking by the day. And we don't have to engage them because the longer we just allow them to be on that island alone and the more we have an authentic conversation with Minnesotans, that's ultimately what matters.

SASHA ASLANIAN: The National Organization for Marriage has pledged to spend a half million dollars to defeat Minnesota lawmakers who voted for same-sex marriage. Carlbom's next job in politics will be to lead Minnesotans United's new PAC to re-elect those lawmakers. In the meantime, Carlbom will marry his partner in December and says, he plans to attend a lot of weddings beginning in August when the new law goes into effect. When the political season of 2014 heats up, Carlbom will test the strength of the Minnesotans United political movement for a third time. Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio News.

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