Richard Carlbom on making same-sex marriage a reality

Meet the man behind Minnesota's gay marriage campaign

One week after gay marriage was signed into law, Richard Carlbom sits in the headquarters of Minnesotans United for All Families, a small office space just north of Dinkytown. Fresh off the historic political victory, Carlbom is already busy making his next move. He recently announced the formation of a political action committee designed to raise money for lawmakers who could face repercussions for their support of the bill.

"We're going to make sure that legislators who had our backs on this fundamental issue of freedom know we have their backs," says Carlbom.

Only six months ago, legal same-sex marriage in Minnesota was a distant dream for advocates like Carlbom. Voters were instead deciding whether to add a ban to the state Constitution. As director for Minnesotans United — the campaign-turned-lobbying group — Carlbom is widely credited as the single most important figure in making gay marriage a reality in Minnesota.

Richard Carlbom's success has brought him out from behind the scenes and into the spotlight
Benjamin Carter Grimes
Richard Carlbom's success has brought him out from behind the scenes and into the spotlight

"Richard was clearly the person," says Sen. Dick Cohen, D-St. Paul. "You look at the grassroots effort. You look at the strategy. You look at the fundraising. Look at how public opinion was moved in the campaign. You don't see anything at that level, for an issue that's obviously an issue of controversy, the way things took place with this."

Carlbom's success over the past year has brought the young political operative out from behind the scenes. His allies describe him as a wunderkind, a born strategist with a clear mind and an uncanny knack for getting inside the heads of voters.

"Richard is very thoughtful about how he goes about things," says Jake Loesch, spokesman for MN United. "He's always looking five steps down the road."

Carlbom ran a campaign like no other in the history of Minnesota. In helping the state become the first to ever reject a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, the group raised more than $11 million. They spent another $2 million to push gay marriage in the Legislature to make Minnesota the 12th state to legalize it. Carlbom also assembled perhaps the largest grassroots campaign ever in Minnesota, with more than 50,000 volunteers, according to his organization's numbers.

"One thing I hope we can take away from this — aside from the passage of the legislation — is really thinking about that as a new model of how we do politics," says House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis. "I think Richard and the organization really struck on something that could be really important and beneficial for a lot of other issues."

The first candidate Carlbom remembers supporting was a Republican. It was the 2000 presidential election, and Carlbom was a freshman at St. John's University, a Catholic school in conservative Stearns County.

"I really liked John McCain's kind of mavericky style," he recalls. "He was somebody who was willing to not be a gay basher."

But when George W. Bush won the Republican nomination and embraced anti-gay supporters like Jerry Falwell, Carlbom switched sides to Al Gore. He has considered himself a Democrat ever since.

As Carlbom was growing up in central Minnesota, there was little to indicate he was destined for a career in politics. The subject was rarely discussed at either household (his parents divorced when he was very young). Carlbom was far more interested in sports, particularly football, which he played throughout high school and in college at St. John's.

"He was just very active in and dabbling into everything," says his sister, Rachael Gerads. "He was kind of like the model student athlete."

One night during his junior year, he met Gerads for dinner. She could tell he was nervous about something, but expected him to say he was reuniting with an ex-girlfriend. Instead, he told her he was gay.

"We've always been really close, and it was probably traumatic for him to have to tell me that," she says. "It's funny, because it's like everything changed, but nothing changed."

Carlbom credits his passion for politics to two professors at St. John's: Rodney Cunningham and Jim Murphy. Cunningham was a Republican who "kicked my ass academically," he says. Murphy had a contagious excitement for politics, inspiring Carlbom to switch his major from communications to political science.

When Carlbom graduated, the mayor of St. Joseph told Carlbom he planned to run for state representative. He wanted Carlbom to run for his mayoral seat.

"He'd been elected right out of St. John's, and he really thought it was important to have that view represented," recalls Carlbom. "I thought about it a lot, and decided to do it."

Carlbom knocked on just about every door in the entire town, he says. At age 23, he was elected mayor.

Shortly after he was elected to a second term in office, Carlbom left to work for U.S. Rep. Tim Walz. In 2011 he went to direct communications for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. Carlbom quickly proved to be a valuable spokesman, with a rare ability to talk to reporters about complicated issues without any notes or reference.

"He was probably the most natural spokesperson I've ever met," says Clarise Tushie-Lessard, press secretary for Coleman. "Every sentence that leaves his lips, it's like it comes from a perfectly formed thought. He doesn't pause, he doesn't stumble, he doesn't falter."

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