Richard Carlbom on making same-sex marriage a reality

Meet the man behind Minnesota's gay marriage campaign

On a May evening in 2011, hundreds of demonstrators packed into the Capitol to watch the House vote on a bill to put the gay marriage ban on the ballot. Among them were Carlbom and his fiancé, Justin, who watched the exchange from a television outside the floor. The bill passed 70-62 after a long debate. When Republicans began to exit the chamber, the crowd started chanting: "Shame! Shame! Shame!"

"I was stunned by that," recalls Carlbom, "and I just stood there in the midst of this group of people so upset and so angry, I didn't know what to do. Finally, I just looked at Justin and I said, 'Standing here and shouting at these people isn't going to make me feel better.'"

The couple turned to leave. As they neared the Senate stairs, Carlbom ran into Rep. John Kriesel, one of the only Republicans to speak out against the amendment. A war vet who lost his legs in Iraq, Kriesel had just given a bold speech about personal freedom, declaring to his colleagues that anyone who risks his or her life for the country should be able to come back and marry whomever they please.

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

Carlbom began to introduce himself, he says. "I broke down, I just started crying. And I walked away, leaving Justin to talk to John Kriesel, because I was so embarrassed that I, myself, had been overcome by emotion."

By the time the bill passed the Legislature, a campaign to defeat it was already mounting. That summer, Carlbom applied for the director position in the campaign. He got an interview, and came prepared with a presentation on how voters make decisions. On an issue like marriage, he theorized that Minnesotans would vote on emotion, and a successful campaign would pull at the heart strings.

"He knew from the get-go that it needed to be emotion-based," says Cristine Almeida, board chair of Minnesotans United. "That was a big part of why we chose him."

At the time of Carlbom's hiring, the campaign was a skeleton crew of just a few staff members. Carlbom spent the first months studying gay marriage campaign attempts in other states. In the 30 states that had faced similar amendments, every single one had passed. He emerged with a strategy that would cost a whopping $10 million to fund.

"It was sticker shock for a number of people, and especially those who were going to be very involved in raising the money," says Almeida. "I think there was grave concern that we might be creating a plan with a dollar amount that we would not be able to meet, because it just hadn't been done before in Minnesota."

He determined that a civil rights campaign wouldn't work. If they tried to turn Minnesota into Birmingham, the opposition would counter with scare tactics, warning parents that schools would indoctrinate their kids and turn them gay in elementary school.

This, Carlbom decided, was what had gone wrong 30 times in the past. Instead, the message would be about families, and not preventing other Minnesotans from marrying their loved ones. To win in November, Carlbom believed everyone had to be pushing this same message.

Carlbom ran a campaign of abundance. When Minnesotans United threw an event, twice as many people showed up than expected. When they held a phone bank, there were more volunteers than phones, and many ended up making the calls from their cell phones on the ground. In the final days of the campaign, Minnesotans United knocked on more than 500,000 doors and made more than a million phone calls.

"He has an incredible rally cry," says Loesch. "He's great at really firing up and getting them excited."

The amendment narrowly failed, and Minnesota Republicans took a beating in the polls, losing the House and Senate majority. Weeks later, Carlbom quickly went to work behind the scenes again. Minnesotans United reincorporated as a lobbying group, and Carlbom pivoted to working with legislators to push to legalize gay marriage.

The biggest hurdle was rural legislators. Though the amendment failed by a small majority, most districts actually voted for it. By supporting a bill to legalize gay marriage, freshman lawmakers in outstate counties could compromise their chances for reelection. But Carlbom's crew was relentless. Volunteers and paid vendors made more than 35,000 calls to 23 legislators throughout the session, according to MN United. That includes connecting constiutents directly with the lawmakers.

"It was clearly an issue whose time had come," says Cohen. "Period. And Richard was the person who guided everything on that glide path."

In March, Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, introduced the gay marriage bill. Dibble says Carlbom was "absolutely fundamental" in moving the bill forward. "It would not have happened without the continued efforts of Minnesotans United," he says.

The bill passed easily in both the House and Senate. As much as a professional win, it was also a personal victory for Carlbom: On December 20, he'll be marrying his fiancé, Justin. On a May afternoon on the Capitol steps, after Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill into law, Carlbom took the podium.

"When I came out of the closet, I put this idea of getting married up on the top shelf of the back of that closest," he told the crowd. "I never thought in a million years in the state that I call home, that I would, in December of this year, promise my love and commitment to the person who inspires me each and every day."

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