Richard Carlbom on making same-sex marriage a reality

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

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

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 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."

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.

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."