Richard Carlbom: 'Quiet,' 'brilliant' general behind Minnesota's same-sex marriage law

Richard Carlbom
Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families, at the group's Minneapolis office Monday, May 20, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

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

"Every war — even a war of love — needs a general, and our general is quiet, and self-effacing and brilliant."

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 same-sex marriage bill.

Carlbom didn't want to be profiled.

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"I would rather not," he responded in an email. "So many others beside me made this happen."

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.

"Minnesota, you did it!" he shouted.

A map at Minnesotans United for All Families
A map of Minnesota's congressional and legislative districts in the phone bank room at Minnesotans United for All Families Monday, May 20, 2013 in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

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 reflected on what he just witnessed.

"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 or lawn sign in their yard for the first time," Carlbom said. "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."

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 campaign manager. Carlbom had worked for the mayor of St. Paul, run Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz' re-election campaign, and been elected mayor of St. Joseph as an openly gay man right after graduating from St. 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 said it was clear he was the right person for the job.

"What we saw in Richard was a really clear political thinker," said Almeida "[He] 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 would have to run."

Almeida said Carlbom had to deal with something most campaigns never face: a flood of interest.

"We invite 25 people to a house party and 100 come. We plan for a fundraiser for 50 people and 125 show up," Almeida said. "For Richard it was 'how do we harness all of this interest and all of this energy? We almost can't handle the number of people who want to be involved in it."

Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota, said Carlbom was able to stay focused as thousands of people joined the campaign.

"It would have been easy for someone who wasn't as great of a leader to really not be able to rally everyone behind a common strategy," said Meyer. "He was able to really inpsire people to step up and become leaders and he stepped aside to let them lead."


Richard Carlbom
A crowd gathered at the State Capitol acknowledges Richard Carlbom, center, for the role Minnesotans United for All Families played in passing the same-sex marriage bill Tuesday, May 14, 2013 before Gov. Mark Dayton signs the bill into law. Standing next to Carlbom are Lt. Gov. Prettner Solon, left, and DFL Representative Erin Murphy, right.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

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 said 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 said 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.

"Civil rights and kind of 'anti-big government' would be the key to getting this younger, more male, Libertarian who is going to vote Republican, but "don't mess up the constitution," said Call, who runs an ad agency and works as a media buyer.

Call made a pitch to work with Minnesotans United. She believed talking about "marriage discrimination" and not tampering with the constitution were powerful arguments. Minnesotans United leaders, including Carlbom, disagreed, saying those hadn't worked in other states.

"They had a gut instinct that we should make this all about keeping the constitution clean and we couldn't talk about love and commitment because that wouldn't ultimately resonate and they thought that going in the direction that 30 other states went was the way that ultimately we'd be able to win," said Carlbom.

Call and a small group of others then launched their own group, Minnesotans for Equality in April of 2012. Call hasn't spoken publicly about the falling-out until now.

"Unfortunately instead of seeing MFE [Minnesotans for Equality] as an ally and an additive voice in this battle, MU [Minnesotans United] name-called and they bullied and they tried to block us from speaking out in every way that they could," said Call.

Carlbom told MPR News Minnesotans United tried to convince Call's group to work in a cohesive nature, and he and other leaders of Minnesotans United were dismayed and upset that they went off on their own.

Call's group was tiny, raising just $30,000, to Minnesotans United's $12 million. Minnesotans for Equality tapped Chris Kluwe, the then-Vikings punter, to run radio ads.

"When we found out his position on this vote and asked him to get involved, it just seemed like a no-brainer," Call said. "He's smart and articulate and passionate and he fit the exact demographic that we knew we needed to target."

Carlbom admits Minnesotans United was slower to embrace Kluwe, and he turned out to be a surprising force in the campaign.

"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," Carlbom said.

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 2012. 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.

Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the lead sponsor in the Senate, who had known Carlbom since he was a college intern at the Capitol, said Minnesotans United made a seamless transition.

"It was really all about doing the same things," said Dibble. "The defeat of the amendment was so successful because it was built on an effort of fostering interpersonal, private, one-on-one conversations in every corner of the state about what matters ... why marriage matters."

Dibble said Minnesotans United brought those same conversations to the Capitol with lawmakers.

But unlike the amendment campaign, when no matter what, there would come a vote on election day, Carlbom found the unpredictability of the legislative process nerve-wrecking.

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

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

"It was like 'Gosh, there's not that many days left, are we — is this not going to happen? And what does it mean that they're not scheduling it? Should we be reading something into this?' And I think that was an aspect of the legislative campaign that was the most challenging for him, but overall he handled the whole thing like a pro, and [we're] obviously, thrilled with the results," Almeida said.


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, "Richard seems like a hard-working fellow who genuinely believes in what he is doing. I wish him well."

Frank Schubert, who ran the amendment campaign for Minnesota for Marriage told MPR News in an email, "His campaign won (barely) because he had vastly superior resources."

Minnesotans United enjoyed a 2-1 financial advantage in the amendment fight, and Carlbom said the lobbying campaign for the marriage bill cost more than $2 million.

During both campaigns, Carlbom tried not to engage his opponents.

"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," Carlbom said. "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."

The National Organization for Marriage has pledged to spend a $500,000 to defeat Minnesotan politicians 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 said 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.