Meet the Man Who Brought Marriage Equality to Minnesota

Coming soon to a state near you.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

August 01 2013 1:00 AM ET

Richard Carlbom hears the news that the constitutional amendment in Minnesota had failed.

Last November, Minnesotans broke a crucial losing streak for LGBT Americans. For the first time ever in the United States, voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have outlawed same-sex marriage. Then six months later, they pressed onward and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed marriage equality into law.

At exactly midnight, gay and lesbian Minnesotans began marrying their partners in ceremonies in Minneapolis that were officiated by Dayton, the city’s mayor, and local judges who volunteered their time to solemnize the marriages. As couples find their wedded bliss across the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the man widely credited with engineering this historic shift is settling into a new job as director of state campaigns with Freedom to Marry, ready to take his tactics nationwide.

The right-wing has reason to worry about Richard Carlbom, a 31-year-old gay man who was born and raised in Minnesota. Immediately after graduating in 2004 with a degree in political science from St. John's University, Carlbom was elected mayor of neighboring St. Joseph, Minn. Fondly known as St. Joe, the town of 5,000 has a history of electing youthful mayors, which it continued by electing Carlbom — who was just 23 when he took office. From that appointment, Carlbom went on to work for U.S. Rep. Tim Walz; in 2011, he became the communications director for St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman, according to CityPages.

The following year, Carlbom applied for a position as the campaign manager for a then-fledgling coalition known as Minnesotans United for All Families.

"We knew we needed to have a very strong board that would then have a very strong campaign manager to run the day-to-day operations," explains Cristine Almeida, who served as the board chairwoman for MN United and oversaw Carlbom's hire. "And that's exactly what Richard was."

As the campaign manager for MN United, Carlbom helped build the largest grassroots campaign in Minnesota history — engaging more 70,000 volunteers and raising almost $13 million — mostly through small donations made by individuals inside the state, according to the organization.

So what was it about Minnesota, a region deep in the heartland that many coastal progressives dismiss as a flyover state? How did the state that gave the world Michele Bachmann also become the 12th to legalize marriage equality?

Carlbom credits the numerous organizations that joined forces to create the coalition behind Minnesotans United for All Families. But he also stresses an important shift in the way marriage equality advocates approached the subject with Minnesotans.

"In the past we spent a lot of time talking about rights and benefits and discrimination, and protecting the constitution," explains Carlbom. "And in Minnesota, what we discovered is that Minnesota’s definition of marriage is love and commitment, which when people follow love, the next natural step is to make a commitment toward one another to get married. And in Minnesota, we discovered that when we had an honest conversation, and when we had a natural conversation with each other, very quickly, both came to realize that same-sex couples want to get married for very similar reasons as straight couples. That’s because it’s all about love."

But that wasn't the end of the conversation, Carlbom explains. Using research culled from national and local partners, the MN United coalition had a very specific plan: Once they had established a common definition about the meaning of marriage, Carlbom and his allies relied on an age-old adage to illustrate why voters should oppose the amendment: the golden rule. 

"When you say, ‘if marriage is about love and commitment, and that human beings believe in treating others the way you want to be treated, would you ever want to be told it’s illegal to marry the person you love?’" asks Carlbom rhetorically. "And very quickly, people come to the realization, they go on a journey — that, no, they wouldn’t want to be treated differently than they treat other people."

In addition to these effective messaging strategies, Almeida, a veteran of numerous political campaigns, notes that there was something special about the Minnesota effort.

"One of the very unique features of this [campaign] was the culture of abundance that we lived with," she says. "When we would invite 25 people to a function, 80 people would come. We would plan for 100 people to come to something, and 300 would show up. We would have 20 phones available for phone banking, and 45 people would show up, and sit on the floor with their list and their cell phone, making the calls."

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