Meet the Man Who Brought Marriage Equality to Minnesota

Coming soon to a state near you.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

August 01 2013 2:00 AM ET

After Minnesota voters rejected Amendment 1 in November 2012, Carlbom and his numerous coalition partners at MN United quickly shifted gears, transforming the issue-based campaign into a focused legislative effort to establish marriage equality in Minnesota.

"We went from having this natural conversation with Minnesotans, one-on-one, to all of the sudden making sure that those same Minnesotans were having conversations with their legislators," explains Carlbom of the rhetorical shift. "So what we did, essentially, is we took the conversation that was directed at our friends, neighbors, family members, coworkers, and then we trained our supporters to direct that conversation to the legislators."

And just as they had with everyday Minnesotan constituents, those conversations made an impact with legislators.

Sen. Scott Dibble, the openly gay, married state legislator who introduced Minnesota's marriage equality legislation, said those conversations — and Carlbom himself — was "very instrumental" to securing the freedom to marry in Minnesota.

Dibble first encountered Carlbom nearly a decade earlier when Carlbom was a college student, then mayor of St. Joe's. But when the senator saw Carlbom step up and interview for the campaign director of MN United, Dibble says he was "blown away."

Dibble credited Carlbom's even-keeled temperament, sense of humor, and simultaneous humility and intensity for his ability to lead the broad-ranging coalition to victory.

"[Carlbom] doesn't march in with a huge ego," says Dibble. "But he's got a quiet confidence and a wonderful demeanor, and a great rapport with folks. He'll do very well in all his efforts, and be watched in other states, as well."

National marriage equality organizations clearly agree with Dibble's assessment. In July, Carlbom was named director for state campaigns with Freedom to Marry — one of the preeminent organizations seeking to establish marriage equality nationwide.

"It is a really logical next step for someone like Richard," says Almeida, the former board member and senior advisor for MN United. "To take the lessons learned in both the campaigns that we ran, and to take this to other states, I think is a really wise thing for this movement to look at and to use."

Carlbom is already hard at work parlaying his home state's success into a national strategy to win marriage equality. Calling from a busy airport between cross-continental flights, Carlbom offered The Advocate an exclusive preview of the what's next on his agenda.

"Last week, we launched with our national and local coalition partners an effort in New Jersey to override Gov. Christie's veto for the freedom to marry there," says Carlbom excitedly. "We’re working very diligently with Republicans and Democrats to create a broad-based coalition to get the number of votes needed to override the governor’s veto. So New Jersey is definitely a priority.

"The state of Illinois is a priority," Carlbom continues. "We launched a new effort there about two weeks ago, with, again, national organizations. There’s going to be a big, broad, bipartisan coalition, that will secure the freedom to marry through the legislative process in Illinois, we hope by the middle of November.

"And then in Hawaii, we’re working very hard to try and create an environment there where the governor and legislative leaders will come back to the state capitol and pass the freedom to marry. I believe we have the votes; we just need to encourage them to go into session and pass the legislation."

But that's not all. "Oregon will be the first state in the country to successfully repeal and replace an antigay amendment that was passed in 2004," says Carlbom confidently. "And then in November 2014, 10 years later, we’re working with local [activists] in Oregon to make sure that we pass this big constitutional amendment that will establish the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. It’ll be the first state to write it into their state constitution."

Putting the proverbial icing on the marriage equality cake, in December, Carlbom will take a momentary break from his national duties to realize his own happily-ever-after. On December 20, Carlbom will marry his partner of six years, Justin (pictured above with Carlbom at the White House).

But then it's back to work.

"Between now and 2016, Freedom to Marry is determined to ensure that a majority of Americans live in a freedom to marry state," says Carlbom. "So beyond those current issues, we’re looking to top those efforts in 2016 in places like Arizona, and Michigan, and Colorado, in Ohio — places where we really want to make sure that we add more Americans to freedom to marry states."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Minnesota's governor was named Tom Dayton, not Mark Dayton. 

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