Richard Carlbom hopes to lead the country’s first successful effort to defeat a gay marriage referendum
On May 6 Richard Carlbom became engaged to his boyfriend of more than four years. Two weeks later the Minnesota House voted to place a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the 2012 ballot.
Last week it was announced that Carlbom will serve as campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families, the principal group working to defeat the proposed same-sex marriage ban. “It’s very personal to me,” Carlbom said. “We aspire to marriage. We hope to one day join in marriage and have the opportunity to publicly declare our commitment to each other and do so by asking our friends and family to hold us accountable to the responsibility that comes with marriage.”
Carlbom will lead a diverse coalition with more than 60 organizational partners, including the Minnesota AFL-CIO, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and Jewish Community Action. In addition, the state DFL, Independence, Green and Libertarian parties have all joined the campaign.
This week Minnesotans United also announced a 35-member steering committee. It includes four state legislators: Reps. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, and John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, and Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis. The presence of Kelly and Kriesel is particularly noteworthy given that their fellow Republicans have led the charge in seeking a prohibition on gay marriage. Both spoke passionately against putting the amendment on the ballot when it came up for a vote on the House floor in May.
“It was an awkward position, since obviously the majority of our caucus wasn’t there,” Kelly said. “It was an awkward position, but it wasn’t a difficult one. I just don’t believe that we as a government should be interfering in the personal choices that people make.”
Dibble, who is openly gay, believes that the diversity of the steering group is essential if it’s going to be successful. “I can’t walk into a Republican precinct caucus on caucus night and talk about all the good reasons to defeat this amendment,” Dibble said. “This amendment [battle] is not going to be won in the metro area. It’s not going to be won by appealing solely to base DFL votes.”
Range of political experience
Carlbom will be charged with managing this coalition over the next 14 months. He brings an impressive political resume, especially considering he’s just 30 years old. In 2004 Carlbom was elected mayor of St. Joseph, a town of about 5,000 outside of St. Cloud. He subsequently worked as a regional field director for the state DFL Party during the 2006 election cycle. Carlbom then joined U.S. Rep. Tim Walz’s office, serving as finance and political director.
In 2010, Carlbom helmed Walz’s re-election campaign. The incumbent DFLer was in a politically perilous situation, with electoral winds tilted decidedly against him. In each of the previous two wave elections (1994 and 2006), voters in the district had opted to change party control of the seat. But Walz survived, defeating former state Rep. Randy Demmer by 5 percentage points.
“We didn’t dodge a bullet,” Carlbom said. “We came through the other side because we had the smartest campaign strategy in place to win, and Tim is the most authentic political leader in the state.”
After the election, Carlbom went to work as communications director for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. But now he faces the formidable task of helping turn back the same-sex marriage amendment. Voters in 29 states previously have considered gay marriage bans. In every instance they have supported amending the state Constitution in order to prohibit same-sex nuptials. (North Carolina will vote on a same-sex marriage referendum in May.)
But polling has shown that acceptance of gay marriage has grown significantly in recent years. The Star Tribune’s Minnesota Poll found in May that 55 percent of adults opposed amending the Constitution to prohibit same-sex ceremonies, while just 39 percent were in favor of it. Seven years earlier the results were reversed, with 58 percent of Minnesota Poll respondents supporting a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage.
“We have 30 years of experience and lessons learned on this,” Carlbom said. “We’re going to look very deeply at what didn’t work and why we lost in other states. Based on our own education and our own experience in different states, we believe we can build a winning strategy in Minnesota that makes us the first state to go the other way. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to require us to improve on everything that we’ve already done right in other states.”
Coalition’s breadth poses challenges
Individuals involved in the search to select a campaign manager for Minnesotans United praise Carlbom’s credentials. Cristine Almeida, a lobbyist, attorney and former state Senate chief of staff, helped lead the process of getting the organization off the ground. She played a similar role three years ago in helping organize the group that led the successful campaign to raise the state’s sales tax and devote the funding to arts and the environment. “Some of these initiatives end up making unusual or surprising bedfellows,” Almeida said. “This is really a nonpartisan or all-partisan issue. It cuts across all party lines. … It cuts across race; it cuts across religion.”
However, the diversity of the coalition leading the charge to defeat the gay marriage amendment could also prove a liability. Campaigns to turn back gay marriage amendments in other states have been hurt by in-fighting among the various constituencies. Coleman argues that Carlbom is an ideal person to manage the various personalities and agendas. “Richard is perfectly situated to bridge any of those divisions and help bring people together and keep people focused on the ultimate issue, which is defeating this amendment,” Coleman said. “This is going to be a long haul.”
Carlbom says he has no illusions about the potential for discord among the various groups. “There are some people who will disagree on every other question out there except for this one,” he said. “So we need to spend all of our time focusing on how to win this question. How do we win this campaign by encouraging people to vote no? All other issues need to be put aside.”
Carlbom’s first day on the job, officially, isn’t until Sept. 24. But even if he hasn’t started earning a paycheck, work on the campaign has already begun. The first tasks: assembling a staff, creating a campaign strategy and raising sufficient money to run the organization. Early estimates have suggested that the gay marriage battle could attract upward of $10 million in contributions for the two sides combined.
“We need to hire some very talented people,” Carlbom said, “and we need to begin putting into place a strategy that all of our coalition partners can look at, can debate, can add to and then all get behind.”
Carlbom was recently in Decorah, Iowa, for a same-sex wedding. The local certificate required to obtain a wedding license was signed by the 89-year-old grandmother of one of the grooms. Carlbom believes such anecdotes show that preconceptions about who will or won’t support banning gay marriage should be thrown out the window.
“I obviously have a commitment to have this conversation about this amendment in every corner and every county and every population center in the state,” Carlbom said. “We’re not going to ignore one area over another.”