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Richard Carlbom, chief strategist in Minnesota the gay marriage push, will head a state-by-state campaign.

Carlbom to join national marriage battle

The gay rights group Freedom to Marry has tapped Richard Carlbom, above, to lead campaigns to legalize gay marriage in the 37 states where it’s still outlawed. Carlbom led Minnesotans United for All Families last year in defeating a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages in the state. Then the group pressed for equal marriage rights in the newly elected, DFL-controlled Legislature this year. Gov. Mark Dayton signed the marriage-equality law in May. (File photo)

Richard Carlbom says he was confident at the start of the year that by the end of 2013, Minnesota would be a place where same-sex couples could wed.

The group he led, Minnesotans United for All Families, was fresh off the defeat of a ballot initiative to ban gay marriage, and Democrats were preparing to take control of both houses in the Legislature. Carlbom was so confident he put down a $2,000 deposit on a downtown St. Paul reception venue before the bill was passed. He planned to marry his fiancé, Justin, on December 20. But the group faced tough odds on paper: Many freshman Democrats were elected in rural districts that also voted in favor of the ban last fall, and Republicans were not flocking to support the issue.

After a $2 million effort that included a dozen lobbyists at the Capitol and events around the state, Carlbom and his team triumphed again. Both chambers passed a bill to legalize gay marriage and a welcoming Gov. Mark Dayton signed the proposal in May in front of thousands on the Capitol steps.

Now Carlbom is moving on to the national stage. The gay rights group Freedom to Marry is turning its attention to individual states after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and they’ve tapped Carlbom to lead campaigns to legalize gay marriage in the 37 states where it’s still outlawed. Under Carlbom’s direction, the group hopes to push gay marriage in Hawaii, New Jersey, Illinois and Oregon over the next year and a half and to win legalization in at least another six states by 2016.

“Richard’s wealth of experience and expertise will enable Freedom to Marry to continue to lead and accelerate the work required to win marriage nationwide,” said Marc Solomon, Freedom to Marry’s national campaign director. “The groundbreaking campaign Richard led in Minnesota was a model of strategy, drive, and mobilization — exactly what we’ll need to win the next waves of states.”

Demonstrators gathered outside the Minnesota House chamber in May to greet lawmakers when they arrived to take up the gay marriage bill at the state Capitol. (File photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Despite his confidence in Minnesota’s effort, Carlbom says the scope of his new job is still sinking in.

“Beating the amendment in November sunk in and the magnitude of that experience really sunk in, but carrying the freedom to marry within six months after beating the amendment hasn’t sunk in yet,” Carlbom said in a wide-ranging interview with Capitol Report. “Maybe it will when I start going to weddings and things like that, but for now it just hasn’t sunk in.”

Moving into national gay marriage debate

Carlbom is readying himself to take on the work. He recently started his own consulting firm, United Strategies, alongside lobbyist Sarah Erickson and fundraiser Kristen McMullen. Erickson has been the top lobbyist for the city of Saint Paul for the last six years, and prior to that she worked for Metro Cities and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. Before going to work with Carlbom as the Minnesotans United finance director, McMullen was the head of candidate fundraising for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in Washington.

The trio has been quiet as to the sort of issues they may take on in Minnesota, but Carlbom’s time will largely be taken up by his work with Freedom To Marry. With the Supreme Court decision in hand, Freedom to Marry has already set out on an ambitious fundraising effort and outlined its goals through 2016. The plan includes accelerating the push to legalize gay marriage state by state and the launch of a national public opinion campaign aiming to steer gay marriage polling above 60 percent support around the U.S.

“When the Supreme Court ruling came out, I felt incredibly proud,” Carlbom said. “I felt like Minnesota had its fingerprints all over that. I think they sent a very noticeable message from the heartland of this country to the Supreme Court that says, ‘This is the direction we are going in now. We are going toward greater freedom and embracing all families.’

“By the time 2014 comes around, there’s going to be a clear majority that supports the freedom to marry.”

Cristine Almeida, a lobbyist who served as chair of the Minnesotans United board, said moving on to the national fight is a “logical next step” for Carlbom.

“I think he is ideally suited for something like this, because he is such a strategic thinker. Having just come off putting together an effort of the size and magnitude we did, it’s smart of Freedom To Marry to tap into his fresh experience,” she said. “For each of these states, it’s so unique to what the discussion has to be, and Richard brings a lot of information and expertise in analyzing what each message should be.”

Still work to do in Minnesota

But Carlbom isn’t done with Minnesota, the state that launched him into politics right out of college. In 2005, just a year after graduating from St. John’s University, Carlbom was elected mayor of St. Joseph, Minnesota. He managed DFL congressman Tim Walz’s successful reelection effort in 2010 and led communications in St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s office before joining the Minnesotans United team as director.

His new St. Paul-based consulting firm will also be doing work on Minnesota-specific issues during the upcoming legislative session. Erickson, who first met Carlbom when he worked in the St. Paul mayor’s office, says they are working on fundraising and courting clients now.

“It’s a great opportunity to work with two really bright, talented people,” Erickson said. “One of the things that I really appreciate about Richard is he is reliable and really modest. He works really, really hard around the clock for his clients.”

On top of that, Carlbom has been busy raising funds to defend legislators who may be vulnerable after voting in favor of gay marriage.  He helped start the MN United PAC and released the “Minnesota 15″ list of pro-gay marriage legislators who will be made “priorities” in their reelection campaigns. The list includes the five Republican legislators who voted in favor of the bill, and 10 rural Democrats serving in the House who could be vulnerable after casting their yes votes.

By Carlbom’s account, fundraising is going well for that effort, despite the fact that donor attention is shifting away from Minnesota and on to new states where same-sex marriage has yet to be legalized.  Carlbom says it’s critical that legislators who took a risk to support the bill are protected as other lawmakers around the nation consider supporting gay marriage.

“We have very, very strong ties to our national funders and they are absolutely committed to seeing legislators through their reelection efforts,” he said. “It’s important to us because we want to make sure as legislators in other states consider voting for this, they understand that when we say that we have your back, we have your back. I think local and national funders are sticking to it.”

But their intention to defend incumbent Republican legislators is causing some heartburn for GOP activists around the state. Republican activists in Senate District 35 said they were worried about their state senator, pro-gay marriage Republican Branden Petersen, taking money from a political fund that would work to defeat Republican candidates in other districts around the state. Carlbom says the PAC has not heard any complaints from Republicans, but he remains cognizant of the fact that their work for pro-gay GOPers will be different from the work they do for Democrats.

“We certainly don’t want to be unhelpful to them,” he said, declining to get into strategy specifics.  “We haven’t been in those conversations.”

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