Organization of the Year: An Interview with Richard Carlbom, Campaign Manager of Minnesotans United for All Families
Andy Lien: Congratulations, Richard. Lavender Magazine naming Minnesotans United for All Families as Organization of the Year pales in comparison to your victory on Election Day. How are you feeling, a month after Election Day?
Richard Carlbom: It’s hard to believe we are only a month past Election Day. I feel excited that so many Minnesotans stood up for our community. This is the state I was born and raised in and it collectively embraced our community. We have more work to do. The conversation didn’t end on Election Day, it has really just begun. I was amazed at the number of people I spoke to who recalled really vigorous conversations about why marriage matters–it is about love, commitment and responsibility–while at Thanksgiving Dinner, two and a half weeks AFTER Election Day!
AL: What is the status of Minnesotans United for All Families and its office locations? How many people did you end up having work as employees by the end of the campaign? Volunteers?
We had 186 employees on Election Day, including in-kind staff from our coalition partners. We had more than 40,000 volunteers with us throughout the campaign; 28,000 volunteer shifts were filled in the last week alone! The outpouring of support from volunteers and contributors was astounding. Real Minnesotans empowered themselves to beat this amendment.
AL: What about the staff? Where is everyone? What are you doing now that you’re done being manager of a victorious Vote No campaign?
Like most campaigns, staff have disbursed and are looking for their next opportunity to change the world. Many of us will remain very interested in making progress toward equality for the GLBT community by keeping conversations going–myself included!
AL: How was the process of tying up the organization? What did you do to wrap it up?
The process actually continues! In the first three days after Election Day we closed more than 33 offices around Minnesota and gave away most of the furniture to non-profits. Our headquarters closed on November 30th and now most of the finishing work of closing down the current MN United ballot committee will be done by a very small team. There will be a lot of time spent on archiving material to ensure it can be preserved by the Tretter Collection at the U of M and the Minnesota Historical Society. [Editor’s Note: As of press time, there has been an indication that MUAF may not be “wrapped up,” but will “continue the conversation.” This is expected to be more clear by the time this issue is on stands.]
AL: Lavender wrote a story about the formation of Minnesotans United for All Families back in June of 2011, that it was created jointly by Project 515 and OutFront Minnesota. Can you expand on this organizational structure and how it worked?
Minnesotans United for All Families was a coalition formed by Project 515, Outfront MN, the Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Marry, and the Task Force. The coalition grew to more than 700 organizations representing every walk of Minnesota life–businesses, labor, non-profits, governments, etc. It even included more than 120 faith-based organizations. Really, it is the most impressive coalition ever assembled to beat an amendment in Minnesota and it represents the broad base of support that led to our success.
AL: Your work history is impressive. Can you talk about your career path since your time at St. John’s University? When did you join Minnesotans United for All Families as Campaign Manager?
After graduating in May of 2004 from Saint John’s, I was elected Mayor [of St. Joseph, Minnesota] in November of 2004. While I was Mayor, I was a regional field director for the MN DFL Party. In 2007, I moved to Mankato to work for US Representative Tim Walz as his political and finance director. In 2009, Rep. Walz asked me to be his campaign manager. Following a close win for Rep. Walz, Mayor [Chris] Coleman asked me to join his administration as the communications director for the City of St Paul in 2011. Just seven months later, I was asked to add my name for consideration to be the campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families. After a three-round interview process, I was offered the position and accepted, starting work in September of 2011.
AL: How did you strategically go about adding staff to the campaign? Coalition partners? Who were some of your sung and unsung heroes?
One of the key reasons we were successful was the incredible leaders that joined our staff. We strived to hire only the best possible leaders and organizers. We looked for leaders with huge capacity, proven successes in campaigns, and leaders who valued humility. Our staff included Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Greens, and non-political individuals. Our entire staff was incredibly talented. The key to our victory were the thousands of volunteers who they were able to train and empower to take this victory into their own hands.
AL: What demographic groups did MUAF divide the state of Minnesota into?
We focused on identify people who we could count on their no vote based on why marriage matters. We did not focus on groups that were only against amending the constitution. We knew our opposition would use very emotional appeals in an attempt to provoke voters to vote yes–we wanted to counter-balance their emotional argument with our own emotional argument. We did dive deeper into suburban women, young Republican men, and all voters under 30 years old.
AL: What kind of numbers were you throwing around as you considered the state and your demographic groups? How might those groups translate to a wider marriage equality discussion?
Well, the number of Minnesotans who support the freedom to marry is growing–fast. Since so many are evolving so quickly, we wanted to focus on those who we knew could be persuaded by the emotional arguments from our opposition.
AL: Did you see a dramatic shift in thought as the campaign progressed? Where did you see the most activity and response?
Yes–we saw many Minnesotans evolve on the question of who should have the freedom to marry. Nearly ten precent of the state shifted throughout the campaign. It was amazing to see the impact of our research-driven message and the power of conversation help undecided and conflicted voters unravel the conflict they have on this issue…which allowed them to evolve to a No Vote by Election Day!
AL: We embraced the orange and blue logo and identity of the campaign as soon as it was put into action. Who concepted and designed the collateral materials for MUAF? Which types of materials seemed to be most effective?
Our Data Manager Scot Covey gets the credit for designing the now iconic image that represents the first state to beat an amendment that would ban marriage for same-sex couples. He is a great guy–and a straight ally. What I like most about Scot’s design was its simplicity.
We actually distributed more than 60,000 lawn signs, nearly 40,000 t-shirts, nearly 10,000 wrist bans and 15,000 bumper stickers. It was amazing to see so many want a piece of our brand to show where they stand!
AL: How did you decide how to spend money on advertisements? Was the campaign plan there and you just had to execute it, or did you adjust as you went?
When I was hired as the campaign manager, my first job was to write the campaign plan and present it for approval by the the MN United board of directors. One aspect of the campaign plan is paid media and I worked closely with our communications director and our media team to determine how much to invest, when to invest it, and through which medium to invest. When we got to the end of the campaign, we had to manage cash-flow very carefully. Thankfully, because of so much support, we were able to meet and achieve our goals financially.
AL: What role did the television ads and their cross-posting on the Internet play for the campaign?
We focused on message discipline and a layered approach to delivering the message. Voters not only saw our ads, but they heard the same message on the phone from our volunteers, heard it on the radio, got direct mail pieces, saw it on the Internet, and saw it on news reports and newspaper stories through earned media. Our goal was to create a surround-sound type effect for voters on this question. Our television ads were key to our communications strategy because they are the most cost-effective way to deliver a message to voters.
AL: Did there end up being any television ads with GLBT people or couples in them? Why or why not? How were these ads concepted and planned?
The central theme of all of our commercials was why marriage matters and why same-sex couples should have the freedom to marry. We proudly featured GLBT people in many of our videos and in some of our commercials. However, we also know that the people who decided the election were influenced mostly by people they saw in their own situation (other straight people who were not always okay with same-sex couples having the freedom to marry). In order to help them journey or evolve to a no vote, we had to ensure the people delivering the message were a mirror image. The messengers were critical to our success!
AL: Did you expect the support of corporations like General Mills? Celebrities like Vikings player, Chris Kluwe? What impact did they have on the campaign?
We worked hard to engage the business community and other leaders in our community through our coalition work. The statements from General Mills and other businesses showed that this issue was a mainstream issue that should get full and fair consideration by all voters–it was very helpful and a hallmark for future successful campaigns, I believe.
Chris Kluwe is simply brilliant. What more can one say? He had a unique one-of-a-kind impact on this campaign for which I am very thankful.
AL: What did you identify as being the biggest challenges to this campaign? How did you address those issues?
The biggest challenge was to build a campaign large enough to capture all the amazing energy out there, harness it, and focus it in the right direction in order to beat this amendment. We accomplished this because we invested early in two key areas. First, we invested in research to help us keep everyone saying the same thing. Second, we invested in an organizing program that could engage volunteers on the ground in their own communities.
AL: What surprised you most during this campaign?
The extent to which straight Minnesotans empowered themselves to take ownership over beating this amendment. They invested their time, their financial resources, and an incredible amount of energy. We could not have beat this without them. And they never stopped!
AL: What sort of criticism did you receive and what was your response to it?
There was a lot of anxiety over the message we chose and the extent to which we worked with faith communities. First, our message was not crafted to resonate with those who were already voting no. We talked about love, commitment and responsibility; the Golden Rule and Freedom. Many wanted us to talk about discrimination and amending the constitution. We knew that failed in 29 other states and we remain focused on the message we saw moving people to vote no in our research. Second, some were unhappy we spent so much time organizing in faith communities because they wanted separation of church and state. We knew, however, that faith was a key reason some voters were conflicted about how they should vote. Our faith work was imperative to us winning and I am glad we continued it despite the criticism.
AL: What would have happened on November 7 if the amendment hadn’t been defeated?
It would have been a giant setback for the entire state of Minnesota.
AL: Now that the amendment has been defeated, what do you see as being the next steps for Minnesota in the move toward Marriage Equality? What would you hope to see happen in the new legislative session?
The conversation did not end on Election night. It has only just begun. This conversation will continue in all aspects of Minnesota life, including at the state capitol.
AL: What advice would you give to other campaigns who are working either against such proposed legislation or in favor of Marriage Equality?
1. Start early.
2. Hire the best staff, leaders, and organizers–don’t settle for second best.
3. Always, in all things you do, deliver a research-driven message. Research is essential to an effective message.
4. Spark a conversation.
AL: What advice would you give to the GLBT community in Minnesota as we move forward?
Let’s not limit what we can accomplish by limiting our imaginations. Many in our community never dreamed we could beat this amendment, but we did so because we imagined what needed to happen and then we executed. As a result, we raised more money than most thought possible (but it was almost exactly our first goal as a campaign team). We recruited more volunteers than any other campaign in MN history, but it was in line with what our community organizers has imagined. We stayed on message with more discipline than even I imagined, but it was exactly what our communications team imagined and planned for.
Let’s not limit ourselves. What’s next?