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February 19th, 2014 WW Staff | Q & A
 

Hotseat: Richard Carlbom

The veteran of Minnesota’s successful fight for the freedom to marry says Oregon paved the path to victory.

news3_4016RICHARD CARLBOM
Richard Carlbom led the campaign that legalized same-sex marriage in Minnesota last year. Now he’s in charge of the coordinated 33-state campaign for the advocacy group Freedom to Marry. In an interview, Carlbom told WW why red states such as Utah seem to be moving toward equality more quickly than blue states like Oregon. He also discussed this year’s campaign to overturn Oregon’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and a surprise lawsuit that has changed the political landscape on the issue.

WW: What have you been doing since the Minnesota campaign, and what is your strategy for moving forward at a national level?

Richard Carlbom: We’re trying to leverage resources in 33 states across the country that don’t currently have the freedom to marry. Freedom to Marry has a very specific road map to victory: We need to win as many states as we can before this question goes back to the Supreme Court.


What is that road map, and where does Oregon fit in?

Oregon’s story about the freedom to marry is incredibly special. When you look at the tectonic shift in this debate in 2012—when for the first time our side went to the ballot and won not one but all four questions on the ballot in Maryland, Minnesota, Washington and Maine—what a lot of people don’t realize is, the strategy was incubated in Oregon.


Exactly what was that strategy?

We learned that when you ask a straight person why they want to get married, they say, “I fell in love, wanted to commit, start a family.” When you ask them why they think a same-sex couple wants to get married, their first reaction is silence. They just stare at you. When you push them, they think really hard. They say, “For access to your spouse’s 401K or pension, rights and benefits?”

Voters have three levels of persuasion. The first level is the “me” level: You make a decision about who the voter is as an individual. The second is the “me and my own” level—that’s where our opponents were; they were saying, “You need to vote this way to protect your children.” The least persuasive was the community level, and that’s where we were: “Do this on behalf of your neighbor down the street.” And when we actually narrowed that gap, we say to people: “Marriage is about love, commitment and responsibility. Would you ever want to be told it’s illegal to marry the person you love?”


So Oregon developed a great strategy leading up to 2012. Why didn’t we have same-sex marriage on the ballot that year?

The level of popular support in 2011 just wasn’t where we needed it to be.


Is there any state that has a constitutional ban that’s been overturned by the courts?

No. Right now we don’t think any other state should be on the ballot in November. No other state is ready. The reason Oregon is in such a strong position today is because in 2010, 2011, 2012 they did the work it takes on the ground to prepare the state and to gain the support. I would say there are some states out there like Arizona and Nevada and Michigan and Colorado—soon Missouri—where we want to go to the ballot in 2016. But they’re where Oregon was in 2011. They’re just not quite ready yet.


So the states such as Utah that have seen surprising movement in the courts, are those Freedom to Marry efforts or are those independent?

Freedom to Marry is focused on winning through the ballot process and the legislative process, not through the court process. Court wins have usually been engineered by local attorneys who have brought claims—usually federal claims—against the state. So the Utah case started with an incredible group of local lawyers wanting to push through an effort there. Freedom to Marry’s role has been to organize a bona fide campaign to make sure we’re lifting up the stories that articulate why it’s important for same-sex couples to have the freedom to marry.


Is there a perception either among your campaign or the broader movement that a court win is less legitimate than a win at the ballot box?

Absolutely not. No. The opportunity for two people to stand up in front of their friends and family, to take responsibility for each other and commit to each other, that is the win.


Why are couples in Oregon still not allowed to marry when couples in less-progressive states already have that right?

Every state has its unique story and path. Oregon’s story is that it looked at its position in 2011, when it had to make the decision about [placing a measure to overturn the ban on] the 2012 ballot, and they rightfully decided that losing would have devastating consequences on this community, and that they wouldn’t be able to come back two years later and win.


In that case, why not wait until 2016, when turnout for the presidential election will be much higher?

Even in a nonpresidential election year, the work that was done in 2010, 2011 and 2012 made a huge impact, and they’ve moved the numbers significantly. To be in 2014 and looking at 54 percent support is just incredible.


Basic Rights Oregon and its partners did not initially want to file a lawsuit to overturn the constitutional ban. Why not?

The bottom line is that a win here would be same-sex couples being able to stand up and get married. For us, there are definitely two tracks: an effort to increase public support and go to the ballot, make Oregon the first state in the country to actually rewrite their constitution. The second track is this litigation. So we’re monitoring both.


With so much change recently, the public might get the feeling that same-sex marriage has sort of “happened.” Is apathy a challenge for you?

No. Everyone wants to be with a winner. People are excited. This is an exciting moment in a struggle that has lasted 20 years. People do get the sense that we’re years, not decades, away. And they want to be part of it.


In some states, that job essentially is done. Once you’ve won, what’s next?

Once you win in Oregon, I think you’re going to see Basic Rights Oregon and others come together and identify the next thing that needs to get done. In Minnesota, in just six months since the legislation passed, we actually have raised and contributed more than $500,000 for candidates who stood up and had my back and secured the freedom to marry in our state. We understand the importance of getting these people re-elected.  

 
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