Minnesota sees the outcome of a grass-roots effort

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 27, 2013 - 5:08 PM

The outcome of people-powered democracy will be seen this week. And then, next up: The minimum wage.

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Richard Carlbom, manager of the largest and arguably most successful grass-roots campaign in state history, Minnesotans United for All Families.

Photo: Jim Gehrz , Star Tribune

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I half-expect fireworks to bloom over the Minneapolis City Hall at midnight Thursday, even if nobody lights a fuse. The joy inside that 125-year-old hall at the start of a marriage marathon might be enough to light up the sky. More than 40 pairs of “I do”s are planned there between midnight and dawn.

Where will you be that night, Richard Carlbom?

“Wilde Roast Cafe for a large celebration until 1 a.m.,” replied the manager of the largest and arguably most successful grass-roots campaign in state history, Minnesotans United for All Families. “Then I will stop by City Hall.”

When he does, I predict that he’ll pick an unobtrusive spot, stand quietly and soak in a euphoria he did much to create. That would be typical of Carlbom — too humble to allow his presence to detract attention from the first same-sex couples to legally marry in Minnesota, yet too devoted to the cause of marriage equality to stay away.

But Carlbom might not be able to avoid a spotlight. The 31-year-old former mayor of St. Joseph has been a sought-out and sought-after political personality since November, when Minnesota became the first state in the nation to reject a constitutional same-sex marriage ban. The Legislature’s move to legalize same-sex marriage six months later only added to his renown.

Carlbom is a hero to same-sex couples who have longed for legal marriage and to Minnesotans who believe justice requires that the law treat all committed couples equally. He’s a goat to those who wanted state law to keep marriage exclusive to male-female couples.

And he’s a voice of hands-on experience for making something old — grass-roots organizing — new again. It’s that knowledge that landed him and his new consulting firm United Strategies a contract with Freedom to Marry, a national advocacy group, to lead its push to add to the current list of 13 states that allow same-sex marriage.

For anyone who favors people-powered democracy, Carlbom is a dispenser of hope — on matters that range far beyond marriage. (More about that in a moment.)

Carlbom attests that even in today’s e-connected world, person-to-person communication works like no other kind. Changing minds often begins with changing hearts. Messages about basic values — love, commitment, responsibility — move opinion more effectively than protests about rights or benefits denied.

And volunteers will do the hard work of communicating with voters if organizers do theirs. That was axiomatic to the Minnesotans United campaign. Its paid staff — 220 strong at its peak — worked diligently at volunteer recruitment, training and support. Staffers schooled volunteers in keeping their cool in the face of hostility. They pounded the message that volunteers had the power to change the state’s direction. They took time to carefully debrief volunteers after each work session, demonstrating the value of their service.

That micro-level focus was massively multiplied. Minnesotans United deployed 27,000 volunteers to make more than 1 million phone calls and knock on more than 500,000 doors in the days leading up to the Nov. 6 election. On some college campuses in the state, that translated to one volunteer for every nine or 10 students.

The result: The marriage-limiting amendment fell 2.56 percentage points short of the margin needed for adoption. And a citizen corps was ready and willing to follow Carlbom’s lead as they turned the election campaign into a successful lobbying effort at the State Capitol. Gov. Mark Dayton signed the marriage legalization bill into law on May 14.

Some will say Minnesotans United’s person-to-person campaign worked because marriage touches hearts in a unique way. They’ll note that Carlbom’s organization was also very well-funded, spending more than $12 million in 2012 — twice as much as the countervailing Minnesotans for Marriage. They’ll say that makes it a poor model for others who aim to bend public policy.

Carlbom disagrees: “Other issues can capture the imaginations of people. Take minimum wage. We can talk about that in a different way. I see us now talking about minimum wage as the workers versus big business. I don’t think that will ultimately win.

“What we need to say is that minimum wage is about making sure people don’t live in poverty. Poverty is a serious problem, not just in the Twin Cities but throughout the state of Minnesota. I’m convinced that [if] we connect with people in a meaningful way about the impact of poverty in society, and the fact that the minimum wage is a surefire way of lifting people out of poverty and into new opportunities, we can capture the imaginations of people. This is about treating people with dignity, and making sure they themselves have an opportunity to determine their future, rather than struggling day by day to put potatoes and bread on the table.

“We can move this from partisanship and class warfare into a deeper conversation. What do we want our communities to be about? Do we want our communities to be about people who pay rent and put food on the table? Or do we want our communities’ single-greatest effort each week to be making sure that we fill the food bank on Sundays?”

A bid to increase the minimum wage stalled at the 2013 Legislature and is mired in the usual partisan muck in Washington. Most Minnesota employers are governed by the federal minimum, $7.25 an hour; the state’s minimum, which applies to relatively few employers, lags at $6.15 for larger employers and a measly $5.25 for small ones.

Chances are decent that at least in St. Paul, a boost will come in 2014. But if it comes without the grass-roots engagement that Carlbom says is possible, it will be seen as a victory for labor rather than as a major component of a larger antipoverty strategy. It won’t have the underpinnings of popular support on which other antipoverty initiatives might build and against which they might be compared. It will be both a token gain and a lost opportunity.

Campaigning the Minnesotans United way is exhausting, time-consuming, often-frustrating work. There are plenty of political gurus who advise candidates and causes not to bother, and to stick with slick media campaigns instead.

But I’ve noticed that even the cleverest of those media campaigns often leave voters cynical and dissatisfied. Minnesotans United left a lot of people encouraged about democracy and eager for more. And it’s going to leave some loving couples with marriage licenses. That difference is huge.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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