Since 2008, ad guru Frank Schuber has led every successful campaign against same-sex marriage.
Halfway through an 18-hour workday and with another long flight back home to California looming, Frank Schubert hunches over a laptop computer in a basement television studio at Northwestern College in St. Paul.
He is gulping coffee and squinting as he reads 15 scripts for upcoming videos urging Minnesotans to support a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He strikes a line that hasn't been fact-checked -- "I don't want to give them any ammunition" -- then stops for another jolt of caffeine on his way back to the control room.
"What was it that Black Panther leader said?" Schubert said. "This life of mine is going to be the death of me."
Traditional marriage advocates so far have an unbroken, 30-state streak of getting marriage defined exclusively as the union of one man and one woman. Schubert has masterminded every campaign since 2008.
Now he's in Minnesota, looking for victory No. 31.
Gay marriage proponents here have launched the most visible pushback of any state yet, turning up at every neighborhood festival, plastering orange "Vote No" signs on every willing lawn, flooding social media, all in an attempt to make Minnesota the first state to defeat such an amendment.
By contrast, Schubert's template is simple, yet has proven remarkably effective. He works stealthily, through churches and sympathetic groups for most of the race, waiting till the end, when he unleashes a blitz of television ads that often feature rosy-cheeked children bounding home to tell their parents they learned in school that "a prince can marry a prince."
Already, Schubert's Minnesota campaign is echoing the message from his ads in other states. The Marriage Minute, a regular video feature narrated by former Minnesota television anchor Kalley Yanta, tells supporters that the new reality, should the amendment fail, could resemble Canada, where same-sex marriage has been legal for a decade.
There, Yanta says in one recent video, "junior kindergarten classes teach 4-year-old kids about gay marriage," and parents, she notes, "have no right to opt their children out of this instruction." In other videos Yanta warns that professionals who object to gay marriage could face "license revocation and lawsuits potentially relating to the loss of their ability to make a living."
Same-sex marriage is already illegal in Minnesota, which has a "Defense of Marriage" statute on its books. But Schubert says that is not enough.
"For most people, they don't necessarily see how same-sex marriage impacts them," he said. "They might not like it, they might not agree with it, but at the end of the day, they think, 'It doesn't impact me.' But it does impact them. That's the point of the ads, to show how it would impact them."
Schools, he adds, are a favorite target of gay activists. "The whole direction of the gay agenda is to use the schools as a mechanism to get their views across, right?" Schubert asks rhetorically.
Schubert's strategy has made him among the most loathed figures among supporters of gay rights.
"He's not a media or political consultant," said Richard Socarides, a former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton and now an activist for gay and lesbian rights. "He's an anti-gay fanatic who has found a way to make money -- and a lot of it -- by scapegoating an entire class of Americans. He is a one-trick pony whose message is that gay people harm children."
John Eastman, a friend of Schubert's and former Republican candidate for California attorney general, sees Schubert as a strategist driven by deep commitment. "He's a very principled guy, a skill that is crucial to our success," Eastman said. "Tacticians who don't understand the long-term principles are not going to succeed." In addition to Minnesota, Schubert is simultaneously juggling marriage campaigns in Maryland, Maine and Washington state.
Schubert makes no apologies for an approach some find offensive.
"Our side fundamentally believes that marriage is authored by God and is an institution that was created to bring men and women together for the benefit of raising children," he said. "Now everybody is not in an ideal family, and we respect that and understand that well, but our laws should be designed to promote the ideal. The ideal is that children are entitled to a loving mother and father in a married relationship. That's what we are fighting for."
A client becomes a cause
Schubert fell into his first marriage amendment campaign by accident -- or divine intervention, depending on one's perspective.
For years, Schubert Flint Public Relations worked with mainstream clients like Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Co. and other big-name corporations out of a 15-person shop in Sacramento, Calif. Schubert became known for his acumen, winning or crushing ballot initiatives for clients on issues like tort reform, health insurance and tobacco taxes. He has won nearly all of the 36 ballot campaigns he has run, making enough to buy a $1.2 million home and a 180-acre ranch in northern California.
In 2008, after a decade of seat-of-the-pants victories in two dozen states, traditional marriage proponents called on Schubert to take on their audacious fight: California's Proposition 8, which would ban same-sex marriage in a state known for its diverse lifestyles.
"Everybody in the world thought we would lose," Schubert said.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, a chief financial backer and coordinator of marriage amendment fights nationally, got to know Schubert during that campaign.
"Frank was not someone opponents would be able to intimidate," Brown said. "He was not going to get bullied or be someone who backed down."
At 56, Schubert carries more paunch than he used to and his graying hair is longer than he likes -- the result, he laments, of too much time on the road. He is constantly in motion, and little escapes his attention. When he hears two production guys chattering about the impact of gay marriage on the local economy, Schubert stops his script review, instantly spins around and snaps, "What a crock."
But he can also be engaging, with a broad smile and easy familiarity that have allowed him to mobilize disparate groups of Christians and Muslims, Democrats and Republicans, union members and corporate leaders.
In California, the money, momentum, polls and star power were all on the other side, but Schubert had his coalition -- and the knowledge that what voters tell pollsters and which box they check in the booth can differ.
By November, the campaign pulled off a win that stunned many and provided the formula Schubert has used ever since.
He counts the California upset not only as his biggest professional triumph, but also a watershed moment that changed the course of his life.
Schubert, a Catholic who divorced his first wife and had the marriage annulled by the church after nine years of wedlock and two children, started thinking differently about marriage.
"The more I learned about it, the more I cared about it and the more I was around people who cared deeply about it," he said.
He also found himself in a new and unwelcome spotlight. Overnight, he became a top enemy of gay and lesbian rights activists who were outraged that they'd lost California.
His business started hurting. Some of the company's biggest clients -- like Coke and Ford -- had received national recognition for their support of gay and lesbian rights and had little incentive to align with the newly controversial Schubert.
A new chapter
With business waning, Schubert left the firm earlier this year and began a new consulting business that focused squarely on social issues.
That forced him to confront another painful family reality: His new cause was putting him on course to ensure that his lesbian sister would never be able to marry her longtime female partner, even as they raise two children together.
"I called her before I got involved in this issue and explained to her what I was going to do," Schubert said. "We agreed to disagree. I love her very much."
Anne Marie Schubert, a Sacramento County prosecutor and longtime Republican, declined a lengthy interview. "It is his decision on how much he wants to portray about himself personally," she said of her brother. Asked if the two were close, she replied, "I am not going to talk about it."
Schubert says he does not act out of hate or bias. "I had employee policies in place long before Prop. 8 offering domestic partnership benefits to gay and lesbian employees," Schubert said. "We didn't end up having any gay employees, but they would have received the same benefits."
But, Schubert said, he does have an abiding belief in the Christian gospel.
"I believe in feeding the poor," he said. "I oppose the death penalty. I think life is precious from conception to natural death. I believe all of that. And I believe marriage is a union of a man and a woman. And I believe it is a good thing."
Soon, Schubert was off to Maine, for a campaign to add a same-sex marriage ban to that state's constitution. Heading into the last weeks, he was outraised and outspent by the other side and behind in the polls.
Then he launched a blizzard of provocative ads about children who would be taught about gay marriage in schools.
The ads infuriated opponents and even rankled some top staff on Schubert's team.
Maine campaign manager Marc Mutty later said in a documentary about the Maine campaign that Schubert's ads were "not completely accurate." An ad that Mutty said depicted "the sex toys and all that" was severely edited after objections from Mutty and other campaign staffers.
Reached by the Star Tribune, Mutty declined to comment but did not quarrel with his depiction in the film.
Which side of history?
Schubert says he is warned frequently that he will wind up on the wrong side of history. It is an argument he rejects.
Marriage between men and women has been a revered institution for 5,000 years, he said, while same-sex marriage has been in the public conscience for barely a decade.
"Exactly what history are they on the right side of?" he asked. "They've never won on the ballot. I just think before they claim the ultimate victory, they should claim their first victory."
The Maine amendment passed by a sizable margin and Schubert got much of the credit. (Activists in that state are fighting back this year with an amendment that would specifically allow same-sex marriage.)
Next was Iowa, where Schubert created ads that helped remove Iowa Supreme Court justices who had legalized same-sex marriage in that state. Despite the justices' removal, same-sex marriage remains legal in Iowa. Earlier this year, Schubert ran a similar amendment campaign in North Carolina. Another win.
In 2010, at the behest of the National Organization for Marriage, Schubert started exploring the issue in Minnesota, conducting countless polls and focus groups. In 2011, the Legislature passed the amendment question, ensuring that it would appear on the 2012 ballot.
"We did all we could to make sure we would win," Schubert said. "Nobody wants to run off on a fool's errand. We felt confident -- and we still do -- that we will win."
Schubert says he deviated from his gut once. Nearly 20 years ago, during a campaign to change Michigan auto insurance laws, Schubert was under pressure to air an emotional ad -- one designed to close out the campaign -- much earlier than he had planned. Schubert acceded. Opponents had time to air an equally powerful counterpunch and his side lost.
"I learned an important lesson," said Schubert, who still keeps a copy of the ad on his laptop computer. "Run your campaign. Don't let outside forces dictate what you do. My strategy was sound; I failed to execute it properly. I haven't made that mistake since."
Brown, from the National Organization for Marriage, said he is confident they will prevail in Minnesota and the three other states wrestling with the same-sex marriage issue this year. "Frank is going to be key in that," Brown said. "He has been placed at this historical moment for a purpose."
Sitting in the lobby at Northwestern College, his coffee and phone within reach, Schubert reflects on the challenges ahead.
"My big bet is that I am doing what the Lord wants me to do," he said. "I will find out at some point if I am right. If I am met by earthworms, I guess it didn't matter. If I am met by bright angels, I think it will be very nice."
Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044