Opponents of a possible change to the Minnesota Constitution known as the marriage amendment had a lot of time to prepare — and to worry — before Election Day.
A Republican-controlled Legislature had voted in May of 2011 to place the measure on the November, 2012 ballot. Voters would be asked:
“Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?”
Same-sex marriage would be on the ballot in Minnesota and three other states in 2012: Washington, Maine and Maryland. Up until then, similar measures had ended in defeat for marriage equality advocates.
While same-sex marriage was legal in some states, such as New York and Iowa, it had happened by acts of legislatures or courts. Thirty-two times the issue had been presented to a state’s voters and 32 times they had opted to limit marriage to one man and one woman. Even California voters approved Proposition 8, with similar language to Minnesota’s proposal, 52% to 48% despite trailing in pre-election polling.
Proponents in Minnesota, led by the Catholic diocese and Archbishop John Nienstedt, would hire the same consultant who led the California effort, Frank Schubert.
The streak ended on Nov. 6, 2012, when three states legalized same-sex marriage at the ballot, the first such popular vote legalizations in the United States. Minnesota rejected the marriage amendment. It needed a majority of all those casting votes in that election, and Amendment 1 received just 47.4% yes votes. It lost in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th congressional districts; it won in the 1st, 6th, 7th and 8th. In that election, Minnesota voters also blocked a measure to require voters to present photo ID at the polls.
Voters also turned both houses of the Legislature over to the DFL, and turnout driven by the marriage amendment is credited with those gains.
It was the most expensive ballot measure in state history, as both sides spent more than $15 million with most coming on the Vote No side. Both sides drew national money. And to make same-sex marriage legal in Minnesota, an additional step was needed: The Legislature had to act to change a law prohibiting the legal recognition of such marriages. That would come the following spring, 16 years after Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced the first bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the state.
At a 10-year anniversary celebration in November, Attorney General Keith Ellison described the shift in emotions from when the amendment was voted onto the ballot to when the same-sex marriage law was signed by then-Gov. Mark Dayton.
“We went from ‘oh my God,’ to ‘OH MY GOD!’” Ellison said.
A decade after voters first rejected the marriage amendment and the Legislature approved a law allowing same-sex marriages, we look back with some of the people who shaped the two historic events.
Supporters of same-sex marriage in America knew something wasn’t working. Each time a ballot measure reached voters, they lost. This happened even when polls showed them with an edge in the closing weeks of the campaign. Opponents of same-sex marriage carried the day with advertising that focused voters on what they might lose, rather than what same-sex couples might gain.
It was illustrated by what came to be known as The Princess Ad: A young girl comes home from school to excitedly tell her mother what she’d learned in school that day.
“I learned that a prince married a prince and I can marry a princess,” the girl says. A law professor then comes on screen to tell viewers that schools would teach elementary school students about gay marriage and there would be nothing they could do to object.
Talking about equal rights and equality did not undo the impact of ads like that. Beginning in 2010, the national Freedom to Marry set to work looking at research about how and why voters decide about same-sex marriage. Leading the effort was Freedom to Marry’s director of research and messaging, Thalia Zepatos, sometimes dubbed “the message guru.”
“The responses to one polling question in particular provided a big ‘aha’ moment,” stated Freedom to Marry’s history of the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage. It was an Oregon poll when voters were asked why they or “couples like me” get married and 74% said “for love and commitment.”
When the same voters were asked why same-sex couples get married, 42% said “for rights and benefits” and just 37% said “for love and commitment.” Another 22% had no answer.
“We had framed our equality narrative completely around rights and benefits from the beginning,” said Richard Carlbom, a political consultant who led the campaign in Minnesota. “So it wasn’t a surprise to us that people thought we only wanted marriage for rights and benefits. But it was an ‘aha’ moment for us to realize we need to make sure people understand that this is about love and commitment.”
The messaging then shifted from equal rights to forging a human connection.
“Gay people didn’t want to redefine marriage, as opponents asserted, they want to join it,” Freedom to Marry’s history stated.
Said Carlbom: “We banned from our vocabulary the phrase ‘marriage equality.’” Instead, the campaign would be about getting persuadable voters — termed “the conflicted” — to think about why they got married and to point out that same-sex couples are motivated by similar things.
It was also vital to show how heterosexual people changed their minds over time and that it was OK to do so.
But it was hard work. While the campaign used TV testimonials from real people — a Republican couple, an Iraqi War veteran, a Lutheran minister, a suburban couple — talking about their LGBTQ family and friends, the campaign became a one-on-one effort on the phone and on doorsteps and at house parties. Volunteers — as estimated 27,000 of them — asked voters considered persuadable to “go on a journey with us” to decide that the vote wasn’t about whether gay and lesbian couples could get married but “how does this amendment reflect my values.”
A call might start with a volunteer asking, “Are you married?” and “What does marriage mean to you?” They might then ask the voter why they chose to get married. Finally, they would try to explain that same-sex couples might make the same choices for similar reasons if they could.
Carlbom said those conversations inoculated the campaign against the variations of the princess ad that began airing in Minnesota. Polling showed that rather than take a hit in support in the closing weeks, the Vote No campaign added voters.
“I think a number of people listened to those ads and freaked out. But we had built such a public narrative about what this really was about, the opposition’s ads that worked in 30 other states didn’t work here,” Carlbom said.
The same campaign was run in the other three states with organizers having regular phone conferences to compare notes and share ideas, Carlbom said.
In January of 2012, with the election still 10 months away, opponents of the marriage amendment weren’t exactly brimming with confidence. The track record of ballot measures on marriage equality wasn’t good and the fight would be expensive and emotional.
But a Star Tribune op-ed on the morning of Jan. 14 served as a moral boost both for its message and its source. The chair of one of the state’s most-successful companies who was also a member of one of its most prominent families came out against the amendment.
Marilyn Carlson Nelson cited moral, financial and personal reasons. After recounting the state’s many attributes and blessings, Nelson described the upcoming vote as another blessing, albeit one “of an unusual sort.”
“My prediction and my hope is that we will resist,” she wrote. “Our history suggests we will.”
“Fairness, righteousness and equality are strong arguments for voting against this amendment,” Nelson wrote. “But there is also a compelling economic case. As a CEO, I can say with certainty that to constitutionally mandate discrimination is bad for business and bad for the economic opportunities of all Minnesotans.”
Nelson cited an Erma Bombeck column about volunteers and how they are often undervalued. In it, Bombeck asked readers to imagine these volunteers on a boat in the harbor and the rest of society waving them goodbye as they sail away. Nelson described similar imagery but the volunteers were replaced with “friends, family and colleagues — all of whom happened to be gay.”
“I wave goodbye to the hundreds of highly talented employees who have helped make Carlson a globally competitive and respected company,” Nelson wrote. “And, most painfully of all, I wave goodbye to my daughter.”
Nelson, who has since retired and didn’t respond to an interview request, was the first prominent business executive to weigh in, but many others followed. Carlbom described preparing economic arguments against the amendment for a meeting with the Pohlad family.
“I was 90 seconds into the business case and Jim stopped me and said, ‘Richard, we don’t care about this issue because of our businesses. We’re Minnesotans and we just don’t think this is in line with Minnesota values.”
William, Robert and James Pohlad together gave $380,000 to the Vote No campaign.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan admits to being something of a hoarder when it comes to the paraphernalia of campaigns she’s worked on — something she says she hears about from her husband. Especially favored are the T-shirts and sweatshirts that campaign workers and volunteers wear to identify themselves on the trail.
When Flanagan arrived at the 10-year anniversary event with daughter Siobhan, the 10-year-old was wearing a blue hoodie with the orange “Vote NO” logo printed on the front. In her remarks to those gathered, Flanagan pointed out the symmetry and symbolism of that piece of clothing.
“Siobhan is rocking her Vote No hoodie that I wore when I was very, very pregnant with her during the campaign,” Flanagan said. “I remember making phone calls with my feet up on the desk because of swollen ankles. I would talk to Siobhan, who was in my belly, and I would say I’m gonna do everything that I can to make sure that Minnesota is a warm and loving and welcoming place for you no matter who you are.”
The Wedding Planner
In his memoir “Pothole Confidential,” former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak tells the story of getting caught up in the excitement building in the rotunda of the State Capitol as the same-sex marriage bill was getting close to winning approval.
“If this thing passes,” he shouted down to the hundreds gathered to lobby for and then celebrate the passage, “come on down to City Hall and I’ll marry you.”
“Standing next to me was my aide Andy Holmaas, whose eyes got as big as saucers because he realized, much more than I did, that my offer was a lot bigger than I thought.”
“I think … I better … call…the…office,” Rybak quoted Holmaas as saying. The mayor’s director of community outreach would soon be assigned the task of putting together an event that would begin at the stroke of midnight the day the new law took effect.
“We all know that R.T., as a mayor, was extremely excitable in the best ways,” Holmaas recalled last month. “At the time, I don’t think anyone knew how much work it would be. But it was also very cool.” He remembers how many people volunteered their time and skills.
“It was people across Minneapolis saying, ‘What can we do? How can we be a part of this? How can we make people’s lives special?’”
Photographers. A cake donated by General Mills. Tables and chairs. Flowers. Other decorations. All would have to be arranged around the hunk of marble called the Father of Waters who was given prime real estate in the center of the six-story Minneapolis City Hall atrium. The weddings would be choreographed across the night with couples moving through on schedule, each offered color-coded tickets to allow up to 25 guests to watch from the balconies above.
Why start at midnight?
“Let’s do it right and let’s match this excitement,” Holmaas said. “People had been waiting for so long.”
Forty-six couples would get married in a seven-hour marathon session with the mayor using the powers vested in him by the office he would leave at the end of that year. Others were married by county district court judges and state Sen. Scott Dibble in nearby spaces including city council chambers.
The First Couple
Again, in “Pothole Confidential,” Rybak describes how he was looking for “a Jackie Robinson couple.” That meant that who broke the barrier was as important as the barrier-breaking itself. As Gov. Dayton was signing the bill on the State Capitol lawn on May 14, Rybak bumped into Cathy ten Broeke and Margaret Miles. Ten Broeke was the state director of the office to prevent and end homelessness, and Miles worked on similar issues for St. Stephen’s human services, now called Agate Housing and Services. They’d been together for 15 years and had a young son named Louie.
“When Cathy asked, almost offhandedly, whether I would marry them, I was deeply honored,” Rybak wrote. “I also immediately knew we had our Jackie Robinsons.”
Ten Broeke recalls being uncomfortable with that label.
“Jackie Robinson is in a place all by Jackie Robinson’s self,” she said. “I’ve alway found it a little hard. But I know what (Rybak) meant and how he felt, and of course we were really honored to be able to play that kind of role.”
“The way I took that is that it wasn’t about us. It was about so much more than us. It was about everybody who, up until that moment, hadn’t been able to have the state recognize their love legally and all the rights that come with that.
“To be a symbol of that was an incredible honor,” ten Broeke said. Shortly after their wedding was completed, Al Giraud and Jeff Isaacson became the second couple married by the mayor.
Miles and ten Broeke had been married in a ceremony not recognized legally in March, 2001 at the Catholic church where they had met working on homelessness issues, something they both still do. While the priest was not able to preside, he was there and supportive, ten Broeke said. So they will celebrate their 23rd anniversary of that event before they celebrate the 10th anniversary of their marriage by Rybak.
But it was the earlier ceremony that first connected them to Rybak. Shortly after, ten Broeke went to work for the city and was torn with how to answer the employment paperwork about her marital status.
“I had to check the ‘single’ box on the sheet,” she recalled. “I had the hardest time checking that box, and I cried and told R.T. about it and he cried. I had just left a wedding where 200 people had celebrated my marriage to Margaret. It was the time of our life and it was so striking.”
That stuck in Rybak’s head and when she ran into him after the Dayton signing he told her she had to let him perform the second ceremony.
And then there is Louie, the 5-year-old son of Miles and ten Broeke who all-but stole the show during the wedding. He entered kindergarten shortly after that event and is a freshman in high school now.
“Having a son, that moment was so powerful … to know that he was going to grow up in a state where our family wasn’t questioned,” she said. “It was his wedding, too.”
This story relied on the extensive reporting on the marriage amendment fight former MinnPost reporter Beth Hawkins did 10 years ago.