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Catharine Richert, MRP News 90.3 FM, Published February 20 2014

Donors help Minnesota legislators who voted for same-sex marriage; Dilworth's Paul Marquart, others turning down help

Mike Dively has never met Republican state Rep. Pat Garofalo, but the Californian contributed $250 to Garofalo’s 2014 re-election campaign anyway.

As a former Republican lawmaker from Michigan and a gay and lesbian rights activist, Dively said he wants to help politicians like Garofalo who took what could be a politically risky vote to legalize same-sex marriage.

But Dively also didn’t find Garofalo – or the three other Minnesota representatives he contributed to last year – on his own. He received advice from Gill Action, a national organization based in Colorado that connects donors with politicians who have supported LGBT issues.

The group is part of a highly coordinated effort to help Minnesota lawmakers who took tough votes in favor of same-sex marriage as they face re-election. Gill Action is getting advice on which candidates to support from Minnesota groups that worked to defeat a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in 2012 and to legalize it in 2013.

Dively said he likes the advice he gets from Gill Action because it’s an unvarnished assessment on which candidates can win.

“I like to contribute to races where I think I can make a difference but, secondly, I think there’s a difference to be made there,” Dively said.

Garofalo, R-Farmington, is among seven state lawmakers running for re-election this year who are benefiting from Gill Action’s national donor network. In all, those donors have given more than $30,000 to candidates in Minnesota.

“We are very carefully identifying who needs help and doing what we think is our part to provide them support,” said Richard Carlbom, who is advising Gill Action on Minnesota candidates. Carlbom is the spokesman for the MN United PAC, a political action committee that formed last year after Minnesotans United for All Families, which he led, won the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage.

“What you see in 2013 is just us getting started,” Carlbom said.

Dollars go to key districts

Gill Action was started in 2005 by Colorado software entrepreneur Tim Gill to support equal rights for people regardless of their sexual orientation, according to the group’s website.

Officials from Gill Action declined to comment for this story.

Among the fund’s efforts for 2014 is making sure that a slate of Minnesota lawmakers who cast potentially unpopular votes in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage last year have the financial support they need in their reelection campaigns.

Kirk Fordham, Gill Action’s executive director, sits in on monthly conference calls with Carlbom and others in Minnesota who worked in 2012 to defeat a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and in 2013 to legalize it.

“We’ve all been very clear on who we think the folks are who might need some help, and then Kirk looks at the list and decided which of those he can help now and which he might help later,” Carlbom said.

Part of that strategy involves tapping a bipartisan group of donors around the country. The group includes Dively, who said he has been working with Gill Action for six years.

While there are 14 candidates who took a tough vote last year to legalize same-sex marriage, the money is going only to those who are facing the most difficult re-election campaigns.

“The point here is that we are very discreetly but very strategically investing the races that need it in order to win,” Carlbom said.

Tough votes

State Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, narrowly won his election in 2012, and his northeastern Minnesota district voted in favor of the same-sex marriage ban by a wide margin. Faust bucked popular opinion in the district and voted in favor of making same-sex marriage legal.

Faust said he met Tim Gill and other members of Gill Action only briefly last fall. His campaign brought in at least $4,500 from the Gill Action network, including $1,000 from Gill himself.

Faust said he’s not surprised to see outstate donations in his campaign coffers, given how high-profile Minnesota’s debate over same-sex marriage became.

“I got emails from all over the country,” Faust said. “I had people offering to buy me dinner from Texas.”

Since last summer shortly after the vote, Faust said he hasn’t heard much from constituents about his support for same-sex marriage. But he’s still expecting to get some flak for his vote on the campaign trail.

“It’s going to be an issue,” he said. “How much of an issue it is, we don’t know.”

State Rep. David FitzSimmons, R-Albertville, is at risk of losing his party endorsement over the issue. His district voted to ban same-sex marriage in 2012. But FitzSimmons ultimately voted to legalize it last year after his amendment to protect religious institutions that oppose same sex marriage was added to the bill.

FitzSimmons points out that he gave nearly all the money he raised, including $4,250 from Gill Action donors, to Republican campaign committees.

He also rejected a $1,000 check from the MN United PAC last year.

So did state Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth. He said he didn’t want the MN United PAC money because his decision to vote for legalization was a personal one.

“I didn’t want anyone to think for a minute that I did that for money or for some group,” Marquart said.

Staying flexible

While Carlbom is among those advising Gill Action on where their donors’ money is best spent, he’s also raising and spending cash on behalf of at least 14 legislators who supported same-sex marriage and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

The MN United PAC has a vast pool of donors that support same-sex marriage in Minnesota and outside the state. The group brought in about $454,000 last year and gave about $25,000 to candidate committees, including $4,000 to Dayton’s re-election campaign.

Carlbom said his group won’t buy major television ads this year as it did in 2012, and that he’s more focused on keeping members of the group’s statewide volunteer network engaged and enthusiastic, so they can serve as boots on the ground in critical legislative districts.

As for a messaging strategy, Carlbom said one hasn’t been formulated yet.

“We’re ensuring ourselves the maximum amount of flexibility,” he said.