EDITORIAL: Lesson in grassroots politics

In the nation's socially conservative heartland, Minnesota voters were the first to reject a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which had passed in 30 states. Opponents of same-sex marriage had won every popular vote until then, including in California.

And on Wednesday, Minnesota state legislators followed up and approved same-sex marriage, the first non-coastal legislature to do so. They did it with Republican votes, including a Republican co-sponsor.

Interestingly, California was part of the Minnesota fight, providing two consultants who had been on opposite sides of our state's Proposition 8 campaign: Frank Schubert, who had led every successful campaign to ban same-sex marriage, and Phyllis Watts, a psychologist who does consulting.

Significantly, Schubert's well-worn 11th-hour scare tactic about schools and children -- perfected in the Prop. 8 campaign and exported to the rest of the country -- failed.

The other side effectively drew on the real journeys of Minnesotans on the marriage issue. In one ad, a middle-aged Minnesotan looks straight into the camera and says, "My marriage is the most important thing in my life. Who am I to deny that to anybody, gay or straight. I'm not going to limit a basic freedom just because I'm uncomfortable."

In another, a Catholic man and woman, who are Republicans and married 13 years with three kids, talked about the importance of marriage to them and how they hadn't thought a lot about same-sex marriage. However, a gay couple with an adopted son were "the most wonderful neighbors" and it didn't faze their children at all.

But the game-changer was how the campaign facilitated grassroots, participatory conversation in local communities.

Watts was part of a team digging into how people were struggling with the marriage issue, what were stumbling blocks and how to overcome them. The campaign trained tens of thousands of volunteers how to talk respectfully and listen to their friends, neighbors and family about why marriage matters to them.

Watts told The Sacramento Bee's editorial board that "the Minnesota marriage campaign will change how issue campaigns are done" and showed how grassroots campaigns can be turned into lasting legislative accomplishments.

To win bipartisan support for the marriage bill, a last-minute Republican-offered amendment inserted the word "civil" in front of the word "marriage," to make it clear that civil marriage and religious marriage are different things. The bill outlined specific protections for clergy and religious organizations that don't want to perform same-sex marriages.

The power of conversation and grassroots organizing returned in Minnesota, offering an antidote to monied, Astroturf campaigns that dominate our politics, and providing a lesson to the rest of the nation.