A Midwestern Mayor Evangelizes for Gay Marriage — and Its Economic Bonanza

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak wants every state to legalize same-sex nuptials, but he's perfectly happy to reap the rewards for his own city in the meantime

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Stacy Bengs / AP

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, center, officiates at the wedding of Al Giraud and his partner Jeff Isaacson at the Minneapolis City Hall on Aug. 1, 2013

Gay-marriage proponents often mention the millions of dollars in economic activity same-sex weddings generate. But Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is making that message into an aggressive regional campaign for his city.

Rybak is currently on the second leg of a three-state tour throughout Midwest and Mountain states in an attempt to entice same-sex couples to marry in Minneapolis. Minnesota became the second state in the region to legalize same-sex marriage on Aug. 1 and only the 13th in the U.S., and many Minnesota local officials want to make sure out-of-state couples know that their chapels, hotels and wedding planners are open for business.

From April 2009 until this year, Iowa was the only Midwestern state where same-sex couples could get married. For several years it’s been an island in the middle of the country as gay marriage gained ground on the coasts. In the year after the state legalized gay marriage, 866 Iowa couples married there while 1,233 came from out-of-state to do the same, bringing in an additional $13 million to the state’s economy, according to UCLA’s Williams Institute, a think tank focusing on LGBT issues and public policy.

(MORE: Christians for Gay Marriage Launch ‘Not All Like That’ Campaign)

Scott Stevens, owner of iowasgayweddingplanner.com, says up until just a few months ago, he was working with 20 to 30 couples in booking hotels, ordering cakes and reserving event spaces for marriage ceremonies. But since the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June, business has doubled, and 75% of his clients are from out of state.

“Even before the ruling, we were getting bombarded,” Stevens says. “But with the fall of DOMA, we’re seeing so many more couples.” He’s now working with about 50 couples at a time.

Stevens says since Minnesota legalized gay marriage, he hasn’t seen a dip in business, largely because he gets a lot of couples from the South, and Iowa still remains the closest state that has legalized same-sex marriage.

Rybak hopes to see a similar boon for his city. On Monday, Rybak will visit Madison, Wis., where he’ll get a warm reception, at least from Mayor Paul Soglin. In fact, Rybak’s conference will be held in his office.

“The states that recognize gay marriage are getting significant benefits in regards to their economy,” says Soglin, a Democrat. “But couples are doing more than just participating in a ceremony in those states. They’re moving there, establishing themselves as residents, establishing businesses. They’re contributing to those communities. I’m deeply concerned that here in Wisconsin we’re going to have a brain drain, a culture drain.”

(COVER STORY: How Gay Marriage Won)

Rybak also plans to visit Milwaukee on Monday and travel to Denver next week. But the first leg of his same-sex-marriage tour brought him to Chicago, and he came armed with stats. Rybak cites numbers showing that Illinois could bring in an additional $100 million if it were to legalize same-sex marriage. “But since that’s not going to wake them up,” he says, “my idea is we’ll take the first $10 million, and once they wisen up, they can have the rest of the $90 million.”

He’s not just on a mission to bring money back to Minnesota. Rybak says he’s also trying to pressure neighboring states to pass gay-marriage bills.

“My job isn’t to get involved in Illinois politics,” Rybak says. “My job is to try to bring dollars back to my city. But I personally believe passionately that the people who built my city and Chicago and other cities deserve the same rights my wife and I have.”

On Thursday, Rybak appeared on local morning TV shows and public-radio broadcasts in Chicago while also meeting with leaders in the gay community. Along with the other cities on his tour, he’s taken a page from the Rick Perry “I’m coming for your business” playbook. The Republican Texas governor has made it a point to attract businesses located in states like California and Illinois, which have higher tax rates than Texas, to relocate down south. But Rybak’s trip is a more muted approach to bringing dollars to Minnesota, one rooted in his own personal beliefs on same-sex marriage. The Minneapolis mayor personally married 46 same-sex couples on the first day it was legal to do so in his state.

“Unlike Governor Perry or [Wisconsin Governor Scott] Walker, who come to Illinois and assault the business climate,” Rybak says, “I want Chicago and Illinois to take the strategic advantage away from Minneapolis.”

(MORE: Thank Republicans for Gay Marriage in Minnesota)

When the Illinois general assembly reconvenes next month, same-sex marriage will likely be one of several major topics debated. Proponents of gay marriage pushed hard for state legislators to take up the issue last spring before the assembly adjourned for the summer. Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat, has pledged to sign a same-sex-marriage bill if it reaches his desk, and while the state senate has approved such a bill, the house has not. Rybak’s high-profile visit to Chicago may have given a lift to those hoping to reintroduce it this fall.

“I think this should really be a heads-up to my colleagues in the general assembly of things yet to come,” says Illinois state representative Greg Harris, a Democrat from Chicago.

Harris, who is gay and a strong supporter of same-sex marriage, also makes an economic argument for marriage equality. He says Illinois will struggle to attract the kinds of knowledge-based businesses it’s going after without gay marriage, especially in the tech and finance sectors. Harris argues that not only is gay marriage an important issue for a number of younger employees in those fields, but that without same-sex-marriage recognition, businesses often have to create two separate benefits systems to deal with those who are lawfully married under state law and gay couples who aren’t recognized. A number of companies made similar claims this summer as the Supreme Court took up and ultimately struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, extending federal benefits to same-sex couples for the first time.

If Illinois enacts a gay-marriage law, it would likely see similar economic benefits as Minnesota, just on a larger scale. In the first month since Minnesota legalized gay marriage, according to the Associated Press, 1 of 3 marriage licenses issued in the state went to same-sex couples. The Williams Institute estimates that same-sex marriage will bring $42 million in economic activity to Minnesota. In Illinois, it could bring in more than $100 million.

But for now, Rybak is more than happy to invite same-sex couples up north.

“Chicago is my kind of town, but it’s a second city for human rights,” he says. “If this city doesn’t give the rights they deserve, come up to Minneapolis. We’re happy to have you.”

MORE: Why Opposition to Gay Marriage Isn’t Swinging Minnesota Romney’s Way

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