Gay political donors move from margins to mainstream

Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — In 1988, well-heeled gay activists went to Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign with an offer to raise $1 million for his election effort.

The campaign said no, according to the activists. “They turned us down flat because it was gay money,” said longtime gay rights advocate David Mixner.

Less than a quarter-century later, the gay and lesbian community ranks as one of the most important parts of President Obama’s campaign-finance operation. The campaign has hosted a slew of events targeted at gay donors, from intimate dinners to extravagant galas. Wealthy gay business executives and philanthropists fill the ranks of Obama’s top bundlers. Twenty-one prominent gay individuals and couples raised a total of at least $7.4 million for the president’s reelection through the end of March.

Born of the desperate urgency of the AIDS crisis, the fundraising powerhouse assembled by the gay community has propelled its concerns to center stage. Both the Obama campaign and gay activists reject the suggestion that the president’s endorsement of same-sex marriage was tied to fundraising. But there is no doubt that a once-marginalized constituency is now mainstream, influencing electoral politics from city hall to the White House.

“People just have a better understanding and appreciation about how much impact they can have,” said Chuck Wolfe, president of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which works to elect openly gay and lesbian officials. Its budget has increased nearly sixfold in the last decade.

“They’re electing state legislators who can deal with marriage issues. They’re electing school board members who can talk about bullying,” Wolfe said.

Gay and lesbian support has overwhelmingly benefited Democratic candidates — an alliance bolstered by presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s reiteration last week that he opposes same-sex marriage.

The prominence of gays and lesbians as top donors has come as society’s views on homosexuality have dramatically shifted. But the community’s ascendance also reflects a “maturation” of gay political activism, said Dana Perlman, a co-chair of the Obama campaign’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Leadership Council, a fundraising committee.

“The LGBT community is more sophisticated and organized,” said Perlman, a Los Angeles attorney. “We’re more deliberate in what we’re doing.”

Early forays into political fundraising by gays and lesbians began in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, with activists such as Mixner, who helped launch the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles, or MECLA, the first political action committee financed by gays and lesbians. In 1980, organizers in Washington, D.C., started what was then called the Human Rights Campaign Fund to raise money for congressional candidates who supported gay rights.

For those involved, the cause was deeply personal — dozens of MECLA’s members died of AIDS over the years.

“Political fundraising in the gay and lesbian community started with AIDS, because our friends were dying and no one was paying attention,” said Hilary Rosen, a Washington consultant and early activist. “I don’t mean to minimize the energy around marriage or employment discrimination, but it’s hard for people to recall now how desperate we were, how many funerals we went to every month. We weren’t fundraising for power — we were fundraising for our lives.”

At first, it was “very difficult to get any gay people to contribute,” said James Hormel, a founding member of the HRC Fund, who went on to serve as a U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg in the Clinton administration. “People were afraid to be identified, so they stayed in the shadows.”

Many politicians were wary of publicly taking money from the gay and lesbian community. Even liberal Democrats in Los Angeles “would send the checks back,” Mixner said.

So it was striking in 1982 when former Vice President Walter Mondale delivered the keynote address at an HRC fundraising dinner in New York, openly cultivating gay support as he laid the groundwork for his 1984 presidential bid.

Relations between Dukakis and the gay community in 1988 were not as warm, though Dukakis and his former campaign officials said they had no recollection of turning down a gay fundraiser. (In an email, Dukakis noted that the following year he signed into law a bill that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, the second such measure in the country.)

In 1992, then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas thrilled activists when he held a large gay and lesbian fundraiser at Hollywood’s Palace nightclub. The event raised $100,000 — the largest single fundraiser ever by the gay community for a presidential contender, according to organizers.

“We have all come a long way tonight,” Mixner told the crowd as he introduced Clinton. “No one handed us this event tonight … we earned it, inch by inch, step by step, moment by moment.”

Another fundraising milestone came in 1997, when activists Jeff Soref and Andrew Tobias arranged a fundraising dinner at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel attended by Clinton and benefiting the Democratic National Committee. It was the first gay fundraiser attended by a sitting president, Soref and Tobias said.

“Until it was over, we couldn’t exhale,” said Tobias, now the DNC’s treasurer and an Obama bundler.

But much to the organizers’ chagrin, the White House and the DNC avoided identifying the event as a gay and lesbian event.

Such reticence persisted throughout the Clinton administration. Staff members often labeled events with gays and lesbians as “business council meetings” on his public schedule, said Paul Yandura, who worked in the Clinton White House and served as director of gay and lesbian outreach for his 1996 reelection campaign.

“They were skittish about it because this was something very new,” he said.

The community flexed its muscle again in 2003, when gay and lesbian supporters provided the early seed money for Howard Dean’s White House bid. As governor of Vermont, he had signed same-sex civil unions into law.

“There would not have been a Howard Dean presidential campaign without the gay and lesbian community,” said Stephanie Schriock, who served as Dean’s national finance director and is now president of Emily’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights.

Gay donors were slower to coalesce around Obama’s first presidential run. Many sided with Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Democratic primary.

But in this cycle, the Obama campaign has leaned heavily on a stable of high-profile gay and lesbian donors. The gay and lesbian leadership council, which in 2008 had two leaders, now has as many as a dozen co-chairs. Among Obama’s top fundraisers are such notable figures as Chicago Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts, software entrepreneur Tim Gill and former E-Trade President Kathy Levinson.

Financial support from gay and lesbian donors has been so generous — even before Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage — that in New York it has largely made up for the steep drop-off in Wall Street contributions, according to an Obama fundraiser.

Still, the president’s relationship with his gay financial backers has at times been rocky. Last year, at an event in New York just before that state legalized same-sex marriage, Obama declined to weigh in, noting that marriage has traditionally been left to the states. That drew heckling from the crowd.

“He flubbed it. Everybody recognized he flubbed it,” Soref said.

As time went on, Obama’s refusal to endorse same-sex marriage became an increasing drag on fundraising in the gay community, some bundlers said.

“It was the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” Soref said. “Why can’t you say it? You want my money but you’re not willing to treat me as equal?”

Obama’s decision to embrace same-sex marriage last week not only invigorated the gay and lesbian community but spurred conservative activists as well. Still, Romney said he did not think the issue should be used to solicit donations.

“I don’t think the matter of marriage is really a fundraising matter either for the president, and certainly is not for me,” Romney told Fox News.

But gay donors said their contributions had given them a chance to make their case. During a meeting of gay and lesbian supporters at the Los Angeles home of HBO executive Michael Lombardo last month, same-sex marriage advocate Chad Griffin pressed Vice President Joe Biden about his views. When Biden unexpectedly announced his support for gay marriage May 6 on “Meet the Press,” he noted how moved he had been to meet the two children of Lombardo and his husband, Sonny Ward.

That kind of access and an opportunity to make human connections is “what moves people,” said Griffin, the incoming president of Human Rights Campaign and a member of Obama’s national finance committee.

The president’s stance triggered a wave of donations to his campaign, fundraisers said, and a clamor of interest in a gay and lesbian gala scheduled for June 6 in Los Angeles. Tickets, expected to bring in millions of dollars, range from $1,250 to $12,500 a person.

“He would have been welcomed with open arms,” said Lombardo, who sits on the host committee organizing the event. “But now it will be with bear hugs.”