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Gay political donors move from margins to mainstream

Both President Obama's campaign and gay activists reject the idea that his endorsement of same-sex marriage was tied to fundraising. But there's no doubt that the community's influence has broadened.

May 13, 2012|By Melanie Mason, Matea Gold and Joseph Tanfani
  • President Obama is seen on a monitor in the White House briefing room on Wednesday, when he told an ABC interviewer that he supports same-sex marriage.
President Obama is seen on a monitor in the White House briefing room on Wednesday,… (Carolyn Kaster, Associated…)

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."

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