February 10, 2007
An independent voice in Washington
Posted by: Chris
Kudos to Atlantic Monthly for luring reclusive gay philanthropist Tim Gill out for a long-form interview that adds a much-needed perspective to how gay Americans might best strategize for equality. Gill, who made his fortune on Quark software, has been devoted full-time to philanthropy through his Denver-based Gill Foundation since selling his stake in the company six years ago.
But after dissatisfaction with the results from donating large sums to existing gay groups and political parties, Gill hired his own political strategists and embarked on something of an experiment. First motivated by anti-gay ballot measures in Colorado, Gill invested his money directly where the action was: trying to stop statewide constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.
But seeing the long odds there, he and his advisers looked more closely at the situation and saw that, although these measures get broad support at the polls, they are typically generated by only a few local politicians who use the social issue of gay marriage to drum up dollars and build larger political careers. As they advance, they only wreak further havoc on gay people at a higher level. Think Rick Santorum.
So beginning in 2004, Gill aimed at cutting off these careers early on, identifying the loudest anti-gay politicians from the most vulnerable local districts, and he poured large sums of money into knocking them off. And after years of networking with other gay philanthropers, he got them to follow suit.
The result, according to Atlantic Monthly, was extraordinary:
In 2004, [Gill] quietly targeting three anti-gay Colorado incumbents; two of them went down. Through the combined efforts of a host of progressive interest groups, including many supported by Gill, Democrats captured both chambers of the legislature for the first time in forty years. Gill’s decision to back Democrats in Colorado was the only choice that would produce the gay-tolerant leadership he’s pursuing. But ten years from now, he told me, he hopes he’ll be able to give evenly to Republicans and Democrats.
In 2006, Gill went even bigger, targeting some 70 vulnerable anti-gay incumbents and other races that might affect who controls a state legislature. The results were even more extraordinary:
In the 2006 elections, on a level where a few thousand dollars can decide a close race, Gill’s universe of donors injected more than $3 million, providing in some cases more than 20 percent of a candidate’s or organization’s budget. On Election Day, 50 of the 70 targeted candidates were defeated … and out of the 13 states where Gill and his allies invested, four—Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Washington—saw control of at least one legislative chamber switch to the Democratic Party.
Even with the strong anti-incumbent, anti-Republican electorate, those are impressive results.
Two factors that set Gill and the Gill Action Fund, his political action committee, apart from dinosaurs like the Human Rights Campaign are GAF's constituency of one, and its independence from the Democratic Party. GAF has been headed since last year by Patrick Guerriero, the smart and talented former director of Log Cabin Republicans.
Gill and Guerriero harbor no illusions that money is well spent today on the anti-gay GOP leadership, but their independence means — and this is most critical — that their money is spent on gay rights priorities, not Democratic Party priorities. There are many times, of course, when these two interests coincide, often in deciding control of state legislatures and in many individual races.
But one key principle preached by Gill and GAF is that gay money is better spent down in the trenches, like conservative Christians have for decades, than on "the shiny bauble" of national politics, even when sirens like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama are calling.
That sort of strategy doesn't sit well with the "Massachusetts Gay Mafia" that runs HRC, or with leading gay Democrats like Jeff Soref, who complained to Atlantic Monthly that Gill's approach drained needed resources from Democrats:
"One of the problems with Tim’s strategy is that he’s turning people away from national politics at a time when Democrats have just achieved a big victory — one that we weren’t as big a part of as we might have been, perhaps because of his steering gay money away from the national level. I’ve personally gotten calls, pre- and postelection, from Democratic leaders who feel the gay community has not been as supportive in this election as in previous ones. There’s a tangible downside to disengaging. In a competitive environment, our issues may not get the attention we want them to get."
Soref has been an important critic of weak-kneed Democratic Party strategy on gay issues, but I couldn't side more strongly with Gill's independence over Soref's apologist thinking. Let's hope Democratic Party leaders noticed the missing pink dollars. It's frankly galling to hear that party leaders are paraphrasing Ms. Jackson — "What have you done for us lately?" — when that's exactly what we gays should be saying to them.
And as Gill Action Fund opens up a Washington office, the contrast with HRC couldn't be more striking. As HRC adopts a strategy modeled after labor unions beholden to Democratic Party crumbs even as the party fails to deliver on its priorities, Gill and GAF are putting their money where the action is: ballot measures that deal directly with our equality and races where our money can make the most difference.
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