Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Gay Philanthropists Making A Difference in Elections

The Atlantic Monthly (subscription only) has an interesting article about the work of Tim Gill and his friends. Gill is a wealthy, retired (young) software magnate who also happens to be gay. Gill came out to his conservative Republican parents as a teenager and they were completely accepting so he lived a relatively uneventful adolescent life. His math skills led him to computers and with a small loan from his parents he founded a software company, Quark, that made him rich.

Like many progressive activists he has a history of supporting gay-friendly national candidates, but he was disappointed that his money seemed to have no effect. So:

Gill decided to find out how he could become more effective and enlisted as his political counselor an acerbic lawyer and former tobacco lobbyist named Ted Trimpa, who is Colorado’s answer to Karl Rove. Trimpa believes that the gay-rights community directs too much of its money to thoroughly admirable national candidates who don’t need it, while neglecting less compelling races that would have a far greater impact on gay rights—a tendency he calls “glamour giving.” Trimpa cited the example of Barack Obama: an attractive candidate, solid on gay rights, and viscerally exciting to donors. It feels good to write him a check. An analysis of Obama’s 2004 Senate race, which he won by nearly fifty points, had determined that gays contributed more than $500,000. “The temptation is always to swoon for the popular candidate,” Trimpa told me, “but a fraction of that money, directed at the right state and local races, could have flipped a few chambers. ‘Just because he’s cute’ isn’t a strategy.”

Together, Gill and Trimpa decided to eschew national races in favor of state and local ones, which could be influenced in large batches and for much less money. Most antigay measures, they discovered, originate in state legislatures. Operating at that level gave them a chance to “punish the wicked,” as Gill puts it—to snuff out rising politicians who were building their careers on antigay policies, before they could achieve national influence. Their chief cautionary example of such a villain is Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who once compared homosexuality to “man on dog” sex (and was finally defeated last year, at a cost of more than $20 million). Santorum got his start working in the state legislature. As Gill and Trimpa looked at their evolving plan, it seemed realistic. “The strategic piece of the puzzle we’d been missing—consistent across almost every legislature we examined—is that it’s often just a handful of people, two or three, who introduce the most outrageous legislation and force the rest of their colleagues to vote on it,” Gill explained. “If you could reach these few people or neutralize them by flipping the chamber to leaders who would block bad legislation, you’d have a dramatic effect.”

In 2004 Gill tested out the strategy in Colorado by quietly targeting a few state races. His efforts helped Democrats take both houses. (Although it is important to note that Gill's group of philanthropists is bi-partisan; they will support progressive Republicans as well.) In 2006 Gill and his group targeted 70 conservative state legislators and 50 of them were defeated, helping four state houses switch party leadership.

Gill is planning to expand his efforts in 2008. While he cares about the Presidential race, he will be concentrating on laying the groundwork for more statehouse wins to eventually set the stage for a rollback of anti-gay marriage amendments. And stopping the Rick Santorams of the world in local elections is a very worthy effort.

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