The Gay Goodfellas
Inside the Gill Action Fund, the most effective pro-gay political weapon you never heard of.
By Kerry Eleveld
June 19, 2008
Patrick Guerriero and Bill Smith of the Gill Action Fund have a problem. Guerriero, former leader of the Log Cabin Republicans and onetime candidate for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, and Smith, a political consultant and former employee of Karl Rove, want LGBT people to understand their strategy for winning equal rights -- a targeted approach to developing what they call “fair-minded majorities” in state legislatures across the country. During the 2006 election, the first cycle in which the organization set its sights on state legislative races, control of 13 state chambers switched hands. Ten were Democratic takeovers -- chambers that are now more likely to make gay-friendly decisions.
Smith and Guerriero want to get that story out, yes, but they don’t want Gill Action to be a centerpiece of the article, nor do they want any of its internal or external machinations to be revealed. No focusing on Gill Action’s founder, Tim Gill, a self-made millionaire who by all accounts is exceedingly modest and usually ducks the press at all costs. No naming any of the state legislators the organization helped to elect in 2006, lest those candidates find themselves in the cross hairs of the Christian right in the next election. They won’t disclose the states they worked in during the last election cycle, and in terms of 2008, they’re willing to discuss only two states in which they will be active: Florida, where Gill Action will be playing defense against a constitutional marriage amendment; and Massachusetts, where they will be helping to reelect Democratic and Republican legislators who had voted to protect the state’s same-sex marriage law. And although I can talk to one of their donors, I can’t name that person in print. Any breach of confidentiality there might scare off future donors or, perhaps worse, let the opposition know where Gill will strike next.
Essentially, Guerriero and Smith want to turn their face to the sunlight ever so briefly, then retreat to the shadowy world of politics to work in virtual anonymity -- developing a hit list of the community’s worst enemies, identifying our best friends, and doing whatever has to be done to get the next hate-crimes bill passed or constitutional amendment killed at the state level.
As a journalist, I felt like they were tying both hands behind my back and smashing my recorder. It would be nearly impossible to verify just how much of an impact they were really having. These were the good guys, I reminded myself, forced to use the same brass-knuckle tactics pioneered by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove. And who better to take the weapons Rove and Gingrich deployed against LGBT people -- and train them back on conservatives -- than a couple guys who came up through the GOP ranks?
Gill Action, in my estimation, bears some resemblance to GOPAC, the political action committee Gingrich wielded to obtain the GOP’s landslide victories in 1994, when -- along with taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in four decades -- Republicans stormed state legislatures to seize power in 18 chambers. In the 2006 election, by its own account, Gill Action’s nationwide donor base directed some $2.8 million to 68 candidates across 11 states. And 56 of those candidates won -- presumably knocking out 56 other candidates who weren’t so friendly with the gays.
Gill Action isn’t the financial juggernaut that GOPAC was, nor does it have the sweeping ideological agenda of Gingrich’s Contract With America. But Gill’s emphasis on growing power from the bottom up -- planting one school board member or city council person at a time until Congress is eventually overrun by politicians who support LGBT rights -- is strikingly similar to the way GOPAC helped create a Congress full of pols who had been vetted by the Christian right before rising up through the GOP ranks. It was Gingrich’s revolution that laid a foundation for the Rovian politics of fear that has locked gays out of relationship recognition at the state level nearly across the country.
In the course of my conversation with Guerriero and Smith, I hesitatingly offer up the Newt analogy, thinking that few self-respecting LGBT activists -- of Republican persuasion or not -- would welcome the comparison. Instead, Smith and Guerriero flash a glance at each other. Far from drawing a distinction, Smith offers, “We’re not afraid to learn from anyone across the political spectrum who’s doing really smart work, be it EMILY’s List or GOPAC.” Sure, you could call these guys activists, but what Smith just gave me is neither gay nor straight. It’s the response of a political operative.
Marilyn Musgrave, Colorado congresswoman and child of the Gingrich revolution, cut her teeth in elective office as a school board member in 1991 focusing on abstinence-only education. She graduated to the Colorado state house and senate before winning her U.S. congressional bid in 2002. Two years later she authored and introduced the first Federal Marriage Amendment.
Representative Musgrave has since survived two takedown attempts by Tim Gill and several other progressive millionaires who threw millions in negative advertising at her races in 2004 and 2006. (One ad famously depicted an actress dressed like Musgrave stealing a watch from a corpse in an open casket -- a direct jab at her vote to tax funeral homes in the state.) The attacks have taken their toll, and Colorado politicians have taken note: Musgrave’s margin of victory in the last election shrank to just over two percentage points in the highly conservative fourth district, where voters should wholeheartedly embrace her ideology.
But Guerriero says that’s not good enough. “What if Marilyn Musgrave p were taken out of office when she was running for school board or the state legislature of Colorado?” he posits. The answer of course is that someone else, who might not have been so virulently antigay, would be representing Colorado in Congress right now.
Tim Gill’s first political wake-up call came when Colorado voters passed a 1992 measure that banned any antidiscrimination protection for gays, prompting him to found the Gill Foundation in 1994 and begin investing in organizations dedicated to securing LGBT equal rights. But it was the Musgraves of the world and the overreaching Christian right that prodded Gill to apply his business acumen to the realm of campaigns and elections. Candidates of the far right had gotten too personal, and no matter how large your war chest, it was next to impossible to slay the beasts once they were already wreaking havoc in Washington.
Guerriero explains that until Tim Gill founded Gill Action in 2005, the queer equality movement was largely focused on charitable giving to 501(c)(3) organizations and what he calls “emergency (c)(4) spending” around ballot initiatives such as the spate of marriage amendments that swept the country in 2004. Named after their tax code designations, (c)(3) and (c)(4) organizations are both designated as nonprofits, but (c)(3)s, such as Lambda Legal and the United Way, are prohibited from any type of political giving. In contrast, (c)(4)s, like Gill Action and the Christian Coalition, can contribute to campaigns, candidates, and other political action committees.
In other words, gays and lesbians were giving plenty of money to nonprofit organizations. But they were pushing cash directly at electoral politics only when the movement was already down in a defensive crouch, fighting antigay amendments and the like.
“Meanwhile,” says Guerriero, “our opponents were fielding school board candidates, knocking out pro-gay candidates at the state level, building an infrastructure of grassroots people who called every time an antigay bill was promoted and [creating] an effective lobbying universe so that each statehouse you walked into, they had three or four people running around funded by the Family Research Council and their local alliances for marriage.”
Gill Action was intended to address the LGBT movement’s most troubling deficits: its inability to provide direct candidate support, put lobbyists on the ground, and attract backing even from politicians who were genuinely pro-gay but too intimidated to act on it.
“It’s easier for U.S. senators and representatives to vote for our rights when they come from states that have passed pro-LGBT legislation and see that the sky hasn’t fallen,” explains Guerriero, adding that a whole crop of politicians now coming up have already taken courageous stands on marriage bills and safe-schools acts in their state legislatures. “There has been a debate in our community about engaging in federal versus state politics,” he continues. “We don’t view it as a conflict. For too long, though, our community expected some federal epiphany, and it’s now crystal clear that we won’t achieve full equality without significant work in the states.”
Asked which organization Gill Action most resembles, Guerriero and Smith stumble a bit trying to find a good comparison. It’s not a membership-based organization like the Human Rights Campaign, because even though it has a donor network, those donors don’t give money to Gill Action. Instead, they send their money directly to candidates that Gill Action has handpicked as pro-gay, in races that have been deemed strategically important. The donor base, said by insiders to be several hundred people strong and growing, is the sacred lifeblood of the organization.
Gill Action is also more than a political action committee. Beyond simply pumping money into LGBT equality organizations, Gill provides political counsel in everything from lobbying to field operations. Guerriero chimes in, “It’s kind of a campaign team that isn’t going to exist forever.” In one state where it was working to help pass a civil rights bill, for instance, Gill Action facilitated “patch-through” calling to legislators, where people would be polled to find out if they cared about LGBT equal rights and, if so, would be transferred straight through to their legislator’s office. That bill passed, according to Smith and Guerriero, though they decline to name the state in which it did. “Sophisticated operations made sure legislators heard not just from constituents, but the right constituents,” says Smith. “That’s not an operation that the movement has typically invested a lot of money in, but it’s the type of thing that is critical to professionalize our political work.”
Guerriero then ticks off some of Gill Action’s unique attributes. The focus is intentionally bipartisan, and so is its leadership team. Beyond Guerriero, the executive director, and Smith, the national political director, the organization’s chief operating officer is Robin Brand, previously senior vice president of politics and strategy of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and a former Democratic National Committee political director for the Northeast region. Tobacco lobbyist and corporate attorney Ted Trimpa, who has been tagged as “Colorado’s answer to Karl Rove,” serves as Tim Gill’s political adviser. It has a single benefactor in Tim Gill, who funds the entire operation, so the team doesn’t look for publicity because they don’t need it (publicity usually being a function of fund-raising). In fact, exposure mostly stands to hinder their progress, since too much information about what races they are focusing on is like handing intel to the Christian right. The mission is simple -- to pass legislation that advances and enhances the quality of life for LGBT people across the country.
One of the most critical parts of passing pro-gay legislation or defeating discriminatory initiatives is supporting politicians who have stood strong on LGBT issues. After Vermont’s legislators passed the first civil unions law in 2000, 17 incumbents famously lost their seats in the “Take Back Vermont” war waged by angry conservatives. Since then, ground zero for protecting the community’s political allies has been Massachusetts, where ever since the 2003 court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, opponents have mounted successive campaigns to pass a ballot measure to constitutionally limit marriage to heterosexual couples. The initiative has now been defeated twice with the help of 195 legislators who rejected putting the amendment on the ballot.
Remarkably, in the two elections following the votes, not a single one of those legislators has lost reelection. “There’ve been 195 elections for legislators that voted for marriage equality -- and we’ve won all 195 of those elections,” says Marc Solomon, campaign director for Mass-Equality. “We’ve never lost an election of a pro-equality incumbent.” In fact, they’ve picked up some pro-equality seats along the way: Six were won in 2004, and in 2006, when Gill Action worked with MassEquality, another five pro-gay legislators were elected.
But the fight to save seats in Massachusetts isn’t over yet. In a January 2007 joint session of the state senate and house, legislators met the 50-vote threshold needed to move the anti–gay marriage initiative forward -- one of two legislative votes required in Massachusetts to put a measure on the ballot. Solomon recalls how quickly Gill Action responded at the time: “Right after that loss in the legislature, Patrick Guerriero and the folks at Gill Action called and said, ‘We want to support your work to keep this amendment off the ballot. We’re going to be with you every step of the way.’ ” Beyond pumping about $200,000 into MassEquality in 2007, Gill Action challenged the organization to come up with a strategy that involved extensive polling, personally targeted lobbying efforts, and a sophisticated media plan.
Guerriero, a former GOP legislator in the Bay State himself, also offered some critical guidance. “I looked at the road map to win and I could not conceive of a way to win without bipartisan support,” he says. “The movement didn’t have a great track record in getting there, so that was the very first thing to focus on.”
Guerriero encouraged MassEquality and the state’s Log Cabin chapter not to assume that Republicans who had green-lighted the initiative initially couldn’t be won over eventually. He also advised both outfits to thoroughly research key legislators and make sure they were having direct conversations with them. “Gill Action helped us professionalize our lobbying efforts, and they supported us in hiring both Democratic and Republican lobbyists -- very bipartisan work,” says Solomon.
MassEquality ended up targeting 15 legislators to switch their vote. “We hired all these field staff so that they could go into these districts and find out what really made these guys tick,” says Solomon. “Who were their friends? Who were their allies? Who did they listen to? In that super-microtargeted kind of way.” One state senator was a sailing enthusiast, so they found people at his yacht club who would speak to him from a gay rights perspective. Another was a Broadway buff, so they enlisted Wicked author Gregory Maguire -- a Massachusetts resident who had married his male partner in 2004 -- to talk to him. “The only way we could find out that information was to have people on the ground, getting to know these legislators,” explains Solomon.
By the time the next vote was taken on June 14, 2007, LGBT activists had managed to change the minds of nine legislators who had voted just five months earlier to place the amendment on the ballot. The measure went down to an unexpected defeat. The far right was stunned by their sudden reversal of fortune.
“This didn’t happen over years,” Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, told The Boston Globe. “This was over the last few days. We were absolutely outgunned with financial resources.” Mineau vowed to knock out four of the nine legislators -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- who he said had run for office on promises to support the constitutional ban.
Guerriero knew the Massachusetts saga had turned a corner when Mineau and his conservative allies chose to focus their energy on seeking retribution rather than making another attempt to place the ban on the ballot.
“It doesn’t mean our job is done there -- we need to make sure folks get reelected,” says Guerriero, “but for the first time I heard the other side say, ‘We’ve lost, and the best we can do is punish a handful of people.'”
Playing defense is an important exercise in building courage among gay allies -- politicians need to know that a vote for LGBT rights, however noble, isn’t a career-ender. But offense -- switching out pols who vote against LGBT equality for ones who back the community -- can literally reverse the fortunes of a state. It’s also the domain over which Gill Action is most protective, because any information leak could tip off conservatives.
Smith and Guerriero won’t confirm where they directed Gill Action’s donor base in the 2006 cycle. But by way of example, three states that have shown night-and-day progress since Democrats took control of the legislature that year are Iowa, Oregon, and New Hampshire. Prior to 2006, New Hampshire and Iowa were debating bans on same-sex relationship recognition, and Oregon’s domestic-partnership bill had been blocked by Republicans in the statehouse. That all changed when Democrats regained control of both chambers in New Hampshire and Iowa and flipped the house in Oregon. Since then, Oregon has enacted its domestic-partnership bill along with an equal rights bill that had been stalled for 34 years; New Hampshire has passed a civil unions measure and signed it into law; and Iowa has enacted both an LGBT civil rights law and legislation to protect LGBT students from being bullied.
Though Gill Action claimed victory in only 56 of the 5,000-plus legislative races in 2006, experts say wins in the right races can make a big difference in terms of party control. “If they’re the right candidates, if you pick the right 60 to 75 seats, you start to move chambers, and chamber control is what matters,” says Tim Storey, senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Storey says another 5,000-plus state seats -- or nearly 80% of the legislative seats nationwide -- are up for grabs in 2008, and 30% to 40% of those will actually be competitive, though it’s too early in the cycle to get specific.
Presently, Democrats control both chambers in 23 state legislatures, Republicans control 14, and 12 are divided.
(Nebraska’s legislature is nonpartisan.) The 10 chambers Democrats picked up in 2006 helped to stem the steady erosion they had suffered at the state level over the past 20 years. (Storey says Democrats had held more state seats than the GOP for nearly 50 years before Republicans finally capitalized on Gingrich’s 1994 landslide of wins and tipped the balance in 2002 by picking up a net of 177 seats that year.)
Even though conventional wisdom says Democrats should be sailing with the wind at their backs again in 2008, Storey warns of a headwind. “The problem for them is that all of the low-hanging fruit is gone -- all the seats they would take without a ton of effort in a positive environment, they did that two years ago,” he observes. “Now their challenge is to win seats where they really have to work and to hold the seats they won in 2006.”
The upside for Democrats is the unprecedented voter registration sparked by the epic primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle see the turnout factor as a wild card in the general election. “Democrats of course are enthused and buoyed by this, and Republicans are concerned and somewhat terrified of being swamped by this huge influx of Democratic voters who will just vote Democratic right down the ticket,” says Storey.
Another thing both parties have their eye on is the redistricting process in 2011 -- a potent political tool that allows whichever party is in power to redraw the lines of voting districts more advantageously. Although one more round of state elections will follow the 2008 vote, Storey notes, “Democrats are really in a strong position going into this round of elections to set the table for the redistricting of 2011.” Granted, it’s not a done deal. If history is any indicator, whichever party controls the White House in 2010 is also likely to lose ground at the state level. Storey notes that in 2002, George W. Bush became the only president whose party did not lose legislative seats in a midterm election since 1938, though Clinton came one seat away from bucking the historic trend in 1998.
While no one at Gill is giving out the 2008 game plan, Storey names some states that are at the tipping point: Democratic gains could be made in the Montana and Nevada senates; and to varying degrees, Democrats also might grab control of the house chambers in Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Montana, Ohio, and Texas. Meanwhile, Republicans will be looking to pick up seats in the house chambers of Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. The GOP also has a chance of flipping the Oklahoma senate as well as the Iowa house and senate.
But it’s New York, whose senate chamber has been under Republican rule since 1974, that’s a perfect target for Gill Action. The margin to achieve a flip in control there -- one seat -- is both small and achievable, and an important LGBT measure hangs in the balance.
New York is currently in a two-way race with New Jersey to become the first state to legislatively legalize same-sex marriage without having been instructed to do so by court order.
(California’s legislature has twice passed marriage equality bills, but both were vetoed by Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.) With a Democrat-controlled assembly that has already once passed the bill and a Democratic governor, David Paterson, who has been on record in favor of marriage equality since 1994, the state senate remains the final hurdle to sealing the deal.
New York’s state assembly passed the marriage bill for the first time on June 19, 2007, with 81 Democrats and four Republicans voting to legalize same-sex marriage. “If any one of them loses their seat, it makes no difference what else happens, the political perception will be that they lost because of that vote, which makes us the third rail of New York politics,” says assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, who carried the bill. “I’m on a mission to make sure those 85 people who voted yes come back in January.” To that end O’Donnell says that he’s talking to anyone who will listen across the country to raise money, including Gill. “I’ve had discussions with Gill Action about the need to bring the assembly members back, and I’m hoping that before the election they’ll see fit to shake it loose.”
It’s no secret that Gill Action has had discussions with the Empire State Pride Agenda and with Democratic senate minority leader Malcolm Smith, who heads up the state’s Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. Tim Gill has already cut a $50,000 check to the DSCC, Gill Action funneled another $50,000 to the Pride Agenda, and New York State legislators in both the senate and the assembly are almost certain to be on Gill Action’s hot picks list for donors.
Democratic control of the senate wouldn’t necessarily be a magic bullet for passing a marriage bill, but most LGBT activists wager that it would hasten the process. And though New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg -- a former Democrat turned Republican who has now gone independent -- wrote a personal check for $500,000 to the state’s Senate Republican Campaign Committee early this year, Dems have been steadily chipping away at the GOP seat advantage in the senate chamber for the last few election cycles.
It’s an uphill battle either way. According to the Pride Agenda’s legislative scorecard, 19 of the 62 legislators publicly support the marriage bill. Another two are leaning toward support, and 10 more form the “movable middle” -- not saying one way or the other. Even if all 12 of those fence-sitters voted yes -- an unlikely scenario -- the bill would still be one vote shy of the 32 needed to pass. From an LGBT standpoint, replacing some of the 31 who have indicated they’re against marriage makes the most sense, says O’Donnell. “We need to replace some of the older state senators with younger, more progressive people who are more in touch with their constituencies.”
Democratic strategists are bullish on their chances this year. Doug Forand of Red Horse Strategies, the polling firm for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, says New York State has been leaning Democratic for years, and the shift is growing. “It’s most pronounced in the suburbs surrounding New York City, where what was once bedrock Republican is now shifting very strongly and very quickly to Democratic alignment,” he says.
Forand says Democrats are eyeing at least six GOP senate seats where they presently feel they have a good shot this fall in Long Island, Queens, Monroe County, Nassau County, and an open seat upstate.
These races are exactly the type of game-changers where LGBT political activists from across the country could have directed their money in the past; but prior to Gill Action, such races were nearly impossible to track.
A Gill donor who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity says he has given money politically for years, but mostly at the federal level. “I studied politics and I read a lot about politics, but in terms of knowing what the specific data are and how well candidates are doing and whether it’s a good investment of my time and energy, that I don’t follow as closely,” he says. “I felt that I was doing some good, but in federal races, your limited dollars have a smaller impact.”
After he attended the first conference where Gill Action rolled out its path to equality to about 300 potential donors in the spring of 2006, the lightbulb went off. “I was thinking, Thank God, this is the first time I’ve had a sense that maybe the political dollars that I’m giving are going to make a strategic difference,” he says. That cycle, he invested nearly $50,000 at state-level races across 11 states, mostly maxing out on Gill picks in $200, $500, and $1,000 increments. “You can make a difference with $500 in some state races, and even if you gave the max to a Senate or a House candidate at the federal level, you don’t even move the needle,” he says, adding that his investment in national races has declined significantly. He estimates that federal donations used to make up about three quarters of his political giving, whereas now he directs closer to 10% at federal races.
YOU DON’T SAY
Asked about spending mounds of his own money to help Democrats take control of the Colorado legislature in 2004, Rutt Bridges, who along with Tim Gill and two other millionaires poured about $1.5 million into state races that year, answered, “I think Democrats were just sick of showing up for a gunfight with a knife.”
In 2006, when I first reported on a group of LGBT millionaires, including Gill, lavishing literally millions of dollars on that year’s state races, the article drew mixed responses in the reader comments online. They ranged from the ebullient “Thank you, billionaires!” to the skeptical “So, let us review: reclusive millionaires who wish to pour millions into electoral campaigns in order to influence elections in pursuit of their personal ideologies. And this is a good thing. Hmmmm.”
What wasn’t as clear then as it is now was the raw potential of Gill Action’s donor base. Wealthy people of any political persuasion can gift unseemly sums to political action committees and “527” groups, most of which goes toward funding political ads and buying airtime; but because of spending caps in state election laws, the direct candidate support they can provide is profoundly limited. The great innovation of the donor network for the LGBT movement is that, to an extent, it has democratized the state investment strategy -- sharing highly specialized intelligence on which races can move “the gay agenda” with people who have some expendable income to give, even if it isn’t millions.
Not surprisingly, Gill Action won’t disclose any information about its donor base, its heft, or the review process for joining the network, other than the fact that there is one. But Bill Smith assures me that if, for instance, I tried to join the network in order to access the list of races they’re targeting, my status as a journalist would surely bounce me.
During my last conversation with Smith, he said he hoped the organization hadn’t been too difficult to work with. No doubt they had as many qualms about doing this story from a strategist’s point of view as I did from a journalistic standpoint. Much of what they relayed had to be taken on good faith, and many things that could be confirmed couldn’t actually be printed in the article. What kind of journalist would agree to this? Ultimately, I made the same bargain that Gill Action did: Some information was better than none.
Having followed these guys for two years, what I still can’t say is whether Gill Action can prime Congress to be pro-gay in the same way that Gingrich’s GOPAC delivered more than a decade of GOP dominance.
That’s the bet a growing army of Gill donors is making. Of course, exactly how big that army is, they won’t say.