There is a gay agenda -- winning elections

Gay millionaires and their allies poured unprecedented sums into the 2006 election -- and it worked.

Published November 29, 2006 1:22PM (EST)

Five weeks before the 2004 election, Rep. Sue Kelly, N.Y.-19 , made what seemed to be a safe move for a six-term Republican congresswoman accustomed to winning reelection by comfortable margins. Like 226 other members of the U.S. House, she voted to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have altered the U.S. Constitution to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

Sure enough, the residents of Kelly's Hudson Valley district returned the moderate Republican to Congress that November with 67 percent of the vote. Voting for a constitutional amendment she had once vowed to oppose seemed to have few negative consequences for her politically -- and so she did it again in July 2006. To the degree either vote was noticed, they mostly helped quiet talk of a future GOP primary challenge from the right.

But at least one constituent who did take notice of what Kelly had done also took offense. This September, openly gay businessman Adam Rose wrote a $500,000 check to Majority Action, a so-called 527 political advocacy group, for the express purpose of unseating Sue Kelly in the November election.

"When she made that vote," explained Rose, "I took a look at the political environment, and I said there's nothing I can do about who's president. There's nothing I can do about the fact that Republicans control both houses [of Congress]. However, here is one thing I can have an impact on." Rose's half-million meant that Democratic challenger John Hall was actually able to compete with Kelly financially --- and topple the once-safe incumbent this past Election Day in a race decided by fewer than 5,000 votes.

Rose is one of five wealthy people in the top 20 donors to federal 527s this election cycle whose contributions were either partially or entirely motivated by an effort to combat anti-gay legislation and defeat anti-gay incumbents. They turned the 2006 election into an object lesson in targeted giving that could fundamentally change the way politicians think about the consequences of taking anti-gay stances. And the money they gave to federal 527s, while considerable, was in several cases only a small portion of the millions they spent on politics in 2006, since much of their cash went to low-profile but vitally important state-level races.

Rose, a New York real-estate developer whose father built Rose Associates into a multimillion-dollar company, finished 17th by giving $505,000. But his contributions were dwarfed by those of Ohio billionaire Peter Lewis, a retired insurance mogul who has a gay son. Lewis was the fifth-largest giver to federal 527s at $1.6 million, according to Medical supplies heir Jon Stryker of Michigan, who is openly gay, and his Colorado-based sister Pat finished eighth and 14th, donating $1.2 million and $605,000, respectively, this election cycle.

But both Jon Stryker and Rose were spurred to action by the example of the man who came in sixth on the list with $1.3 million, Colorado software millionaire Tim Gill. Lisa Turner, political director for Jon Stryker, confirms that Stryker was motivated by the generous and precedent-setting giving of Tim Gill, the openly gay founder of Quark Inc., in 2004. Adam Rose said he got the idea of targeting his local anti-gay congresswoman from Gill, and called him "my hero. It was his effort that I have never forgotten."

Gill, who is worth close to $500 million and does not speak to the press, made headlines two years ago when he took on the original architect and sponsor of the Federal Marriage Amendment, Colorado Rep. Marilyn Musgrave.

Gill formed a 527 called Colorado Families First along with Pat Stryker and two other software millionaires, including the openly gay cofounder of the Blue Mountain greeting cards Web site, Jared Polis. The group pumped millions into ads that disparaged Musgrave for things like voting against a pay raise for soldiers in Iraq.

"When these guys stepped up to the plate and spent close to $2 million on her ads -- and they ran them frequently -- that had an effect," said Robert Duffy, professor of political science at Colorado State University.

Musgrave survived, but with only 51 percent of the vote, down 4 points from her 2002 margin. And the assault on Musgrave was actually only a small part of a bigger effort by Gill and his three associates to reshape Colorado politics. In fact, the group that came to be known as the Four Millionaires had their real success in the Colorado state Legislature. Within Colorado, said Duffy, the "conventional wisdom" is that the 527s set up by Gill, Polis and Pat Stryker --- and the millions they lavished on state races -- helped Democrats win an extra seat in the house and seven in the Senate and take control of both chambers. "They very carefully selected a number of swing districts around the state, especially in the Denver suburbs, and won a bunch of them."

During this election cycle, Tim Gill upped his overall spending to $10 million. Some of it went to states such as Arizona and South Dakota where gay marriage bans were on the ballot. Arizona became the first state to defeat a constitutional marriage amendment.

But the heart of his giving, $5 million, was in Colorado. He again targeted Marilyn Musgrave and supported Democratic congressional candidates, but devoted most of his money to expanding the Democratic majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature, battling a gay-marriage ban on the ballot and supporting a domestic-partnership measure.

His results were mixed. Amendment 43 was a constitutional marriage amendment that would deny same-sex couples the right to marry, while Referendum I would have made Colorado the first state to grant domestic-partner benefits to same-sex couples. Gill donated $2.7 million to Coloradans for Fairness, which organized the drive to pass Referendum I. Amendment 43 passed by 12 points, and Referendum I failed by 6 points.

The loss on Referendum I was a heartbreaker for Gill and his organization. "We came extremely close," said Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the Gill Action Fund, Gill's political action committee. Guerriero -- who used to be President of the Log Cabin Republicans, an advocacy group for openly gay Republicans -- added that it was both "a sign of amazing progress and also a sign that there's more work to be done."

In the state Legislature, however, Democrats cruised. They added four seats in the House and four in the Senate and elected a Democratic governor to replace outgoing Republican Bill Owens. And it is state legislatures, said Kenneth Sherrill, an openly gay professor and director of Hunter College's Center for Sexuality and Public Policy, that are particularly critical in the struggle for gay rights.

First, explained Sherrill, state legislatures are farm teams for the big leagues. "Progressives have been so focused on national politics," said Sherrill, "that we've lost track of the pipeline. I've heard Tim Gill say, 'If we'd had the wisdom to head Musgrave off in the state Legislature, then we would not be in the position of having to deal with her in Congress.'"

Second, and more important, state legislatures are where most of the battles for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights are being won and lost. The federal government has largely left the states alone to decide whether gay people can visit their partners in the hospital or have the power to make emergency medical decisions; whether partners can join benefit plans, get health insurance, or receive their partner's pension after they pass away; and whether same-sex couples should be able to adopt children, foster children, or get married.

Overall, 45 states have taken some form of legislative action to prohibit same-sex marriage; 26 of those states have voted to amend their state constitutions. The vast majority of those measures, though ratified by public referenda, originated in state legislatures.

"We have gotten creamed with amendments to state constitutions and with state DOMAs [Defense of Marriage Acts]," said Sherrill. "The fight for marriage equality will certainly be at the legislative level for some time to come."

But because of Gill et al., in Colorado the state Legislature probably won't be floating any more anti-gay legislation in the near future. The pro-gay Referendum I, for instance, was approved to appear on the November ballot by Colorado's now-Democratic and gay-friendly Legislature. The anti-gay marriage amendment, by comparison, reached the ballot via a signature drive funded by conservative groups like James Dobson's Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family.

Meanwhile, in Kalamazoo, Mich., Pat Stryker's brother has taken the Colorado lesson about state legislatures and supersized it. Jon Stryker, whose personal fortune was estimated at $1.7 billion by Forbes, spent heavily on races in 15 state legislatures nationwide to protect, build or win Democratic majorities. His expenditures far outpaced what he had spent in previous election cycles.

"Jon supports a larger progressive movement," said Lisa Turner, Stryker's national political advisor. "Part of that movement is building majorities in state legislatures where policies that support social justice and civil rights can thrive."

According to Turner, Stryker's 2006 efforts to extend Democratic majorities in state legislatures and/or flip control of state legislative chambers to the Democrats were successful. In all, Democrats took control of 10 state legislative chambers in 2006 without losing one. Turner would not name all the states where Stryker was active, nor give the total amount Stryker spent. "All the chambers we focused on," she claimed, "we won."

Turner would confirm that for Stryker, taking control of the House in his home state of Michigan was a key goal. Based on filings with the Michigan secretary of state, Stryker made more than $5 million in political donations within the state through both his personal contributions and his PAC, the Coalition for Progress. While the GOP lost only one seat in the state Senate, however, Democrats did take control of the state House, just as Stryker had hoped.

Stryker also poured more than $1 million into the reelection campaign of Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who faced a tough reelection challenge from billionaire Dick DeVos. Stryker's millions helped counterbalance the large sums of his own money that Dick DeVos was spending on the race. Though he didn't think Stryker's contributions were the only reason Granholm won, said Peter Wielhouwer, an assistant professor of political science at Western Michigan University, "Certainly, anytime somebody is dumping a million dollars' worth of ads to oppose a candidate, that's going to have some kind of an effect."

In New York, Adam Rose's goals were far more narrow. Rose, whose previous largest single donation was $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee, doesn't even believe in 527s and PACs. "I honestly think that federal campaigns should be publicly funded with identical dollars for every candidate. But this is the current system."

Rose didn't want to flip a state legislature. He only wanted to take out Sue Kelly. "I just refused to live in a district with a representative who voted the way she voted," said Rose. Besides the $500,000 he contributed to Majority Action, he gave maximum donations of $25,000 each to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and he maxed out at $2,100 to Hall's campaign.

Unseating Rep. Kelly was an uphill battle from the start. Most strategists, Democratic and Republican, considered her seat safe. Not until the final weeks of the elections did it qualify for the DCCC's targeted Red to Blue campaign, which funneled money toward races seen as potential Democratic pickups.

But according to Jeff Cook, an openly gay Republican in the district who explored a primary challenge to Rep. Kelly, she was always vulnerable in both the primary and the general election.

"Her vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment, like her vote on Terri Schiavo, placed her outside the mainstream of the district," said Cook, "but also the Republican Party in the district," said Cook. His internal polling showed voters in the 19th District were equally divided between supporting gay marriage and opposing it, but he added that they were "overwhelmingly opposed to a constitutional amendment."

Cook said the building national wave and Kelly's failure to establish a persona separate from the Republican Party formed a perfect storm for her defeat.

"She lost because she ran a poor campaign, Democrats were energized in the 19th District and because her cash advantage was neutralized by Adam Rose," he said. "I don't think you can say his $500,000 was why she lost, but I think it was a critical component."

Cook said the situation in the 19th District has changed the playing field for moderates, both Democratic and Republican, as they weigh the impact of their future votes. "Those folks who have previously been in the middle of the House [of Representatives] are now going to have to make a decision," he mused. "It's not only what they believe is the right move, but also which constituency they are more afraid of."

The Republican Party leadership may also have to think about reining in its more outspoken members. In Colorado, Marilyn Musgrave survived yet another million-dollar challenge this year from Tim Gill and the Strykers. She did so, however, with 46 percent of the vote, the lowest share of any member elected to Congress this year. As Duffy noted, "The National Republican Congressional Committee had to spend a lot of money [on Musgrave] that they would have preferred to spend on an open seat race or to try to pick off a Democratic challenger." And as Salon previously reported, the erstwhile sponsor of the Federal Marriage Amendment spent very little time in the last weeks of the campaign talking about the issue she once called "the most important issue that we face today."

While Rose said he has no plans to repeat his 2006 spending, Tim Gill and Jon Stryker are likely to make more headlines in upcoming elections. Guerriero said Gill's "universe is expanding" and he plans to have a hand in politics for years to come. Earlier this year, Gill Action Fund held a conference of about 300 donors to educate them on how to focus their giving locally in order to elect progressive legislators and ensure that anti-gay legislation can be blocked.

The same goes for Stryker. "Jon is committed to this for the long term," said Turner. "This is just the beginning."

By Kerry Eleveld

Kerry Eleveld is a freelance writer, consultant and former White House correspondent for The Advocate.

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2006 Elections