A new force is emerging in American politics: wealthy, gay political donors who target state-level races. Last year, they funneled millions of dollars into dozens of carefully selected campaigns. Their goal: to elect gay-friendly governors and state lawmakers.
Freshman Washington state Rep. Deb Eddy, a Democrat from Seattle's Eastside, remembers the phone call she received last summer from a political consultant on the East Coast. "Her purpose was simply to let me know that I would be receiving checks from out-of-state and that these were all on the up-and-up," Eddy says.
As Eddy remembers it, the caller told her the money was coming from a group of gay and gay-friendly donors who wanted to help influence state legislative races. Soon the checks started arriving — seven in all.
"It was a dead giveaway because all of them were for $675, which was the limit from the preceding election," Eddy says. "So they had information about Washington's limitation on contributions to campaigns that was a year old."
Eddy says some of the checks came with a note attached: "[It] said that I had been brought to their attention by Tim Gill, which was the first time I'd heard the name. And then he, too, sent a check."
Tim Gill is an openly gay software mogul-turned-philanthropist from Denver. He would not consent to an interview for this story. But his staff confirms that last year, Gill launched an under-the-radar political giving campaign.
He and his network of deep-pocketed friends targeted some 70 state-level races in more than a dozen states — including Washington state.
Campaign-finance reports indicate that much of the money went to swing-district Democrats.
"I think what folks like Tim Gill are trying to do is to basically level the playing field," says Patrick Guerriero, former head of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group. Today Guerriero is Gill's political director. He says Gill swung into action after the 2004 election, when several states voted to ban gay marriage.
"I think a lot of folks who believe in basic equality were caught blindsided when the issue of marriage equality was used as a wedge issue in elections around the 2004 cycle," Guerriero says. "And what happened was a lot of really decent, fair-minded legislators were thrown out of office based on those issues."
The goal now is to win back seats and win gay rights, state by state. And Gill isn't alone. His efforts inspired another gay philanthropist — Jon Stryker, a Michigan billionaire — to target down-ballot races in 15 states last year.
'Investing Where We Can Continue to Win'
This focus on state politics makes sense strategically. Consider what has happened in Washington state with Democrats in control of both the House and Senate. In the last two years, lawmakers have passed a gay nondiscrimination law and domestic partnership legislation.
The chief sponsor of both those measures was State Sen. Ed Murray, an openly gay Seattle Democrat.
"The victories we've had have happened at the state and local level," Murray says. "So I think that there's an interest in investing where we can continue to win. Secondly, I think that it's become clear to people that the issue of marriage is going to be dealt with state by state."
One person sounding the alarm about Tim Gill and his political strategy is Peter LaBarbera. He's president of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, a group that opposes gay rights.
"I'm a little bit offended and a little bit jealous, to tell you the truth," LaBarbera says. "I mean, it was a brilliant campaign, it's a brilliant strategy. I don't know how ethical it is, given that the local people didn't know what was happening."
LaBarbera predicts that conservative groups will respond in the next election.
"I would say that in some of the swing districts where this tactic was used, those people will be vulnerable," LaBarbera says. "Especially when it comes out that they unseated the incumbent with this sort of stealth, gay strategy."
That could mean even more money flowing from wealthy out-of-state donors to local campaigns on both sides of the gay rights debate.
Austin Jenkins with the Northwest News Network reports from Olympia, Wash.