They Won’t Know What Hit Them

The software mogul Tim Gill has a mission: Stop the Rick Santorums of tomorrow before they get started. How a network of gay political donors is stealthily fighting sexual discrimination and reshaping American politics

The history of gays as open participants in American politics is a relatively brief one, though it contains clear antecedents for what Gill is attempting to do. In the 1950s, the homophile movement first sought social acceptance for gays and lesbians through a handful of small, politically cautious organizations like the Mattachine Society, which sponsored newsletters and discussion groups and lobbied to end police raids targeting gay activities. The Stonewall riots and the gay-liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s worked toward securing the legal protection afforded by federal minority status, to diminish discrimination and blackmail. The devastating rise of AIDS in the 1980s halted momentum toward the political mainstream and helped solidify gays’ status as victims in the public mind. The failure of state and federal government to respond to the crisis, however, prompted gays for the first time to organize to provide the care and services others would not. Explicitly gay philanthropy grew from a few million dollars a year in the early 1980s to around $100 million in the early 1990s, as independent, privately funded organizations came into being.

When AIDS finally did register as a national pandemic, political acceptance of homosexuals remained limited even in the most liberal spheres. In 1988, Michael Dukakis declined gay contributions to his presidential campaign after deeming them too politically risky. Bill Clinton’s candidacy, four years later, appeared to change that. Clinton openly accepted millions of dollars from many rich activists, promising a broad federal assault on AIDS, a federal antidiscrimination statute, and, most famously, an executive order lifting the military’s ban on gays. “When Clinton was elected, everyone thought there would be this epiphany on gay rights,” said Patrick Guerriero, a former Republican state legislator and mayor in Massachusetts who runs Gill’s political team, the Gill Action Fund (which operates independently of his foundation). “Instead, the only two major pieces of legislation were a disaster: ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ and the Defense of Marriage Act. The experience of the ’90s taught us that there is no magic president who’s going to fix everything.”

The Clinton presidency is one of the major fault lines dividing gay politics, and disappointment with it was one of the motivating forces behind Gill’s move away from national politics. But his is a controversial view. Jeff Soref, an heir to the Master Lock fortune who became a prominent philanthropist during the AIDS crisis and was later appointed to the Democratic National Committee, vigorously disputes the notion that Clinton’s presidency was a failure and doubts that Gill’s response to it is the appropriate one.

“Clinton broke the silence about the AIDS epidemic,” Soref says. “He told gay people we were part of his vision for America. He directed federal money to AIDS research. He gave us an AIDS czar and a liaison in the White House and an executive order banning discrimination in the federal workforce. He invited us to the table and gave us a place in the Democratic Party. 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 cited the possibility that the new Democratic Congress may soon consider a long-desired national employment nondiscrimination bill as one reason not to abandon Washington. “I can understand Tim’s frustration,” he says. “But his way, state by state, will take years. There’s nothing like passing national legislation that benefits everybody equally.”

As the amount of money in politics continues to grow, against a backdrop of deep Democratic frustration over the party’s narrow losses in the last two presidential races, the momentum of the Democratic world is moving in a direction closer to Gill’s than to that of traditional Washington insiders. Well beyond its gay facet, Democratic politics is increasingly dominated by rich donors who share Gill’s dissatisfaction with traditional methods of party politics. This group believes that conservatives were able to reshape American politics because they built, over the last forty years, a broad movement independent of the Republican Party to support conservative candidates and espouse their ideals—an achievement liberals now wish to match. Beginning in 2004, many of these rich Democratic donors lavished tens of millions of dollars upon new independent enterprises, like America Coming Together and the Democracy Alliance, meant to impose accountability and tactical discipline on the liberal movement, expressly to improve Democrats’ performance at the polls.

What came into being instead were large, cumbersome outfits—technically independent, but hardly nimble—comprising many of the same strategists and warring interest groups that had collectively lost the election in 2000, and again in 2004. (In frustration, several of the party’s biggest donors, including George Soros and Peter Lewis, severely curtailed their giving last year.)

Gill’s decision to shift away from national politics seems dictated even more by his philosophy about how to engage most effectively in politics than by the mediocre gains chalked up during the Clinton years. “If your objective is to innovate and take risks, you move faster with a small group,” Gill’s political director, Guerriero, told me. “If Columbus had needed a conference call before setting sail for America, he’d still be at the dock.” (This kind of gridlock has long hampered the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay political organization.) Though Gill, too, has suffered disappointments, his grand experiment is, for better or worse, more consistent with the pragmatic direction of twenty-first-century politics than anything else on the Democratic horizon. Whether that achievement derives from the unique frustrations within the gay community or from the history and ability of that community to organize to help itself, it is changing gay politics, and it could change Democratic politics as well.

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Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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