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

A large part of Gill’s credibility stems from the ex- ample of his home state. His influence on Colorado’s politics has been much more public than his recent national efforts. For years a reliably old-conservative Mountain West enclave, Colorado had a political culture that tended toward libertarianism until, in the 1990s, the Republican leadership turned hard to the right. Before he became active in national politics, Gill had been spurred to action locally by the 1992 ballot initiative prohibiting laws to protect gays and lesbians, and his involvement intensified several years later after he was deeply offended by a Republican legislator’s introduction of a bill banning any discussion of homosexuality in Colorado’s public schools. Since then, Gill has become the top political donor in the state. Aided by his record as a community leader, he has managed to achieve limited victories for gay equality, most notably getting Colorado’s socially conservative Republican Governor Bill Owens to agree in 2005 to a bill protecting gays under the state’s hate-crimes law.

During this time, Gill formed an alliance with three other major donors (two of them tech moguls, one of them gay) to find a way to moderate the state’s politics and loosen the grip of Republican social conservatives. Working in conjunction with progressive groups throughout Colorado, “the Four Millionaires,” as they came to be known, built a kind of information-age political machine that enabled Democrats to outspend Republicans for the first time in years.

On Election Day 2004, as George W. Bush carried the state handily, Democrats captured both chambers of the legislature. “There’s no doubt that Tim Gill and some of the other wealthy funders contributed mightily to the takeover,” Andrew Romanoff, the Democratic speaker of the House, told me. Romanoff believes that voters perceived Republicans as caring more about marginal social issues like gay marriage than about the economic woes hampering the state economy. “The difference between our agenda and theirs was the difference between the kitchen table and the bedroom door.” Last fall, Democrats extended their gains in the legislature and captured the governorship as well.

One component of Gill’s strategy includes courting that element of the Republican Party that’s open to compromise, while at the same time making clear that gay bashing will now come at a price. “You have to create an atmosphere of fear and respect,” said Trimpa, “and set up the proper context for them to do the right thing.” But neither Gill’s checkbook nor the Republicans’ woes have stopped social conservatives from pressing their agenda. Last year, when it became clear that Colorado Republicans intended to back a ballot initiative banning gay marriage, Gill and his allies moved first to frame the debate by pushing Referendum I, a bill endorsing domestic partnerships, and spending $5 million to promote it.

This effort also included some shrewd inside maneuvering. Colorado is home to a prominent Christian-right movement, centered on James Dobson’s Colorado Springs organization, Focus on the Family. Gays held no realistic hope of defeating the marriage ban. So to create a more favorable environment for domestic partnerships to become law, Gill’s operatives worked to divide their opponents into two camps: those conservatives who wanted to ban only marriage but would countenance partnerships, and the rest, like Dobson, who wanted, as Trimpa put it, “to ban the whole ball of wax.” They reached an informal truce with the moderate element of the conservative movement to back only the marriage ban and to not oppose the referendum on domestic partnerships. Among this faction’s leaders was an adversary of Dobson’s within the evangelical community, the Reverend Ted Haggard of the New Life Church.

As I arrived in Denver a week before the election, Haggard’s life became a national sensation. He first denied, but later resigned because of, a report that for years he had paid for sex with a gay prostitute through whom he had also bought crystal meth. The story exploded across the state, yielding full-banner headlines for four days running in The Denver Post and wall-to-wall footage of Haggard’s awkward semi-denial to a local TV news crew.

While the pundits predicted that the scandal would demoralize conservative voters and benefit the state’s liberals, Gill’s organization held no such illusions. Its polling showed that the vote on domestic partnerships had been running near even, but now this development seemed certain to tip things against them. Trying to explain why, Trimpa characterized it best by grimly invoking “the gay ick”—his rueful term for the tendency of well-meaning and fair-minded straight voters to become turned off when gay issues focus explicitly on sex. The Haggard episode, which fed right into the Mark Foley congressional page scandal then in full bloom, created, Trimpa believed, the worst possible environment in which to put gay-rights issues on the ballot. On Election Day, the initiative failed, 53–47.

To date, twenty-seven of the twenty-eight state ballot initiatives banning gay marriage have been approved, including those in three of the four states last year where Gill funded efforts to oppose them (Arizona voters, with Gill’s help, defeated one last November). The losses seem to have neither dulled Gill’s resolve nor prompted him to rein in his spending. “As an engineer, I like experiments,” he explained. “The only way you find new tools is to take one out and try it, and I’m perfectly happy to be in this for the long haul.” His general success in state races has already stimulated plans for a larger target list in 2008 and a seminar, scheduled for next March, to brief interested high-net-worth donors. The challenge, he believes, will be expanding the ranks of donors while maintaining the focus of those who participated last year and now face the ultimate temptation in “glamour giving,” the 2008 presidential race. “You hope that the forces of darkness will be the ones distracted by the shiny bauble of the presidency,” Gill said. Then he excused himself to continue mapping out a state-by-state conquest that already has advanced gay interests in politics, even as the need for his surreptitious methods suggests how far they still have to go.

Photograph by Stephen Ramsey

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Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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