By Lisa Keen
Part I in a series
He’s not a household name, not even in gay households, outside of Michigan. But he’s gay, he’s on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people, and he’s using his billions to improve the political landscape for LGBT people in Michigan and the United States.
Jon Stryker, an architect from Kalamazoo, inherited his fortune, estimated at $1.7 billion, from a medical products corporation his grandfather started in 1941. At 47, he ranks No. 6 on a list of largest contributors to 527 political advocacy groups.
More impressively, he poured $4.6 million of his own money into the Coalition for Progress, a political action committee he created only in August 2006. Along with a $500,000 contribution from his sister and assorted small contributions from others, the Coalition for Progress had a war chest of $5.2 million and spent much of it on elections for the Michigan legislature.
According to records filed with the Michigan Bureau of Elections, the Coalition spent $1.5 million in the governor’s race, where Stryker’s preferred candidate, pro-gay Democratic incumbent Jennifer M. Granholm, defeated anti-gay Republican challenger Dick DeVos. It also spent at least $1 million on 18 state house and senate races, successfully helping to unseat at least six anti-gay legislators, preserve the seats of two pro-gay ones, and win control of the state House for the Democrats.
“The thing that’s concerning,” said a spokesperson for the dethroned Republican speaker to the Kalamazoo Gazette after the election, “is that he has used his billions in inheritance to fund some very left-wing causes, including reversal of (anti-) gay marriage laws in other states.”
Stryker’s aggressiveness in funding pro-gay candidates to defeat Republicans drew cries of foul play from Republicans, many of whom claimed it amounted to a wealthy person attempting to buy power and influence. But that argument didn’t carry much force given that the DeVos family has twice the fortune of Stryker and reportedly spent $20 million of that fortune on his gubernatorial campaign. Critics also argued that, despite the Coalition’s funding of efforts to increase the minimum wage and other issues, its real aim was part of a hidden gay agenda. But billionaires tend not to answer their critics and Stryker’s staff never took the bait beyond pointing out his foundational support of numerous causes.
At the federal level, Stryker also contributed $750,000 during the 2005-06 election cycle to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a national PAC that seeks to find, train, and run openly gay candidates for office. He contributed almost $100,000 to several Congressional races. And elsewhere, he contributed $200,000 to four LGBT statewide organizations fighting anti-gay marriage amendments at the ballot box in November. The $100,000 Stryker’s PAC sent to Arizona helped pro-gay activists there become the first, in 28 states, to defeat the measure.
As dramatic as Stryker’s willingness to put his own money into improving the political and legal climate for the LGBT community at home and around the country, he’s not alone. Other openly gay people have been doing the same. Dreamworks billionaire David Geffen has given hundreds of thousands to the Democratic party, as has technology giant David Bohnett. Former E*TRADE executive Kathy Levinson, and Hormel Foods heir James Hormel have also given large sums to Democratic candidates over the years. There are others, including some who have yet to acknowledge to the public that they are gay. But no openly gay person of wealth has charged into the political fray as dramatically as Tim Gill of Colorado.
Leader of the pack
Gill, 53, ranks No. 7 on the list of largest contributors to 527 political advocacy groups–a list compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. (According to the CRP, for 2006, Stryker has given $1,326,316 to federal 527 organizations, Gill has given $1,276,355 – or $50,000 less.) But Gill, a self-made millionaire from the software boom, has been the motivator, inspiration, and strategist for many gay millionaires making political contributions in recent years.
The Rocky Mountain News recently referred to him as the LGBT movement’s “most valuable player,” and few would quibble with that. For years, he’s been pouring millions of dollars into defeating anti-gay ballot measures. He’s also an innovative leader. Two years ago, noted the News, Gill united with “three other wealthy residents” of Colorado to spend $2 million “to help install a Democratic majority in both houses of the state legislature for the first time in decades.” This year, it said, he spent $5 million to support gay equal rights in Colorado alone – half of it to promote support for a ballot measure that would have given legal recognition to gay couples in civil unions or domestic partnerships. His 12-year-old Gill Foundation, notes its 2005 annual report, has given more than $81 million to gay groups, and in August 2005, Gill started a new political funding entity to support equal marriage rights and support pro-gay candidates.
The Gill Action Fund reportedly spent more than $2 million on this year’s anti-gay marriage initiative and pro-gay domestic partnership referendum in Colorado. The Gill groups have also provided operating funds to MassEquality’s work to support equal marriage rights in Massachusetts, and support for Michigan’s Triangle Foundation and Equality Michigan.
Several news stories and people involved in gay political giving say they believe Gill’s philanthropy and enthusiasm for political investment inspired many others and that Gill, Stryker, and several multi-millionaires consult with each other now about who to support. Confirming that belief is difficult; neither Gill nor Stryker would be interviewed for this article.
Stryker’s political adviser, Lisa Turner of Virginia, is also quick to point out that Stryker has “a diverse portfolio of political giving” – one that is “broader than gay rights.”
“Jon is part of larger progressive movement in this country,” Turner said.
Be that as it may, Stryker has hired one of the LGBT’s most popular political leaders, former National Gay and Lesbian Task Force executive director Urvashi Vaid, as executive director of his philanthropic Arcus Foundation. Vaid also serves as one of the Gill Foundation’s three board members.
The foundation, started in 2000, has given at least $250,000 to the ACLU’s National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, which does some of the movement’s most critical litigation. Along with Gill and several gay political groups, it helped fund a national newspaper campaign to support same-sex marriage. And in a recent letter to the Advocate magazine, Vaid said the Arcus Foundation “has invested more than $75 million in the areas of GLBT rights and conservation.”
Several other openly gay millionaires have also contributed to pro-gay political candidates. Salon.com reported last month, for instance, that an openly gay businessman in New York, Adam Rose, contributed $500,000 to a 527 group called Majority Action “for the express purpose of unseating” his Congressional district’s member of Congress because she voted for the proposed U.S. constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
“Rose’s half-million,” said Salon, “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 came in at No. 17 with $505,000 to 527 groups. The other $5,000 went to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.
Searches of political contribution records by other well-known wealthy members of the LGBT community turned up only relatively modest contributions, though it must be kept in mind that reports on contributions made after Oct. 18 weren’t due until Dec. 7 and won’t be available publicly until next month. But for Stryker, Gill and Rose, it’s already clear that their individual fortunes were put to task in the 2005-06 cycle for a more friendly political climate for the LGBT community.
“They have made a terrific contribution,” said Andrew Tobias, openly gay author of best-selling investment books and treasurer for the Democratic National Committee. “Very smart and strategic. And complementary.”
Does it matter whether gay dollars are made to campaigns through gay PACs or gay individuals?
“Both are great,” said Tobias. “But giving individually, you want to be sure the campaign knows it comes from the GLBT community.” Where possible, said Tobias, gay contributors should try to make their contributions through an LGBT event or group.
“Or” he added, “to the DNC’s Gay & Lesbian Leadership Council!”