By Lisa Keen
There are two ways to vote for candidates in the United States: through the ballot box and through the checkbook. In both, the LGBT community will always be outnumbered by virtue of the small percentage of the population that can be identified as LGBT.
But even so, the gay political dollar is turning up more frequently in more races and more arenas than ever before and, this year, it helped improve the political landscape for LGBT people in Congress and at least two state legislatures. It also contributed to the first failure of a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
For years, the LGBT community relied on the country’s only national gay political action committees (PACs) – the Human Rights Campaign PAC – as the sole vehicle for identifying gay dollars, gathering them up, and dropping them off in strategic campaigns.
But in recent years, gays have begun forming state political action committees, and private individual gay people with extraordinary wealth have been making their own strategic political contributions.
Data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics indicate that about three-fourths of campaign contributions from the gay community come through political action committees. Those are federal races. When gay funding for state legislative races and efforts to defeat state anti-gay ballot measures is factored in, the picture shifts. Suddenly, two gay men – Tim Gill in Colorado and Jon Stryker in Michigan — gave collectively more than three times the money contributed, spent, and bundled by HRC during the 2005-06 election cycle.
PAC growth continues
By whatever view one takes of gay funding in electoral politics, there is a lot to celebrate, particularly with the nation’s primary gay political action committee.
HRC, founded in 1980, gave only $132,471 to federal candidates in its first election cycle of 1981-82. Twenty years ago, it was up to only $236,081. And even 10 years ago, it boasted spending just over $1.1 million ($809,889 in direct contributions and $294,686 in independent expenditures against U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, R-NC.)
Although final reports into the Federal Elections Commission are not yet in for the 2005-06 cycle, HRC officials say they have spent $2.9 million. That includes $1.1 million in direct contributions (up 36 percent in 10 years). The direct contributions are down from the 2003-04 election cycle -from $1.4 million to $1.1 million, but the PAC reports that it has begun “bundling” contributions for candidates to the tune of $1.3 million this election cycle. (Bundling is a practice in which an organization asks individuals to write checks directly to a candidate but to send the checks to the organization so it can “bundle” them together and demonstrate the power of a specific constituency.”)
A post-election memo prepared by HRC’s Vice President of Programs David M. Smith estimated that HRC bundled large amounts in some key Senate races: $375,000 for Democrat Bob Casey’s defeat of anti-gay Republican incumbent Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, $160,000 for Democrat Sherrod Brown’s defeat of anti-gay Republican incumbent Rick DeWine of Ohio, and $125,000 for Amy Klobuchar’s bid to help Democrats hold onto the seat being vacated by a retiring Democrat.
According to HRC’s political director, Samantha Smoot, about two-thirds of the PAC’s contributions go to incumbents, but 75 percent of its bundling and 100 percent of its independent expenditures go to non-incumbents.
HRC says it also spent about $500,000 in independent expenditures in support of candidates during this election cycle. The latest Federal Elections Commission statistics available show that, in the 2003-04 cycle, the HRC PAC spent $453,219 in independent expenditures and, at the end of June, the FEC ranked the HRC PAC as being 30th among the 950 similar PACs in independent expenditures, 31st in terms of money raised. (A complete picture will be available early next year after FEC analyzes data provided in each PAC’s final 2005-06 report, due later this month.)
In addition to the $2.9 million it spent and contributed in federal campaigns, HRC also sent “over 46 staff members and 29 Youth College graduates to targeted states to mobilize HRC members and get out the vote for fairness,” said Brad Luna, HRC’s director of media relations. And the group spent $350,000 in efforts to oppose proposed constitutional bans on same-sex marriage on some state ballots.
The specialty PAC
The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund is a younger PAC, having organized in 1991, and is a different sort of PAC than HRC. The Victory Fund is one 1,492 “Non-Connected” PACS one. Where HRC’s PAC is considered to be essentially a separate, designated fund connected to the overall membership organization, a non-connected PAC is essentially a stand-alone organization. Because they are not connected to an organization, a portion of the non-connected PAC’s receipts are spent administering its organization. And, as press spokesperson Denis Dison explains, the Victory Fund concentrates its money on finding and training openly gay people to run for office.
“The distinction between us and any other PAC,” he said, “is that, because we’re a non-connected PAC, everything we do as an organization is dedicated to getting gay people elected – whether that’s cutting a direct check or talking to [the press], or doing leadership training.”
Although Dison declined to say how much money was given directly to candidates or bundled for them in the 2005-06 cycle, FEC records through mid-October suggest considerable growth. Receipts for the 2005-06 cycle were $3,333,643 – up 15 percent from the 2003-04 cycle. Only $8,000 of the $3.3 disbursed was for federal candidates.
The Victory Fund is also a “527” organization -that is, it is a tax-exempt advocacy group that seeks to educate a constituency and motivate it to go to the polls. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Victory Fund is the 16th largest 527 committee in the country (based on Internal Revenue Service documents through October 23). It shows the Victory Fund raised $1,937,310 and spent $2,227,694.
The Center also examines where most 527 money goes and most of it goes to organizations working for Democratic or Republican advocacy groups, followed by unions, women’s issues, and the environment. Gay-oriented advocacy groups land in the 10th slot – “Human Rights” – down from 2004 when it was in 6th place.
Under the category of human rights 527, CRP lists 21 organizations – four of which are gay-related: In addition to the Victory Fund, the list includes the Alice B Toklas LGBT Democratic Club of San Francisco, which CRP says records show raised $22,475 in the 2003-04 election cycle; the Houston GLBT Political Caucus which raised $4,623; and, the Stonewall Democrats United, which raised $2,146. The latter is a 527 affiliated with National Stonewall Democrats and launched just during the current election cycle.
But there are a growing number of PACs and 527 and other types of LGBT organizations getting involved in electoral politics these days. Toni Broaddus, executive director of the Equality Federation, an organization which was formed to help more groups become active at the statewide level.
“Over the past five years, the country has witnessed a dramatic shift of power from the federal government to state legislatures,” notes the organization’s website. “As a consequence, attempts to pass federal remedies remains bottlenecked and the battle to end homophobia has shifted increasingly to the states. More than ever before, state governments are making laws on the issues that impact our daily lives, from hate violence to employment and housing discrimination; from student harassment to adoption and foster care; and from domestic partnership benefits to the freedom to marry.”
Although anti-gay ballot measures have been around for much longer than that, there is no denying the resurgence in the use of state legislatures and ballots by anti-gay activists. Twenty-eight states have voted on the issue of same-sex marriage alone (and 27 have passed bans).
The Federation, which was founded in 1997, lists 61 member organizations in 46 states, including Michigan Equality and the Triangle Foundation.
Some of the organizations are PACs, some are 501c3s, some 501c4s, and some start as one type of organization and switch to become another, said Broaddus. Twenty-four states have candidate PACs and, during the past year, nine had PACs to work related to ballot measures.
Sixty percent of the organizations have PACs, said Broaddus, and 16 of those started up since 2000.
“There were zero in the 1970s,” said Broaddus, “and only four or six in the 1990s.” In addition to making contributions to candidates, doing mailings, and getting volunteer support for campaigns, she said, at least ten PACs also did independent expenditures for and against candidates.
“Equality California is at least three different entities,” she said. “And it’s the biggest.” Founded only eight years ago, Equality California now has offices in five cities and has a political action committee. Following this year’s elections, the organization was able to boast that 95 percent of its endorsed candidates had won election. A report filed with the Secretary of State indicates that, in 2006, the PAC raised $55,673 through October 21.
Both Michigan groups have PACs. In the latest report filed with the state Bureau of Elections, Michigan Equality reported raising $4,021 in 2006 and spending $24,277, and the Triangle Pride PAC raised $13,933 and spending $12,684.
While the Federation still counts six or seven states as having no statewide organization of any type, said Broaddus, its goal is to eventually make sure “there is an LGBT PAC in every state.”