The Advocate's Kerry Eleveld was right: the Democratic National Committee did make a million dollars off that controversial LGBT Leadership Council fundraiser on June 25. Or at least that's the tally the DNC is expecting by mid-July when all the checks have been counted, DNC Finance Director Rufus Gifford told me over the July 4th holiday.
Gifford and his life and business partner, Jeremy Bernard, were early and significant fundraisers for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign. In January 2008, the LA Weekly dubbed the duo "Obama's Gay Gold Mine." They suspended their Los Angeles-based consulting firm B+G Associates when Bernard was named White House liaison to the National Endowment for the Humanities and Gifford was named Director of Finance for the DNC.
Knowing the pair from their work in LA, I asked Gifford how it feels to be an inside-the-Beltway LGBT "power couple." He chuckled with bemusement. He and Bernard have a reputation for a dedication to progressive causes and only working for pro-LGBT candidates. With that comes a kind of sophisticated humility: arrogance is uncool and impedes growth, communication and real partnership.
But knowing Gifford didn't mean I was going to get more out of him for the record than he was willing to give. He let me know that "everyone's on board" - and by everyone, he meant DNC Chair Tim Kaine and DNC Treasurer Andy Tobias - with him trying to explain the DNC's side of the story about what turned into a very controversial LGBT fundraiser.
Read the full interview after the jump.
Where's the Beef?
The fundraiser wasn't originally controversial. The DNC's openly gay Treasurer Andy Tobias and DNC LGBT Leadership Council's Finance Director Thomas Petrillo sent out invitations in April and early May as soon as Vice President Biden was confirmed as the keynote speaker.
But as the media started ticking off Obama's accomplishments in his first 100 days - the LGBT community started grousing over why the president - still in hot water over Rick Warren - and the Democratically-controlled Congress had not yet moved on any of the promised LGBT equal rights legislation. It took more drama than expected, for instance, for the House to pass an inclusive hate crimes bill on day 100.
Richard Socarides kicked it up a notch with his May 2 op-ed in the Washington Post calling out Obama on his promise to be a "fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans." To resurrect that old 1984 Hart-Mondale political joke, Socarides was asking, "Where's the beef?"
The "fierce advocate" meme took off - including my own piece for The Bilerico Project asking Obama to give us a liaison to be a fierce advocate for us since he was failing at the job.
And then came what many felt was the push under the bus: late in the afternoon of June 11, the Department of Justice - under renown civil rights leader and now Attorney General Eric Holder - filed a stunning brief supporting the Defense of Marriage Act which Obama had promised to repeal in full. Most LGBTs were outraged. The blogosphere lit up with Americablog's John Aravosis leading the way - though other bloggers, such as Chris Geidner at Law Dork, 2.0, challenged some of Aravosis' conclusions. The mainstream media took notice.
By the end of day one after the DOMA filing, it didn't really matter what legal analysis was correct: much of the LGBT community and many straight allies felt the Obama administration's cold dead-fish slap across the face. That betrayal - coupled with the very public but ultimately ineffectual pleadings by West Point graduate and Arab linguist Lt Dan Choi to not be discharged and the White House's inept response - created an online groundswell of deeply pained protest.
Everyone held their breath to see if Obama would say something during an Oval Office ceremony when signing the memorandum to extend limited benefits to partners of federal employees. He didn't and the event was minimized to within an inch of mattering.
The Closest Target
Hurt, disillusioned, betrayed - the LGBT community turned its aggrieved eyes to the next, closest target - the LGBT Leadership Council's fundraiser for the DNC. By June 17, major donors such as businessman Bruce Bastian decided to boycott the DNC event. "I will continue to support certain congressmen, congresswomen and senators whom I believe will continue to fight for our rights, but I don't think blanket donations to the Democratic Party right now are justified, at least not in my book," Bastian told the Washington Blade. In an email to the DNC, Bastian said he was boycotting "because of the remarks on DOMA" - having found the filing "offensive."
Longtime activist David Mixner really let loose - bundling Obama, Congress and the DNC together:
'I will not attend a fundraiser for the National Democratic Party in Washington next week when the current administration is responsible for these kind of actions. How will they ever take us seriously if we keep forking out money while they harm us. For now on, my money is going to battles within the community such as the fight in Maine or the March on Washington! I am so tired of being told by Democratic operatives to 'suck it up' because so many other profound issues are at stake. It is as if our fight for our freedom is single handedly responsible for the fate of all other issues. Bullshit. Maybe, just maybe, it is time for others to 'suck it up' for us and finally, without conditions, join our fight for our freedom!"
A drumbeat started on the blogs and in the LGBT press - reported by ABC News' Jake Tapper, among other mainstream outlets, noting who was attending and dropping out of the fundraiser while some blog commenters vilified anyone connected with the event as a "traitor."
Meanwhile - not a peep from the DNC about the LGBT fury. Perhaps they didn't want to throw fuel on the fire. After all, with Kaine facing a $15 million debt when he took the top job in January, the DNC needed the money.
The LGBT community, however, was counting on the boycott to make a point. So when only about 50 people from the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network showed up to protest outside and The Advocate's Kerry Eleveld reported that the event raised about one million dollars - LGBT bloggers such as Pam Spaulding and Michelangelo Signorile questioned the validity of the amount raised.
Did the DNC Raise $1M From LGBT Donors?
The DNC, through Rufus Gifford, wants to clear that up, noting that the DNC LGBT Leadership Council fundraiser was "by far, the most successful event the DNC has ever done with the vice president" during Gifford's tenure as DNC Finance Director, which started in January.
"We're interested in the setting the record straight. We're always taking notes. We care tremendously about what Democrats are thinking and feeling and how they're expressing their concerns and doubts in blogs and the LGBT press.
I'm very proud of what Andy Tobias, Tom Petrillo and everyone else has done over the course of the last few months.
There's been a lot of talk in the press in the days after the event - we released a number that a million dollars was raised at the event - or just shy of a million dollars - which I believe was what the initial statement in The Advocate was."
So, I asked Gifford, you're confirming the number and identifying the DNC as the source for The Advocate?
"In my mind, we are responsible for that number and it's a number we are 100% comfortable with. So in essence, yes, a million dollars was raised on [that] Thursday night. We're probably not quite there yet - I would say we're about 90% there and we should be there probably by the middle of July.
Not everybody attended. Not every dime of that money was raised in June. But certainly we had a very, very successful event. It was not a modest success. It was certainly not a disappointment. I think everyone inside the room and everybody certainly within the DNC was absolutely thrilled by the event. I was thrilled by it. There was not an empty seat in the house. I think there was an incredibly, incredibly positive spirit. People were incredibly excited and inspired by what the vice president had to say. I think his comments were very, very well taken by the community. And it was a significant financial success - a significant financial success.
This is something that Andy Tobias and Tom Petrillo worked on from the beginning of the year - from the beginning of 2009 till June - and it's their primary focus and they built something incredibly special that everyone inside the DNC is proud of."
I noted that a number of blogs cited unnamed sources saying the number was actually closer to $200,000. A friend of mine familiar with the DNC said the number was $500,000.
"That is an absolute fallacy," Gifford said. "I can tell you the way this money is raised - a million dollars is what we believe we will end up taking in when all is said and done - attributed to the LGBT Leadership Council."
How Is the Money Counted?
I asked him to explain how the money was raised. Gifford said:
"We confirmed the event in April, and when we first got the vice president to sign onto the event - which means we first sent out invitations then - so we raised money all throughout the second quarter. I'd say probably 80% of the money came in in May and June - but there was some that came in certainly before that.
Andy raised money for this event throughout the entire year. And frankly, Andy may raise money from some people in Los Angeles and they may decide to attend the event we did with the president in May. But it's all LGBT Leadership Council money and the people who are giving to us are certainly requesting that their contributions be credited to Andy's event."
I noted that some people suggested that Tobias might have "transferred" money from a different event to the LGBT event to puff up the numbers.
"To be clear," Gifford said, "Andy doesn't have the ability to 'transfer money.' This is simply standard fundraising procedure. Someone gives money to an event. If they cannot attend, they simply go to another [DNC] event around the country with a comparable ticket price. This would be true whether or not the event was geared towards a specific constituency or not."
Gifford said it was akin to bundling checks over a period of time, credited to the LGBT Leadership Council event. "The million dollar figure is the money that we have raised from the LGBT community this year - 90% of it coming in the second quarter of 2009," Gifford said.
He said the DNC report to be filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in June will "speak for itself." But he said the report is "only part of the story. This is not a million dollars that was dropped off at the door on the night of June 25. This is money that has come in over the course of the last couple of months."
The specific money designated for the LGBT Leadership Council will not be identified, Gifford said, because the FEC only lists names and amounts. "Unfortunately, there's no easy way to break down those numbers."
Asked to identify members of the LGBT Leadership Council, Gifford only named Council co-chairs Paul Horning (from Atlanta) and Laura Ricketts (from Chicago). "The Leadership Council are the raisers - they're not necessarily the donors," Gifford said. "There are lots of people who are giving to us - who want their checks attributed to the LGBT community - who are not necessarily members of the gay and lesbian community." The other DNC constituency councils operate in a similar fashion.
The DNC, Stonewall Democrats and LGBT Staffers
Noting that the National Stonewall Democrats had dropped support for the fundraiser over the policy issues and a cut in some funding to the non-profit. (The funding was initiated under Brian Bond. Longtime politico Paul Yandura, then DNC staffer Donald Hitchcock's partner (Hitchcock was Bond's predecessor under DNC chair Howard Dean), actually complained vociferously about the DNC's treatment of the LGBT community and Hitchcock wound up suing, then settling with the DNC.) I asked Gifford if the relationship with Stonewall had been repaired.
"We are 100% committed to working with Stonewall going forward," he said. "We've had very productive conversations with them over the last few months and we look forward to working with them going forward."
NSD Executive Director Jon Hoadley was less forgiving. In a July 5 phone interview, Hoadley said that while NSD "enjoyed a strong relationship with the DNC, our members are frustrated with the pace of change out of this administration and Congress." He said donors and chapter members want to see "measurable results" - especially since "we're talking about policies that are supported by the vast majority of Americans." He noted that after NSD and others pulled support from the DNC fundraiser, "everyone saw a lot of movement at the end of June."
Hoadley said that while NSD "wants to be a good partner" in passing progressive and LGBT legislation, they will only activate their grassroots chapters to help support progressive candidates who ask until they see "movement coming out of Congress and the administration" on the LGBT agenda.
"We have thousands of grassroots activists who are ready to work to pass those policies. But we must make sure the President and Congress prioritizes our community's issues just like they've prioritized so many other important issues.
If [the DNC, candidates or legislators] want to have a serious strategy conversation on how to move legislation that will help the LGBT community, we're all ears and eager to help. But if the call is just about fundraising - we're not interested at this point and we have no interest in taking that call."
Hoadley confirmed that NSD is talking with the DNC about finding a "joint project that will have a concrete outcome," adding that "we enjoy working with many people at the DNC."
In more candid moments of the interview with Rufus Gifford, which he agreed to allow for the record, the gay DNC Finance Director talked about the impact the criticism has had on LGBT people working at the DNC.
"The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network was outside our event holding up signs with the number 265 on them - the number of soldiers discharged at the time of the event. Everyone inside was wearing [buttons with the number] too. Andy Tobias was passing them out - I had one on - in a show of support. The fact of the matter is - we're all on the same page here. We're all trying to get this done. Everyone was wearing red buttons with the number 265 inside and outside the event.
And of course the DOMA brief certainly impacted Jeremy and I as well.
We [at the DNC] want to try to clear the air. We're very committed to working together with the community and trying to get on the same page and really trying to fight for progressive change.
There are millions of gay Americans who care about healthcare and care a hell of a lot about energy reform and a hell of a lot about these other issues that we're all working on - in addition to overturning DADT and DOMA. And we really think we need to be partners with the community on that.
I'm not saying we're 100% faultless here. I think certainly there've been times when we made missteps. But we feel like this does have to be a two-way street and somehow we have to come together to fight for progressive change."
Where Do We Go From Here?
I mentioned to Gifford how entertainment producer Herb Hamsher, who, with his longtime partner Jonathan Stoller, manages married actors Judith Light and Robert Desiderio and is a longtime friend of Gifford and Bernard, told me he is "fed up" with Democratic inaction and may boycott fundraisers.
"Obviously, there are a number of very close friends of mine and acquaintances who've been disappointed over the course of the last several weeks and months with some of the various statements and filings coming out of the administration. I completely understand that and am sympathetic to it. I hope - as they continue to see progress made - and I am fully confident that they will see progress - that they will continue to hear us out, will continue to listen to us and I hope that their concerns and their anger is quickly alleviated.
And I will do my part to see that that happens. My door is always open to them. I'm always willing to talk and discuss these issues and to discuss what we're doing and what we can be doing better, different ways we can reach out to the community, always willing to discuss it."
Indeed, Gifford thinks "the last six months have been the most significant in the history of the gay rights movement." And he believes there's more progress to come.
"I understand the LGBT community's impatience but I think the community will be very, very excited and encouraged by several things coming out of the administration in the weeks and months to come," Gifford said. "Based on my personal experiences on the campaign and with the President and everyone he's surround himself with - I have tremendous faith in the administration."