The Gill Action Fund: Serious LGBT politics
by Bob Roehr
The Gill Action Fund is the latest creation of Denver's gay entrepreneur and philanthropist Tim Gill. The fund was set up because Gill's political investment had expanded to the point where it needed a formal structure, explained Ted Trimpa, who advises the fund.
Trimpa is a political consultant who has long advised Gill on his strategies and contributions, but each sensed that the efforts had outgrown their conversations on the living room couch. There are legal limitations on what the Gill Foundation can do in terms of political activity, and the action fund was created to fill that void. The fact that an antigay marriage initiative is likely to be on the ballot in Colorado this fall also influenced timing in creating the fund.
The Gill Foundation has assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The action fund is expected to have expenditures of at least $10 million in 2006, according to foundation spokeswoman Joanne Kron.
Gill has been a major supporter of the gay marriage struggle in Massachusetts, probably the third largest contributor overall, Trimpa guessed. The key to that success was real grassroots organizing. "I'm talking knock on doors, and knock on them again, and don't go turn out the gay vote, go knock on the doors of swing voters," said Rodger McFarlane, executive director of the Gill Foundation, pounding his hand on the table, "and knock on them day after day."
"It's expensive and time consuming," said Trimpa, "but it is the absolute right way to do real grassroots politics – door to door, talking to the voters, having gay people go to them, allies of ours go to each of them, walk them through, and you flip votes one by one." It is a strategy that works in both the legislature and in the field.
McFarlane quotes his boss on another key aspect of their political strategy. "Tim says you have to turn down the volume [of opponents' antigay rhetoric]. They can't just say and do everything with license. They have to know beforehand that it is going to cost some votes and some serious money to play like that. It certainly doesn't stop it, but it turns it way down." And when they do spew antigay rhetoric, they often look extreme.
"You have to create an environment of fear and respect," added Trimpa. "The only way to do that is to get aggressive and go out and actually beat them up [politically]. Sitting there crying and whining about being victims isn't going to get us equality. What is going to get us equality is fighting for it."
Colorado is shaping up as a hot battleground for gay rights for the next election cycle. This time, it isn't just because the far right has chosen to pick a fight; gay rights advocates have their own agenda.
The strategy had a test run in 2004 "when we flipped both houses" of the state legislature from Republican to Democratic control, McFarlane said with pride. Trimpa said it was based on two parts, the carrot and the stick. One was participating at the highest levels to set strategies and tactics with like-minded allies. "The stick part of that was to overlay a strategy to take known antigay elected officials and target them specifically for their past antigay views, actions, and statements."
"Of the three that we targeted, we took out two. And the third was an absolute long shot – a 3 to 1 Republican district. Out of 50,000 votes cast, we came within 1,500. We are finally realizing that how we win is by creating an environment of fear and respect."
That winning attitude has carried over into this legislative session and in setting a strategy for elections in the fall. Last year LGBT supporters were able to pass both hate crimes and employment nondiscrimination laws. Conservative Republican Governor Bill Owens signed the first and vetoed the second.
"But an important thing about the veto message was that the governor specifically admonished those senators that called homosexuality an abomination, and he criticized another for comparing homosexuality to pedophilia," said Trimpa. "He is a pretty conservative governor and it was pretty compelling."
The key legislation this year is a domestic partnership law that the legislature will pass and put on the November ballot. Trimpa said they are "talking about the pieces of this debate that have extraordinary support – hospital visitation, inheritance, workers compensation, all poll above 75 percent – so let's make them argue, individually, why those pieces shouldn't be so."
"Part of our strategy is to make the other side, particularly Focus [on the Family] talk about what the real issue is," Trimpa said. "Is this about the fact that you don't want to accept homosexuality? Or is this about the fact that you want to continue to be unfair to committed gay couples, to the financial challenges that they face?"
James Dobson's group is so concerned that its chief legislative ally has introduced a bill that is a kind of "DP-lite." It would offer some, but not all, of the same benefits to a broader range of people. Focus on the Family has embraced it but one of their minions, the discredited psychologist Paul Cameron, has called that "unprecedented" and has broken with the group on the issue. Trimpa credited Dobson with a smart political ploy but doubts it will get very far.
The far right also is pushing a petition for the fall ballot that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. McFarlane and Trimpa said the gay community would probably lose that vote, and that has helped define their strategy. Going the legislative/ballot route shapes the public debate now to talk about the substance of issues such as inheritance and medical decision-making.
"You can have people voting for the constitutional amendment and voting for DP and that works fine," said Trimpa.
McFarlane added, "We put both options up at the same time so they can't just do the self-righteous Bible-beating. You can be adamantly supportive of the definition of marriage between a man and a woman, but then you have to talk about the actual legal and social stuff."
"If we were intellectually honest and said, no, nothing less than marriage, we'd lose our asses on that, just like people in other states did. So let's use the opportunity to talk about the substance of the arguments instead of the symbology," said McFarlane.
The long term
While their ultimate goal is marriage equality, Trimpa and McFarlane realize it is not going to be accomplished immediately, in a single stroke.
"We have got to be careful about expecting people overnight to understand what it is like to be gay," said Trimpa. "It took me over 12 years to come to grips with the fact that I was gay. And I thought about it every damn day. I'd get up in the morning, look in the mirror, the face was staring me back, I kept having those thoughts, my God, I'm attracted to men, what the hell is going on with me?
"And we are expecting people in a shorter period of time – when you think about real public awareness of gay rights – just to do that overnight. I don't think that is fair."
The foundation and action fund also have learned to play both sides of the political aisle. "Part of Tim's giving strategy on the Republican side has been, let's help Republicans take their party back, rather than change them into Democrats. There are reasons they are Republican, and we have to respect that," said Trimpa.
McFarland adds in a conspiratorial whisper, "And many of us happen to agree" with some of those reasons.
McFarlane has joined the growing chorus of those within the LGBT community calling for "actual legislative wins," and accountability. "In the past it was we've gotta elect a Democrat, we've gotta elect a Democrat. And the Democrats haven't done very well, nor have they responded to our adversaries."
"I think they're just scared of our issues. They're stuck [back] 10 years ago and think this is a negative, when in fact, if you look at the data and if you get on the offensive, it is not a negative," McFarlane said.
"Tim has said, passing money through the Democratic Party and letting someone speak for us has not worked. We always end up as the piece that is negotiable – we always fall off the end. Bill Clinton would make speeches that would inspire you to walk across the desert, and then every time we came to getting something out of committee or actually voting on something, we were the ones that were cut," McFarlane added.
The pair criticizes much past political spending for piddling away money to support "friends" who are going to win anyway; many of whom may vote the right way but do not exercise leadership on LGBT issues.
Trimpa said money has to be concentrated for maximum impact, both "to punish the evil," and "to create an environment where there is reward for people who actually lead, who take those risks."
A combination of the community speaking for itself, a long term plan focusing on a few targets at a time, and coordinating with allies will help to move the fight for LGBT equality along.
"We have to remember, civil unions were unspeakable five years ago, any legal recognition of a gay couple, and now that's the fallback position for marriage, even for the president of the United States," said McFarlane.
In the March 23 article about the Gill Foundation ["Gill Foundation helps gay groups"], the foundation's assets are about double the $170 million mentioned in the story. Additionally, the reference to the Gill Action Fund as a political action committee is incorrect. The fund is a 501 (c)4 organization that can take part in issue advocacy. Finally, the given name of Ted Trimpa was incorrect.