Mr. Gill goes to Washington

Don't be seduced by 'shiny baubles' like Hillary and Barack, says a new independent gay voice in politics.

By Chris Crain

The first actual votes are still almost a year away, but the race for the White House is already in full swing. Barack Obama transfixed the nation last week with an inspirational speech announcing his candidacy.

The author of "The Audacity of Hope" stuck to the theme, calling on Americans to turn away from "the smallness of our politics" and the cynical Washington blame game.

"When all else fails, when Katrina happens, or the death toll in Iraq mounts, we've been told that our crises are somebody else's fault," said Obama. "We're distracted from our real failures, and told to blame the other party, or gay people, or immigrants.

So who is this reclusive gay millionaire from Colorado, an engineer who made his money in computer software, who warns us not to be seduced by Obama's charistmatic call, to avoid "glamour giving" in a presidential contest where even large donations are mere drops in the bucket?

He's Tim Gill, creator of Quark design software and now a full-time philanthropist and gay rights provocateur.

"You hope that the forces of darkness will be the ones distracted by the shiny bauble of the presidency," Gill said recently in a rare interview with Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Gill isn't distracted. His Denver-based Gill Foundation has over the years donated hundreds of thousands to gay rights groups and politicians, following the traditional school of thought about how to buy our way to equality.

Mightily dissatisfied with the results, Gill the engineer decided to try his own experiment, and hired his own political strategists. First motivated by anti-gay ballot measures in Colorado, Gill invested his money directly where the action was: trying to stop statewide constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

But seeing the long odds there, he and his advisers looked more closely at the situation and saw that, although these measures get broad support at the polls, they are typically generated by only a few local politicians who use gay marriage to drum up dollars and build larger political careers. As they advance, they only wreak further havoc on us at a higher level. Think Rick Santorum.

So beginning in 2004, Gill aimed at cutting off these right-wing wunderkinds early on, identifying the loudest local anti-gay politicians from the most vulnerable districts, and he poured large sums of money into knocking them off. He also called on a network of gay philanthropers he's spent years cultivating, and many of them followed suit.

The result was extraordinary. Atlantic Monthly reported that, in 2004, two of three anti-gay incumbents incumbents targeted by Gill were defeated. Democrats took control of both chambers of the state's legislature for the first time in four decades.

In 2006, Gill went even bigger, cherry-picking some 70 vulnerable anti-gay incumbents and other races that might affect control of state legislatures. Atlantic Monthly reported that Gill's donor network spent more than $3 million, but in small chunks of change in these mostly smaller races.

More extraordinary results: 50 of the 70 candidates were defeated and Democrats took control of state legislatures in four of 13 targeted states. Even with the strong anti-incumbent, anti-Republican electorate, those are impressive results.

As Gill and the Gill Action Fund, his political action committee, opened an office in Washington this month, two factors set them apart from dinosaurs like the Human Rights Campaign: GAF's constituency of one, and its independence from the Democratic Party.

GAF has been headed since last year by Patrick Guerriero, the smart and talented former director of Log Cabin Republicans. Guerriero and Gill harbor no illusions that money is well spent today on the GOP's anti-gay leadership, but their independence means that their money is spent on gay rights priorities, not Democratic Party priorities.

There are many times, of course, when these two interests coincide, but one key principle preached by Gill and GAF is that gay money is better spent down in the trenches, as conservative Christians have for decades, than on "the shiny bauble" of national politics, even when sirens like Obama or Hillary Clinton come calling.

That sort of strategy doesn't sit well with the "Massachusetts Gay Mafia" that runs HRC, or with leading gay Democrats like Jeff Soref, who complained to Atlantic Monthly that Gill's approach drained needed resources from Democrats.

"Tim's turning people away from national politics at a time when Democrats have just achieved a big victory," said Soref. "I've personally gotten calls, pre- and post-election, from Democratic leaders who feel the gay community has not been as supportive in this election as in previous ones."

Soref in the past has been an important critic of weak-kneed Democratic Party strategy on gay issues, but he's too partisan to see the value in Gill's independence.

Let's hope Democratic Party leaders noticed the missing pink dollars. It's frankly galling to hear that party leaders are Janet Jackson -- "What have you done for us lately?" -- when that's exactly what we gays should be saying to them.

Chris Crain is former editor of the Washington Blade, Southern Voice, and gay publications in three other cities. He can be reached via his blog at www.citizencrain.com.

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