Obama's LGBT Donors: Finally Fired Up, Ready to Go

President Obama’s support on marriage reportedly spiked fund-raising for the reelection campaign.

BY Julie Bolcer

May 10 2012 6:00 PM ET

Some compared the feeling to when Gavin Newsom opened San Francisco City Hall for same-sex couples to marry. Others thought of the jubilation surrounding the California Supreme Court decision in 2008. Still more invoked the euphoria the night New York passed marriage equality legislation. Even as people groped for examples to describe their emotions around the news that President Obama had come out in favor of full marriage equality on Wednesday, a surge in donations following his historic announcement spoke loud and clear.

“There’s no question that the community is ecstatic,” said Dana Perlman, one of eight cochairs of the LGBT Leadership Council, the constituent group for the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee. “People are expressing their pleasure and glee through contributions. The energy is so great, and I think people want to show their appreciation in some way.”

According to BuzzFeed, an unidentifed Democratic source said the campaign raised $1 million in the 90 minutes following news that the president had come out in favor of marriage equality. The campaign would not confirm the amount and has declined to discuss any campaign finance-related matters in the wake of the announcement.

Top campaign bundlers such as Perlman described a spike in fund-raising and new donors in the day since Obama made the announcement. They said people at all giving levels responded to a moment that crystallized the sharp distinctions between Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger. The presumptive Republican nominee, who had already pledged his support for a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, reacted to the development by affirming his opposition to marriage equality and any kind of comparable civil union.

“All of a sudden it makes things really clear,” said Perlman. “It doesn’t get any clearer than someone who’s for me and someone’s who’s for a constitutional amendment on the other hand. This is something where people now feel, contrasted with what Mitt Romney said yesterday. There should be no guessing in any LGBT person’s or ally’s mind who they should support.”

Though progress on repeals of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act had already coalesced heavy-hitting LGBT support for Obama, the president’s final evolution on marriage equality may have enticed some remaining holdouts. “I’ve seen a lot folks who have withheld contributions until now and are now maxing out to his campaign,” said Kirk Fordham, executive director of Gill Action. “He’s certainly energized not just the LGBT base, but the progressive base as well.”

In the past week, reports swirled that top LGBT donors, who make up a significant chunk of Obama's fund-raising arsenal, had withheld donations over frustration with the president’s position on marriage and his refusal to sign an executive order banning discrimination in federal contracting. Wally Brewster, a Leadership Council cochair in Chicago, said most donors he knew were pleased with the president’s overall record, and among those who had doubts about his position on marriage equality, the announcement Wednesday assuaged their concerns.

“It was a defining issue for a small group of people,” he said. “Some people wanted to hear the leader of our country step out and say the word. We know he’s been there, but I think there were a few people who were waiting, and I think now it’s no question.”

Perlman said that one woman who was withholding money over the marriage issue contacted him Wednesday morning and they “agreed to disagree.” A few hours later, after the president’s interview with ABC News, she called and made one of her largest-ever political donations, and posted about it online.

Growing frustration with a muddled position on marriage cut across the president’s base, both gay and straight, one political operative said. Many straight progressive donors, the strategist said, “think it was a smart move for the president to come out now, that it was overdue. He was beginning to look tortured and uncomfortable on this particular issue, so I think in some ways it was liberating to see.”

Gay and straight Democrats alike will have plenty of opportunity for payback in the near future. Tonight, the president is scheduled to attend a reported $15 million fund-raiser in Los Angeles at the Studio City home of George Clooney, one to be attended by marriage equality figures such as Barbra Streisand, director Rob Reiner, and Dreamworks executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. Next week Ricky Martin will host an event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.

In Florida donors with the group Democracy Alliance are meeting in Coral Gables, an event attended by Jonathan Lewis, one of the most prolific gay political donors in the country. Brewster said that he and his partner, Bob Satawake, will host a dinner for the president with a straight African-American couple in Chicago June 1.

Perlman is organizing the largest LGBT-specific event, the DNC LGBT Leadership gala in Los Angeles June 6, featuring the singer Pink. He said interest in the event was already strong, but the buzz skyrocketed after the president’s announcement. Compared to last year, when Obama was heckled over his stance at the same event in New York City, this year is expected to be outright jubilant.

“There’s no question that what has happened in the past few days has heightened the anticipation and the enthusiasm,” he said. “They want to go and celebrate with the president on June 6.”

Some in the LGBT community who have already maxed out their donations to the Obama campaign are looking to give using other channels, such as the Obama super PAC, Priorities USA, or outside grassroots campaigns in key swing states. The president has notably lagged behind Romney in super PAC fund-raising.

Other donors have taken a do-it-yourself approach, taking to Facebook and other social networking sites to set up fund-raising pages in the past day. The small donations and grassroots efforts seem to reflect the spirit of the first Obama campaign in 2008.

“From a social media perspective, you could see there is a groundswell with the LGBT community but also outside the community who are allies, like young people,” said Brewster. “It’s a very important issue for them. It’s an equal rights issue for them.”

Reporting by Julie Bolcer and Andrew Harmon.

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