BY James Kirchick
January 11 2010 10:00 AM ET
In 2004, Andy Szekeres, then a 21-year-old budding Democratic strategist with several political campaigns already under his belt, was working as the Wisconsin LGBT field coordinator for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Szekeres estimates that he and his team registered 26,000 new gay voters across the crucial swing state that year, and on Election Night, Kerry won the state by about 11,000 votes—less than 0.5% of the overall vote. Though the win can be attributed to the support of various constituencies, there’s no question that Wisconsin would have wound up red—not blue—if it hadn’t been for gay voters’ strong backing of the Democratic ticket.
Fast-forward five years to Maine, where social conservatives proposed and funded Question 1, a November ballot initiative that, like Proposition 8 in California, successfully repealed marriage equality in the state. Szekeres worked as finance director for No on 1/Protect Maine Equality, which opposed the initiative. But he says his experience with the Democratic Party was significantly different this time. While the national party had been more than happy to enlist the support of gay donors and campaign workers in its effort to get Kerry elected in 2004, it couldn’t be bothered to involve itself in the fight to maintain those voters’ and workers’ right to marry.
In a November e-mail to Politico’s Ben Smith, a Democratic National Committee official seemed to indicate that the party’s inaction on Question 1 stemmed from its desire not to be seen as prioritizing one cause over another. “In Maine there were over a half dozen ballot initiatives and referendums, and local municipal elections at stake, and OFA [Organizing for America, the Obama presidential campaign operation’s successor, which works within the DNC] sent an e-mail to thousands of activists encouraging them to vote in support of progressive causes and candidates,” the official wrote. In fact, it was only after prompted by The Advocate’s Washington correspondent, Kerry Eleveld, that the White House issued an oblique statement about Question 1—a reiteration of the president’s general opposition to measures aimed at rescinding marriage rights. Maine wasn’t explicitly addressed.
“I don’t think Maine was a sexy enough state for [the DNC] to invest in,” Szekeres says today, suggesting that had the battle taken place in a bigger state, the party might have taken a more active role. In 2008 the DNC wrote a $25,000 check to fight Prop. 8 (a pittance in an $83 million campaign). That involvement left many to wonder why the party didn’t do the same in Maine, where $25,000 could have paid for two days of TV ads or two weeks’ pay for 10 field organizers. The DNC did send an e-mail blast to its members in Maine reminding them to vote, but there was no mention of Question 1. That oversight was compounded when John Aravosis of AmericaBlog revealed that the party sent out a second e-mail, asking its members in Maine to make phone calls in support of the embattled Democratic governor—in New Jersey.
Szekeres’s experience is illustrative of the problem that many gay people, one of the most loyal Democratic constituencies alongside African-Americans and Jews, have vis-à-vis their relationship with the Democratic Party. “We give money to get something,” he says. “We don’t give money to get warm fuzzies. If I wanted that, I’d give money to the cat shelter.”
In the wake of the Maine defeat, a coterie of liberal bloggers and activists called for a temporary moratorium on DNC donations. The fledgling movement, which has adopted the motto “Don’t Ask, Don’t Give” and has attracted the likes of legendary gay rights activist David Mixner, hopes to discourage donations to the party until the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the repeal of both “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. In so doing, these activists are hoping to reshape—if not completely upset—the relationship between gays and the Democratic Party.