At a recent fundraiser in Palm Springs, Calif., the Victory Fund's new president and CEO, Aisha Moodie-Mills, confidently commanded a packed backyard filled with mostly older, male, white donors. Since taking over the nation's foremost funder and trainer of LGBT political candidates in March, Moodie-Mills has hit the ground running, raising money for candidates and demonstrating her vision for the Victory Fund's post-marriage equality years.
After introducing the candidate of the hour, 35-year-old Chattanooga, Tenn., City Councilman Chris Anderson, Moodie-Mills explained her battle plan for the next two years.
"We're really focusing on electing LGBT people to state legislatures," she says. "One, because redistricting is coming up so the legislatures will be in play. [Also], if you look around the country, there are 11 states with no LGBT people in the state legislature."
For Moodie-Mills, who's worked in D.C. for 15 years as a political adviser, private sector liasion, fundraiser, and most recently, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, it's about more than just saying there's a lesbian in the Alabama Senate or a transgender mayor in New York.
"When you look at the policy change that impacts our lives, that’s going to happen at a state legislative level. Yet we don't have a lot of people there who can drive that change," she says, referring to everything from housing protections to HIV funding. Even more local are people like Kentucky clerk/antigay crusader Kim Davis.
"That is a campaign I want to wage," Moodie-Mills says of ousting the clerk. "Kim Davis epitomizes the need for Victory Fund and the need to have LGBT people in a pipeline poised and ready to run so they unseat folks who would do us harm. Unfortunately, I don’t have anyone in that pipeline. But what’s surprising and wonderful is that we know there’s an LGBT community in that part of the state. So it’s about building relationships and finding someone to pit against her."
Investing in state and local LGBT candidates can lead to change within the electorate, she adds. Some of the biggest and most influential states are nearly devoid of queer elected officials; Texas has two, Ohio two, Arizona one.
"When you look at Florida, there's one [gay] guy, David Richardson, in the state House," she says. "We'd love to put him in the state Senate and then have someone else [LGBT] run in the state House. Helping public servants grow in their leadership is a key priority for us."
The Victory Fund is also championing the congressional candidacy of Brian Sims, the 37-year-old Pennsylvania state legislator. Renowned for his youth and good looks, Sims is well-known among gay politicos. But Moodie-Mills also has her eye on candidates who look less like the people she was wooing in Palm Springs last month. The Victory Fund is helping the campaign of aspiring Midvale, Utah, City Council member Sophia Hawes-Tingey, who could be the first transgender person elected in the state. Then there's Shannon Hardin, an out African-American City Council member in Columbus, Ohio, who isn't yet 30.
"We’re being intentional about diversifying the pipeline," Moodie-Mills says, mentioning a new fellowship training program that's designed to get more trans and LGBT candidates of color into office. She does admit the Victory Fund has a big job ahead of itself. "We’re working on it, but at the end of the day we don’t have enough diversity. That’s why we’re being very mindful about the programs that bring in more diverse candidates."
Even with all her emphasis on local politics, Moodie-Mills is clearly still paying attention to all the rancor in Washington. Of Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan being elected as the new House speaker: "Paul Ryan gives me nothing; I have zero emotion around Paul Ryan. I think it’ll be more of the same."
She doubts Ryan will push for a repeal of marriage equality or a return of "don't ask, don't tell," but she thinks a Republican Congress under Ryan means the Equality Act — which would finally offer nationwide employment and housing protections for LGBT people — is not happening any time soon. She does see opportunities in the 2016 presidential election, though.
"Our candidates are going to benefit from the investment and fervor at the top of the ticket," she says."We’re in Michigan, Ohio, Florida — these places where others are investing billions of dollars in the presidential cycle. And if we can ride the wave of all the funds being spent to help our candidates position themselves and take that tide into office, we’re gonna do it."
When asked, Moodie-Mills says the Victory Fund won't be endorsing a presidential candidate (unless, of course, they're LGBT — that could happen "in a decade," she says), before quickly bringing the discussion back to the local level.
"We’re getting people elected to City Councils and state legislatures and mayorships who are actually affecting outcomes for LGBT people on the ground, and that’s where we grow power, that’s where the work needs to be done," she says. "Regardless of what Paul Ryan and those guys up there who are antigay do, we're able to drive change at the local level, and that bubbles up and transforms states, transforms whole communities, and ultimately transforms the nation."