Scroll To Top

The Kingmakers

The Kingmakers


Ten states still don't have any out lawmakers--at any level of government. The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund hopes to change that in 2006

The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund doesn't see the U.S. electoral map in red and blue. For the Washington, D.C., political action committee--which works to increase the ranks of openly gay and lesbian officeholders--it's black and white. Ten states still do not have a single out gay or lesbian elected official, and LGBT candidates need to get into office in these "horizon states" in 2006.

In its 14-year history Victory Fund has helped hundreds of gays and lesbians win at ballot boxes around the country. Its success has hinged on putting the nuts and bolts of politics--particularly big-time fund-raising--to work for LGBT candidates.

High-profile races and a new initiative aimed at helping elected officials come out of the closet could make this year a notable one for the organization. "I'm thrilled about this slate," says Robin Brand, vice president for campaigns and elections. "To start this off with big races and to have some horizon states in play is exciting."

So far Victory Fund has endorsed 13 candidates in 2006 races. They include Sean Patrick Maloney, a candidate for New York State's attorney general's seat who is a former aide to President Clinton. A victory would make Maloney the highest-ranking openly gay official in the country.

And then there's Jarrett Barrios, who's seeking to become the district attorney of Middlesex County, Mass. Other key races include the reelection bid of Julia Boseman, who is running to keep her seat in the North Carolina state senate. All three could have bright political futures beyond the seats they're seeking, Victory officials say.

Victory Fund's many...well, victories, have not come without detractors. Critics claim that the group plays kingmaker, essentially deciding which gay and lesbian candidates run successful campaigns.

In 2004, Brett Wagner felt the sting of the Victory Fund's rejection in his long-shot bid to unseat Elton Gallegly, the 10-term Republican U.S. representative from Simi Valley, Calif. Although he acknowledges that his campaign faced long odds, he says the fund's blessing would have raised his profile. That in turn would have helped in a future political race (Wagner is now eyeing a state senate seat). "The Victory Fund does good work," he says. "But I'm an old chess player, and in order to win in politics--like in chess--you have to think out a few moves."

Victory Fund officials use a complicated and often subjective formula involving political statistics and the organization's own electoral goals to decide which candidates to back. They insist that political hopefuls show they're "viable" by completing a questionnaire and doing interviews; candidates must demonstrate that they have name recognition through community involvement, that they understand the political process, and that they can raise much of their own money.

But not all the candidates endorsed are guaranteed winners, Victory Fund leaders insist, even though a high endorsement-to-win ratio is crucial to keeping donors jazzed about the group's mission. "We don't look at winnability first; we look at viability," says Chuck Wolfe, the group's president and CEO.

The organization tries to maintain a balance of local, state, and national races, which affects endorsement decisions; Victory Fund officials won't disclose what their optimum ratio is. And they're much more likely to back a candidate, even a long-shot one, in a horizon state or in a race where antigay attacks are likely.

One thing is sure--Victory Fund can show candidates the money. Endorsement comes at several levels: At the most basic, the Victory Fund helps a candidate with technical support--for instance, helping put together a campaign staff or polishing their fund-raising pitch. High-priority candidates get the VIP treatment: Victory Fund works its donor networks heavily through direct mail and personal contacts to drum up cash.

Cash aside, Victory Fund has a new focus this year: helping closeted gay officials come out--and stay in office. The group maintains a list of officeholders it knows to be closeted; some have been consulting Victory staffers for years about the legislators' precarious positions. Victory Fund officials won't share that list or say how long it is, but they are working hard to see it shrink. They firmly oppose "outing" officeholders, however.

"If we ever outed anyone, we'd lose our credibility with the people we work with," says Wolfe. "We are professionals, tasked with helping public officials come out at a time of their choosing and on their terms. When this process is undertaken willfully and thoughtfully, we greatly increase the likelihood that the official will not experience political fallout and be able to provide an effective voice for our community as their career continues and hopefully flourishes."

For years Victory Fund staffers have informally shared advice with politicians and officials about how to come out, touching subjects such as when and how to do it; media strategy; and which messages resonate with voters and constituents.

To formalize that advice, Victory plans this spring to launch "The Coming Out Project," a campaign that includes a video featuring openly gay elected officials, like current U.S. representatives Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Steve Gunderson, the former Republican congressman from Wisconsin.

Victory is also conducting public opinion research to gauge voters' reactions to elected officials who declare that they're gay. The goal is to use the research to convince closeted officeholders that coming out doesn't necessarily spell political doom and that it can be a chance to come clean with voters. "What we're finding is that people really respond to the honesty of coming out," Brand says. "People think, Well, if he's honest with me about this, then he'll be honest about things like taxes."

Whether the Victory Fund reaches its goal of increasing the number of out officials by helping them out of the closet or by putting them in office, those who've benefited from the organization say the mission is crucial.

Baldwin is practically the poster girl for the Victory Fund--the group endorsed her in her first campaign, for Wisconsin state assembly in 1992, and helped her amass the war chest she needed to win her congressional seat. She says she has seen the effect gay and lesbian lawmakers have.

"It made a huge difference for me," she says. "It made it possible for me to keep a fund-raising edge against my opponents, which gave me credibility as a candidate at a time when people were skeptical that an out lesbian could win."

Gay lawmakers can affect actual policies--the Victory Fund likes to point out examples of LGBT officeholders who helped defeat antigay legislation at the state and local levels. They also change tones of political debates, Baldwin asserts. "It matters to have openly gay and lesbian people as elected officials," she says. "Often we can speak to our experiences, and even just being in the room can change people's attitudes."

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Emily Heil