In the wake of the 2016 elections — and subsequent attacks on transgender rights — a group of pioneering trans activists decided that getting more trans candidates on the ballot would be more impactful than checking one off. Together they formed the Trans United Fund, the first and only national political advocacy group focused on empowering trans and gender expansive people. Its Breakthrough Fund is the first bipartisan transgender political action committee (PAC) and was designed to help a handful of key political candidates by providing funding or other resources — sometimes both.
In the 2017 elections, TUF won big: Virginia’s Danica Roem became the first transgender woman in the United States to win a seat in a state legislature, and two trans candidates were elected to the Minneapolis City Council. Andrea Jenkins became the first out trans black woman, and Phillipe Cunningham became the first out trans black man elected to public office.
If it weren’t for the money TUF raised, the connections and resources it provided, or the voter mobilization it spearheaded, it’s quite likely these trans candidates would not have won. TUF executive director, Hayden Mora, credits its success to determination, risk-taking, and having trans people “build our own political power and speak with our own voices.”
But, when TUF-backed candidates won tough races in Minnesota and Virginia, the ensuing media coverage failed to mention Trans United Fund. Instead, journalists quoted popular LGBT leaders from Victory Fund, Human Rights Campaign, and National Center for Transgender Equality.
The leaders of TUF say the group can go beyond the standard commitment of a political advocacy group (which is usually limited in how much money or support they can give to a candidate). PACs get around this legislative limitation by foregoing any communication with the candidate that includes non-public information. It’s called an independent expenditure. And in 2017, TUF’s Breakthrough Campaign did just that, providing its endorsed candidates with financial support as well as access to needed connections, planning, and expertise by partnering with organizations like OutFront Minnesota. TUF hopes its strategy of taking big risks to get candidates elected will make lasting change for people who need it most. It looks to be paying off so far — but that success was far from preordained.
Days before the 2017 elections, one of TUF’s top donors pulled out of their agreement, leaving TUF with a $45,000 hole in its budget, just as candidates like Cunningham were being attacked by million-dollar hate campaigns. Facing the choice of assuming the massive debt itself or shutting down its operations, TUF decided that abandoning candidates was not an option. For TUF, the fight was personal: its board is primarily made up of trans people of color, who know first-hand the history of racism, transphobia, sexism, and income inequality Cunningham had already faced as a black trans man. The organization wouldn’t abandon him after his campaign had come so far.
Cunningham — who shares the historic distinction of being the first out trans man elected in the U.S. with Pennsylvania’s Tyler Titus, who also won in 2017 — credits his narrow win (by just 157 votes) to TUF, because, “what they did was strategic, it was well invested, and it was great — I can tell you that those 157 [votes] absolutely came from the field plan and strategic investment that came from TUF.”
When TUF took on that additional debt in order to continue supporting its endorsed candidates, the organization reached out for help from larger, established political organizations with similar mission statements. According to long-time Texas activist Monica Roberts (who sits on TUF’s advisory board), some of the groups she, Danni Askini (founder of Gender Justice League), and Mora approached simply wouldn’t take on the added responsibility or financial burden to help push the candidates to victory. But others ponied up, donating the $600 maximum through the Minnesota PAC.
TransLatina Coalition founder Bamby Salcedo, another TUF board member, fears that some progressive organizations “are only using the name of our community as a marketing campaign to raise funds that don’t end up ever coming back to our communities. And... [then], they’ll leave us behind.” That’s one reason why these activists believe it takes a trans organization to prioritize trans politicians and long-term empowerment of the trans community.
Roberts, Askini, and Salcedo, aren’t the only TUF board heavyweights. It also includes Angelica Ross, the founder of TransTech Social Enterprises; former Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brynn Tannehill, a senior defense contractor; Melissa Sklarz, the first trans person elected to office in New York (in 1999); Mason Dunn, the executive director of Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition; and Mora himself, the first transgender member of the senior executive team at the Human Rights Campaign, where he was deputy chief of staff.
TUF leaders knew that any political campaign by a trans person of color was sure to be difficult, and Cunningham’s race proved no exception. He was up against a formidable opponent: incumbent Barb Johnson, who had been in the Minneapolis city-council seat for two decades; and whose family had held the seat for more than 40 years, according to the Minneapolis Post.
But Cunningham believed the community was ready for a change. “One family cannot be in office for 50 years and then continue to expect that business as usual is satisfying,” he says. Pointing to the fact that the demographics had radically changed in the district, Cunningham argued the only reason Johnson’s family remained in power was that everyone assumed the dynasty was unbeatable.
But TUF and Cunningham didn’t buy into that assumption, and neither did the voters, who turned out in droves in Ward 4, a Minneapolis district with historically low voter turnout, according to SEIU Minnesota State Council director Brian Elliott. The Ward witnessed a 36 percent increase in voter turnout over the four years prior. Even when Cunningham faced transphobia and racial bias, it didn’t dissuade him. He felt the voters were ready for someone new and his “perspective has literally never been brought to the table,” he says. “When you set a sheet of paper in front of me, I am looking at that sheet of paper both as a black woman and a black man because I’ve lived that experience. We have not had [trans] people able to be at the front of the conversation… because we have so many barriers in the way.”
Indeed, the intersectional lens that Cunningham brings may be exactly what voters are looking for in a post-Trump candidate.
“Trans United Fund’s willingness to invest in and center trans people of color — both in TUF’s own leadership and in its election support — is remarkable,” argues Logan Casey, a research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Andrea [Jenkin’s] win and Phillipe Cunningham’s… shows just how much difference these investments can make. Trans people, including trans people of color, can run as their full selves and win, especially if groups with access to electoral best practices, tools, and political savvy like Trans United Fund will support them.”
Supporting green candidates, especially in tight races can be risky, and that’s why Roberts thinks established LGBT orgs haven’t stepped up, except when they think a trans candidate is a sure bet. But, she argues, “Trans people cannot afford to play it safe.”
Taking risks has proven to be worthwhile, says Mora, pointing to candidates, like Alexandra Chandler, a trans lesbian running for Congress in Massachusetts, who sought out TUF’s endorsement after the 2017 elections. But TUF wants more than to win elections. The real power, Mora says, comes from “building long-term engagement” with their target voters, who Mora defines as “trans folks — and all oppressed people.”
That’s essentially why Phillipe Cunningham’s win was so important to TUF. Against all odds — and a million-dollar campaign — the PAC not only won, it expanded the electorate. TUF’s campaign pulled in voters whom others had given up on because they so rarely voted. TUF got them to come to the polls, and Mora thinks they’ll come back again next time, too. Mora — who once served as the deputy national political director at the SEIU labor union — argues that voting is habit-forming, and newly engaged voters are 10 percent more likely to vote in future elections. The “year of the transgender candidate,” as The Victory Fund called 2017, is not just about the hot trend of this election cycle, but a sign of things to come, Mora says. We’ve witnessed the birth of a new political force whose end goal is improving the livelihood of trans and gender-nonconforming people for years to come.
Despite the meaningful successes and electoral wins of the trans candidates backed by TUF, media coverage of the victories seemed to ignore the foundation’s role. Perhaps this was a side-effect of funneling all of TUF’s energy toward the cause rather than directing some to promoting TUF and touting its efforts. For the 2017 election, Mora says TUF raised nearly $200,000 and invested over 88 percent of the funds directly into supporting trans candidates. The PAC’s success is even more remarkable when one realizes that many of TUF’s own board members are themselves experiencing discrimination, dealing with poverty, managing HIV, and facing violence. Roberts, for example, survived Houston’s devastating hurricane, and Salcedo is serving an undocumented clientele, many of whom have — like her — survived violence and life on the streets. Yet they are all committed to electing trans representatives because they believe that’s the only way trans issues will be addressed. Their commitment means that today TUF is still $45,000 in debt, yet undeterred from its mission.
TUF has proven it can get candidates elected, and it can get voters motivated. But there’s still much more to do. “These wins are historic and their impact will be long lasting,” says Elliot. “But they are only the prerequisite for building the sort of power that trans people — and all oppressed and marginalized groups — need [in order] to change things. This campaign gave voters and volunteers a sense of their own power. Now [their] job is to… leverage that to drive a proactive policy agenda… that makes a difference in people’s lives. And to prepare for the next round of elections.”