Karen Ocamb

Exclusive: DNC's Rufus Gifford Confirms $1M for LGBT Fundraiser

Filed By Karen Ocamb | July 06, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Andy Tobias, Barack Obama, David Mixner, Defense of Marriage Act, Democratic National Committee, DNC, DOMA, Don't Ask Don't Tell, Donald Hitchcock, Herb Hamsher, Jeremy Bernard, Jon Hoadley, Judith Light, Kerry Eleveld, LGBT Leadership Council, LGBT politics, Lt. Dan Choi, Michelangelo Signorile, National Stonewall Democrats, Pam Spaulding, Rufus Gifford, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, The Advocate, Tim Kaine, Tom Petrillo


The Advocate's Kerry Eleveld was right: the Democratic National Committee did make a million dollars off that controversial LGBT Leadership Council fundraiser on June 25. Or at least that's the tally the DNC is expecting by mid-July when all the checks have been counted, DNC Finance Director Rufus Gifford told me over the July 4th holiday.

Bernard-Gifford.jpgGifford and his life and business partner, Jeremy Bernard, were early and significant fundraisers for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign. In January 2008, the LA Weekly dubbed the duo "Obama's Gay Gold Mine." They suspended their Los Angeles-based consulting firm B+G Associates when Bernard was named White House liaison to the National Endowment for the Humanities and Gifford was named Director of Finance for the DNC.

Knowing the pair from their work in LA, I asked Gifford how it feels to be an inside-the-Beltway LGBT "power couple." He chuckled with bemusement. He and Bernard have a reputation for a dedication to progressive causes and only working for pro-LGBT candidates. With that comes a kind of sophisticated humility: arrogance is uncool and impedes growth, communication and real partnership.

But knowing Gifford didn't mean I was going to get more out of him for the record than he was willing to give. He let me know that "everyone's on board" - and by everyone, he meant DNC Chair Tim Kaine and DNC Treasurer Andy Tobias - with him trying to explain the DNC's side of the story about what turned into a very controversial LGBT fundraiser.

Read the full interview after the jump.

Where's the Beef?

The fundraiser wasn't originally controversial. The DNC's openly gay Treasurer Andy Tobias and DNC LGBT Leadership Council's Finance Director Thomas Petrillo sent out invitations in April and early May as soon as Vice President Biden was confirmed as the keynote speaker.

But as the media started ticking off Obama's accomplishments in his first 100 days - the LGBT community started grousing over why the president - still in hot water over Rick Warren - and the Democratically-controlled Congress had not yet moved on any of the promised LGBT equal rights legislation. It took more drama than expected, for instance, for the House to pass an inclusive hate crimes bill on day 100.

Richard Socarides kicked it up a notch with his May 2 op-ed in the Washington Post calling out Obama on his promise to be a "fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans." To resurrect that old 1984 Hart-Mondale political joke, Socarides was asking, "Where's the beef?"

The "fierce advocate" meme took off - including my own piece for The Bilerico Project asking Obama to give us a liaison to be a fierce advocate for us since he was failing at the job.

And then came what many felt was the push under the bus: late in the afternoon of June 11, the Department of Justice - under renown civil rights leader and now Attorney General Eric Holder - filed a stunning brief supporting the Defense of Marriage Act which Obama had promised to repeal in full. Most LGBTs were outraged. The blogosphere lit up with Americablog's John Aravosis leading the way - though other bloggers, such as Chris Geidner at Law Dork, 2.0, challenged some of Aravosis' conclusions. The mainstream media took notice.

By the end of day one after the DOMA filing, it didn't really matter what legal analysis was correct: much of the LGBT community and many straight allies felt the Obama administration's cold dead-fish slap across the face. That betrayal - coupled with the very public but ultimately ineffectual pleadings by West Point graduate and Arab linguist Lt Dan Choi to not be discharged and the White House's inept response - created an online groundswell of deeply pained protest.

Everyone held their breath to see if Obama would say something during an Oval Office ceremony when signing the memorandum to extend limited benefits to partners of federal employees. He didn't and the event was minimized to within an inch of mattering.

The Closest Target

Hurt, disillusioned, betrayed - the LGBT community turned its aggrieved eyes to the next, closest target - the LGBT Leadership Council's fundraiser for the DNC. By June 17, major donors such as businessman Bruce Bastian decided to boycott the DNC event. "I will continue to support certain congressmen, congresswomen and senators whom I believe will continue to fight for our rights, but I don't think blanket donations to the Democratic Party right now are justified, at least not in my book," Bastian told the Washington Blade. In an email to the DNC, Bastian said he was boycotting "because of the remarks on DOMA" - having found the filing "offensive."

Longtime activist David Mixner really let loose - bundling Obama, Congress and the DNC together:

'I will not attend a fundraiser for the National Democratic Party in Washington next week when the current administration is responsible for these kind of actions. How will they ever take us seriously if we keep forking out money while they harm us. For now on, my money is going to battles within the community such as the fight in Maine or the March on Washington! I am so tired of being told by Democratic operatives to 'suck it up' because so many other profound issues are at stake. It is as if our fight for our freedom is single handedly responsible for the fate of all other issues. Bullshit. Maybe, just maybe, it is time for others to 'suck it up' for us and finally, without conditions, join our fight for our freedom!"

A drumbeat started on the blogs and in the LGBT press - reported by ABC News' Jake Tapper, among other mainstream outlets, noting who was attending and dropping out of the fundraiser while some blog commenters vilified anyone connected with the event as a "traitor."

Meanwhile - not a peep from the DNC about the LGBT fury. Perhaps they didn't want to throw fuel on the fire. After all, with Kaine facing a $15 million debt when he took the top job in January, the DNC needed the money.

The LGBT community, however, was counting on the boycott to make a point. So when only about 50 people from the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network showed up to protest outside and The Advocate's Kerry Eleveld reported that the event raised about one million dollars - LGBT bloggers such as Pam Spaulding and Michelangelo Signorile questioned the validity of the amount raised.

Did the DNC Raise $1M From LGBT Donors?

The DNC, through Rufus Gifford, wants to clear that up, noting that the DNC LGBT Leadership Council fundraiser was "by far, the most successful event the DNC has ever done with the vice president" during Gifford's tenure as DNC Finance Director, which started in January.

Gifford said:

"We're interested in the setting the record straight. We're always taking notes. We care tremendously about what Democrats are thinking and feeling and how they're expressing their concerns and doubts in blogs and the LGBT press.

I'm very proud of what Andy Tobias, Tom Petrillo and everyone else has done over the course of the last few months.

There's been a lot of talk in the press in the days after the event - we released a number that a million dollars was raised at the event - or just shy of a million dollars - which I believe was what the initial statement in The Advocate was."

So, I asked Gifford, you're confirming the number and identifying the DNC as the source for The Advocate?


"In my mind, we are responsible for that number and it's a number we are 100% comfortable with. So in essence, yes, a million dollars was raised on [that] Thursday night. We're probably not quite there yet - I would say we're about 90% there and we should be there probably by the middle of July.

Not everybody attended. Not every dime of that money was raised in June. But certainly we had a very, very successful event. It was not a modest success. It was certainly not a disappointment. I think everyone inside the room and everybody certainly within the DNC was absolutely thrilled by the event. I was thrilled by it. There was not an empty seat in the house. I think there was an incredibly, incredibly positive spirit. People were incredibly excited and inspired by what the vice president had to say. I think his comments were very, very well taken by the community. And it was a significant financial success - a significant financial success.

This is something that Andy Tobias and Tom Petrillo worked on from the beginning of the year - from the beginning of 2009 till June - and it's their primary focus and they built something incredibly special that everyone inside the DNC is proud of."

I noted that a number of blogs cited unnamed sources saying the number was actually closer to $200,000. A friend of mine familiar with the DNC said the number was $500,000.

"That is an absolute fallacy," Gifford said. "I can tell you the way this money is raised - a million dollars is what we believe we will end up taking in when all is said and done - attributed to the LGBT Leadership Council."

How Is the Money Counted?

I asked him to explain how the money was raised. Gifford said:

"We confirmed the event in April, and when we first got the vice president to sign onto the event - which means we first sent out invitations then - so we raised money all throughout the second quarter. I'd say probably 80% of the money came in in May and June - but there was some that came in certainly before that.

Andy raised money for this event throughout the entire year. And frankly, Andy may raise money from some people in Los Angeles and they may decide to attend the event we did with the president in May. But it's all LGBT Leadership Council money and the people who are giving to us are certainly requesting that their contributions be credited to Andy's event."

I noted that some people suggested that Tobias might have "transferred" money from a different event to the LGBT event to puff up the numbers.

"To be clear," Gifford said, "Andy doesn't have the ability to 'transfer money.' This is simply standard fundraising procedure. Someone gives money to an event. If they cannot attend, they simply go to another [DNC] event around the country with a comparable ticket price. This would be true whether or not the event was geared towards a specific constituency or not."

Gifford said it was akin to bundling checks over a period of time, credited to the LGBT Leadership Council event. "The million dollar figure is the money that we have raised from the LGBT community this year - 90% of it coming in the second quarter of 2009," Gifford said.

He said the DNC report to be filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in June will "speak for itself." But he said the report is "only part of the story. This is not a million dollars that was dropped off at the door on the night of June 25. This is money that has come in over the course of the last couple of months."

The specific money designated for the LGBT Leadership Council will not be identified, Gifford said, because the FEC only lists names and amounts. "Unfortunately, there's no easy way to break down those numbers."

Asked to identify members of the LGBT Leadership Council, Gifford only named Council co-chairs Paul Horning (from Atlanta) and Laura Ricketts (from Chicago). "The Leadership Council are the raisers - they're not necessarily the donors," Gifford said. "There are lots of people who are giving to us - who want their checks attributed to the LGBT community - who are not necessarily members of the gay and lesbian community." The other DNC constituency councils operate in a similar fashion.

The DNC, Stonewall Democrats and LGBT Staffers

Noting that the National Stonewall Democrats had dropped support for the fundraiser over the policy issues and a cut in some funding to the non-profit. (The funding was initiated under Brian Bond. Longtime politico Paul Yandura, then DNC staffer Donald Hitchcock's partner (Hitchcock was Bond's predecessor under DNC chair Howard Dean), actually complained vociferously about the DNC's treatment of the LGBT community and Hitchcock wound up suing, then settling with the DNC.) I asked Gifford if the relationship with Stonewall had been repaired.

"We are 100% committed to working with Stonewall going forward," he said. "We've had very productive conversations with them over the last few months and we look forward to working with them going forward."

NSD Executive Director Jon Hoadley was less forgiving. In a July 5 phone interview, Hoadley said that while NSD "enjoyed a strong relationship with the DNC, our members are frustrated with the pace of change out of this administration and Congress." He said donors and chapter members want to see "measurable results" - especially since "we're talking about policies that are supported by the vast majority of Americans." He noted that after NSD and others pulled support from the DNC fundraiser, "everyone saw a lot of movement at the end of June."

Hoadley said that while NSD "wants to be a good partner" in passing progressive and LGBT legislation, they will only activate their grassroots chapters to help support progressive candidates who ask until they see "movement coming out of Congress and the administration" on the LGBT agenda.

Hoadley said:

"We have thousands of grassroots activists who are ready to work to pass those policies. But we must make sure the President and Congress prioritizes our community's issues just like they've prioritized so many other important issues.

If [the DNC, candidates or legislators] want to have a serious strategy conversation on how to move legislation that will help the LGBT community, we're all ears and eager to help. But if the call is just about fundraising - we're not interested at this point and we have no interest in taking that call."

Hoadley confirmed that NSD is talking with the DNC about finding a "joint project that will have a concrete outcome," adding that "we enjoy working with many people at the DNC."

In more candid moments of the interview with Rufus Gifford, which he agreed to allow for the record, the gay DNC Finance Director talked about the impact the criticism has had on LGBT people working at the DNC.

Gifford said:

"The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network was outside our event holding up signs with the number 265 on them - the number of soldiers discharged at the time of the event. Everyone inside was wearing [buttons with the number] too. Andy Tobias was passing them out - I had one on - in a show of support. The fact of the matter is - we're all on the same page here. We're all trying to get this done. Everyone was wearing red buttons with the number 265 inside and outside the event.

And of course the DOMA brief certainly impacted Jeremy and I as well.

We [at the DNC] want to try to clear the air. We're very committed to working together with the community and trying to get on the same page and really trying to fight for progressive change.

There are millions of gay Americans who care about healthcare and care a hell of a lot about energy reform and a hell of a lot about these other issues that we're all working on - in addition to overturning DADT and DOMA. And we really think we need to be partners with the community on that.

I'm not saying we're 100% faultless here. I think certainly there've been times when we made missteps. But we feel like this does have to be a two-way street and somehow we have to come together to fight for progressive change."

Where Do We Go From Here?

I mentioned to Gifford how entertainment producer Herb Hamsher, who, with his longtime partner Jonathan Stoller, manages married actors Judith Light and Robert Desiderio and is a longtime friend of Gifford and Bernard, told me he is "fed up" with Democratic inaction and may boycott fundraisers.

Gifford said:

"Obviously, there are a number of very close friends of mine and acquaintances who've been disappointed over the course of the last several weeks and months with some of the various statements and filings coming out of the administration. I completely understand that and am sympathetic to it. I hope - as they continue to see progress made - and I am fully confident that they will see progress - that they will continue to hear us out, will continue to listen to us and I hope that their concerns and their anger is quickly alleviated.

And I will do my part to see that that happens. My door is always open to them. I'm always willing to talk and discuss these issues and to discuss what we're doing and what we can be doing better, different ways we can reach out to the community, always willing to discuss it."

Indeed, Gifford thinks "the last six months have been the most significant in the history of the gay rights movement." And he believes there's more progress to come.

"I understand the LGBT community's impatience but I think the community will be very, very excited and encouraged by several things coming out of the administration in the weeks and months to come," Gifford said. "Based on my personal experiences on the campaign and with the President and everyone he's surround himself with - I have tremendous faith in the administration."

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And it is this dogmatic indoctrination of the community that makes it such pitiful Democratic lapdogs.

Those rich queers will throw away all dignity just to be part of the "cool crowd".

Meanwhile, the only thing Obama-- and not Congress- can do, is stop discharges. He will not. The only thing this filthy, populist administration will do is give private speeches.

Heck, these imbeciles can't even muster enough votes among their party for ENDA.

It's times like this where I just feel like taking advantage of my European citizenship, and get the fuck out of this quagmire. Just get my ass off to Spain.

If only people weren't so eager to embrace the lies, exaggerations, and inflammatory borderline racist stuff coming from Americablog.

Karen, a more accurate piece wouldn't say "LGBTs were outraged." Some were outraged. Those of us who understood the DOJ obligation to enforce the law, knew what the Smelt case was and understood it in the context of the various legal challenges to DOMA, and understood what the point of a string cite is were not outraged.

And it wasn't just "bloggers" that questioned Aravosis' misstatements--it was constitutional law experts like Darren Hutchinson, Nan Hunter, Robert Raben, and Laurence Tribe.

I haven't seen a single constitutional law professor agree with Aravosis. Have you?

"Racist?" Wow - I am not aware of any 'racist stuff" coming out of Aravosis.

You're right. I should have said "most LGBTs were outraged" instead of issuing a blanket statement.

I used Law Dork 2.o as a counter-point because he has been the most visible in challenging Aravosis. I also provided a link to the DOMA brief so folks could read it and decide for themselves.

But part of my point was - as I mentioned in the piece - that after a few days of outrage - whether the outrage was factually accurate or not - it was the outrage that hung in the air, mostly because it was working the last nerve.

Look- as solid as Rufus believes that one million number is - it will continue to be challenged - especially after the FEC report comes out - and the DNC is going to continue to take heat along with Obama and Congress until we get a major piece of legislation. I suspect that is something that both constitutional scholars and John Aravosis will agree upon.

Re: racism. I did say borderline, but i'm referring to both the post prop-8 blame the blacks stuff that went down at americablog, as well as the "he's a secret homophobe" meme which is basically the same trope as "he's a secret muslim"/"secret black nationalist" etc, which the right has been pushing.

Your larger point about the factual accuracy being unimportant or not is correct (and depressing in what it says about the gay blogosphere's level of literacy!) Fact is, this protest wouldn't have happened if the two major lies hadn't been spread--that DOJ had a choice to not defend the brief, and that there were moral comparisons to pedophilia and incest.

Why it matters: I don't want Aravosis to get away for taking credit for stuff that's already been moving behind the scenes. Obviously we have to keep the pressure up, but smart folks like y'all at Bilerico should be steering this movement, not opportunistic jerks like Aravosis.

Oh, spare the rimming spectacle.

The language of the DOJ brief was fucking gratuitous. The challenge could've been dismissed easily under procedural grounds, but they had to go for the juicy extremes and undermine previous cases in our favor, in addition of going through the pains of delineating how we were not a suspect class.

Michael @ LeonardMatlovich.com | July 6, 2009 7:32 PM

"the last six months have been the most significant in the history of the gay rights movement"???? On what planet? Gays said the same thing about Bill Clinton [who, BTW, is still ahead of O in positive substantive changes]....look where that got us.

As for Obambot Kevin,

1. Lawrence Tribe's opinion re the DOMA brief was "fruit of the poisoned tree" of his long personal friendship with his protege Obama whom Tribe's often described as "the best student" and "best teaching assistant" he "ever had" at Harvard. Tribe is a brilliant man and certified gay friendly but this was not the first time he let his personal feelings for Barack get in the way of his objectivity—he was a party to the sleazy pillorying of Hillary during the primaries for her alleged inferiority to Lord O on DOMA when there was NO functional difference. It all came down to shared [and mistaken] support for "states rights" over gay couples' rights...something O is STILL defending.

2. As for Kevin's attempt to turn the pig's ear of the DOMA brief into a silk purse, here's a former "constitutional law professor" who absolutely thinks it was homophobic bunk—Jon Davidson, Legal Director at Lambda Legal, in an earlier interview by Karen:

"Whether or not the administration felt a need to defend, there are many ways one can defend. The administration could have rested on the first two arguments raised in their papers (jurisdiction and standing) that these plaintiffs were not entitled to sue without arguing at this point that DOMA is constitutional. Doing that would not have waived those arguments. What they need to be asked is why they gratuitously went out of their way to make the outrageous arguments they unnecessarily included such as that DOMA does not discriminate based on sexual orientation or that the right at issue is not marriage but an unestablished right to 'same-sex marriage' or that DOMA is somehow justified in order to protect taxpayers who don't want their tax dollars used to support lesbian and gay couples (while it's apparently fine to make lesbians and gay men pay the same taxes but be denied the benefits provided heterosexual couples). Their public statements about the filing try to sidestep these points. They absolutely knew they did not need to make these additional arguments, especially at this time and consciously decided to do so. I am seething mad."

3. Lost behind the flames and smoke of the entirely justified inferno of outrage that was ignited by the despicable DOMA brief is the fact that just a few days before that Obama's Solicitor General defended DADT in a brief to the Supremes using the same homophobic nonsense rationale that was used to pass it in the first place.

And the discharges just keep coming...as do the excuses of the Queer Quislings who care more about defending the head of their personality cult than their own LGBT brothers and sisters.

Mario Dem | July 6, 2009 11:03 PM

Yep. Kevin is the one that's spreading misinformation. It wasn't that DOJ didn't have a choice; it's the way in which the brief was defended. Talk about illiteracy in the community, Kevin: how many times do we have to go over this??

I started the Facebook page that was later linked to by Pam Spaulding, America Blog and I think the Towle Road, and I was one of the protestors out there at the DNC fundraiser. While we were happy to have the dozen or so people from the SLDN there, it was a different kind of protest than you and other commentators think.

While you say "only 50" people were there, that doesn't really illustrate the significance of it. Many people there had never been to a protest before. In fact, this was my first attempt to put together a protest because there was nothing organized by LBGT groups. Protestors drove up from Florida to participate and along with the prosting neophytes. People are realizing that the Democratic party and the leadership of even some of our own LBGT groups are failing us.

The protest we had tapped into a source of anger that has been previously ignored. People outside the cocktail party circuit are getting involved, and hopefully they can bring real change.

Thank you for this important comment.

I think some of us were expecting to see larger numbers of protesters, given the level of outrage. But your point about how so many NEW people are getting involved must not be overlooked.

In fact, though it is not illustrated in the comments here, most of the emails I've been receiving privately about this post indicate a continued VERY high level of skepticism about whether the DNC is leveling with us - which is something Rufus and Andy Tobias and Tim Kaine - as well as Obama and the Democratically-controlled Congress - need to seriously consider as we all gear up for the 2010 elections.

Additionally, it will be interesting to see what role the DNC's Organizing for America - formerly Obama for America - plays in different state battles such as the effort in Maine to protect marriage equality and the effort in Washington state to protect their domestic partnerships. Just because Obama and the DNC SAY they support LGBT equality doesn't mean they will follow-through. LGBTs need to keep the pressure on.

I hope you and the folks who joined your protest will stay involved.