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Obama's Gay Gold Mine 

A new breed of power broker is staking out the White House. Their names are Bernard and Gifford

Wednesday, Jan 30 2008

Jeremy Bernard thinks he has been sucked into a time warp. Only five months ago, he was sitting shoulder to shoulder with U.S. Senator Barack Obama in the back of a black SUV, speeding through West Hollywood on Santa Monica Boulevard, talking about the fine points of gay and lesbian federal legislation. An hour later, the Democratic presidential candidate was hitting every detail they had discussed in the car, but this time on network television. For Bernard, it was mind-blowing. The key fund-raiser for the Obama campaign was seeing his issues dramatically migrate from a personal chat to the national stage.

Ted Soqui

The money men: Jeremy Bernard (left) and Rufus Gifford are lovers and business partners. They are also the fund-raisers who keep the Barack Obama presidential campaign alive and competitive.
(Click to enlarge)

Ted Soqui

Niche marketers: Obama's gay-outreach coordinator, Steve Smith (left), discusses gay-voter-turnout strategies with Rufus Gifford.
(Click to enlarge)

But now, two days before the Nevada Democratic caucus on January 19, Bernard is stuck inside the Caramel Lounge at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, attending a gay social mixer disguised as a political event. Jean Smart, the blond actress from the 1980s TV show Designing Women, begs the three dozen or so gays in the room to vote for U.S. Senator John Edwards.

"He's made it be known that he's not comfortable with gay marriage," she tells the boys, "but he's such a great leader, and he's very passionate."

Bernard stands there, staring at Smart and grinding his teeth. The Human Rights Campaign, one of the most high-profile gay-rights groups in the country and host of the mixer, has invited celebrities to pitch their favorite candidates. No star shows up to back Hillary Clinton, but an actress from Grey's Anatomy is there for Obama. Bernard sees it as amateur hour — an insulting and embarrassing reminder of the old guard, or Old Gay, approach to politics.

Straight celebrities to woo the gay vote in 2008? It's as if time had suddenly reverted back to 1992, when Bernard worked on Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. Everything was so different during the other Clinton's run. It was nothing like today, with candidates talking about same-sex marriage and truly ending the ban on gays serving in the military. Just to be publicly recognized and embraced by an Arkansas governor soon to be president was cause enough for celebration. But now the political landscape had changed. All of the Democratic candidates sought the queer vote, and maybe more importantly, gays are a source of millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

It's going through Bernard's mind that these things mean power and influence, and gays need to deliver their vote to build upon that power and influence — not waste time on the Strip 48 hours before the Nevada caucus listening to an actress.

Then Edwards' campaign manager takes the floor in the low light of the Caramel Lounge. Naturally, the well-connected Bernard knows him — former Congressman David Bonior of Michigan. Now things seem to be going somewhere. Someone substantive has finally shown on the scene.

Bernard, a compact and young-looking man in his early 40s, stands at full attention, waiting to hear the official word from the serious political flank in the Edwards camp. "That's why the Equality Rights Campaign is so important," Bonior says, getting the name of the organization embarrassingly wrong. Bernard looks around the room to see if other people heard what he heard. No one reacts. A few moments later, Bonior says "Equality Rights Campaign" again. Bernard can't believe it, and neither can a few other people. Even if few voters have heard of the HRC, to active gays, it's like seeing a top political consultant of the 1970s or '80s mangle the name of the vanquished Equal Rights Amendment pushed by women's groups of that era. Someone yells out, "Human Rights Campaign!" Bonior apologizes, but it's weird. Not the political depth Bernard expected from Edwards' people. More amateur hour.

Then Bonior flubs it again. He declares that John Edwards isn't for "that Ryan White military thing." What? Bernard is angry but also insulted. Other people are muttering. What's this guy talking about? Ryan White? That's federal AIDS funding. We certainly hope you're in favor of that. And the military thing? That's got nothing to do with young AIDS victim Ryan White, who died in 1990 and had been befriended by Elton John. The military thing is "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," former Congressman Bonior. You know, the "thing" that's been used to discharge tens of thousands of gays from the military over the past 15 years? Maybe you should take a seat before you embarrass yourself further — which Bonior soon does, but not before saying "Equality Rights Campaign" for the third time.


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