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The actress Kate Walsh, formerly of Grey's Anatomy, now delivers a shaky pitch for Obama at the invitation of the Human Rights Campaign. Gifford and Bernard have much more pressing business, specifically the "pot of gold," as Bernard likes to describe money-rich Southern California, that could bring another cash infusion into the Obama campaign. The pair are top-notch fund-raisers, after all. It's why the senator from Illinois hired them.
During this long and bare-knuckled presidential-primary season, a campaign will get nowhere without very big money. And next to New York City, Southern California — more precisely, the Westside of Los Angeles — is the land cash-hungry politicians never ignore. But only a handful of people in this town have the contacts and relationships to deliver the big checks. It's an elite world, and one that Jeremy Bernard and Rufus Gifford are capable of dominating.
"Even if you have a great candidate and a great message," says Mitchell Schwartz, Obama's California political director, "people who are underfunded don't win."
So with Hillary Clinton's powerful political machine pounding away at the Obama campaign, with each primary costing more and more money to fend off the attacks through television and radio ads, and with the need to send out Obama's own message leading up to Super Duper Tuesday, Bernard and Gifford are pivotal players in his continuing survival and hoped-for nomination as the Democratic candidate for president.
"If you don't have the money to campaign in all of these states [on February 5]," says Schwartz, "then you're not competitive. Period."
Bernard and Gifford understand their make-or-break roles. It's the prime reason they went into fund-raising. Gay issues are central to their own political agendas, and they know from years of experience that money gives them unique and up-close access to power. They have the luxury, after climbing to the top, of throwing their deep-pocketed connections only behind candidates who closely match their politics. "We work for candidates who we ourselves would be willing to give money to," says Gifford.
Once the checks are rolling in, Bernard and Gifford then have the full attention of a congressional or presidential candidate, giving them the chance, behind the scenes, to promote their own political issues. It's a level of access gays once only dreamed of, but they are living it.
"Being gay makes you inherently political," says Gifford, comfortable with using his proximity to power to influence the candidate. "You see what's right and what's wrong, and you need to do something about it."
Bernard and Gifford have very little, if anything, in common with the Old Gay approach typified by the Human Rights Campaign's need for straight actresses to peddle an agenda. They are the new guard, or New Gays, who are more politically savvy. The New Gays cultivate, work with and fund gay political candidates. They withhold their talents and money from straight politicians who don't follow through on their promises, while supporting those with what they view as a progay track record.
And they never seek the straight world's approval for their own gay existence. The New Gays understand their power in today's political system, and they use it. And in this winter's slog of primaries, they just might use it to propel a candidate toward the White House.
The word came the day of the Iowa Democratic caucus on January 3. U.S. Senator Barack Obama had won the state in a hard-fought upset over Hillary Clinton, and the national campaign manager in Chicago, David Plouffe, wanted Bernard and Gifford to throw a big-money fund-raiser in Los Angeles. They were given two weeks to pull it together.
A week later, a Friday, Bernard and Gifford are working the final details with their two-person staff in a second-floor suite at the Northrop Grumman building in Century City. Bernard, dressed in tan khakis, black loafers and a royal-blue Brooks Brothers shirt, sits in a black chair at his glass-topped desk and squints at the screen of a MacBook Pro laptop, tapping his feet incessantly.
The "event," as Bernard calls it, is generating enormous interest among Los Angeles' moneyed elite.
"So where are we now?" Bernard asks Gifford, who walks into the room.
"380," answers Gifford, referring to the number of guests.
"Whoa!" Bernard says excitedly.
Gifford smiles and takes a seat at his own glass-topped desk with his Mac, poking at the laptop. He looks like he could be one of Mitt Romney's sons and wears tan khakis, an off-white Oxford shirt and brown penny loafers.
"I think I should write an e-mail and tell the co-hosts we're sold out," Gifford says to Bernard. He sounds happy.
Despite Obama's loss in New Hampshire, these money men have already exceeded their goal of raising $500,000 and are fast approaching $700,000. The event will unfold at the Pacific Palisades home of David and Marianna Fisher, where Obama will give a speech to people like musician Randy Newman, actor Bill Paxton, Hollywood heavyweight Mike Medavoy, Soul Train's Don Cornelius and other wealthy and powerful supporters. "It's easily the fastest sellout we've had," Gifford tells Bernard.
Already, they expect 450 guests, giving the maximum contribution of $2,300 a pop. So many requests are still pouring in for the January 16 event that Bernard and Gifford glide easily into serial fund-raising mode and begin planning another event to be held after the Democratic debate in Los Angeles on January 31.