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They knew they had Obama's ear after that. So when an invitation came from the Human Rights Campaign, asking Obama to appear at a nationally televised political forum dedicated solely to gay issues, Bernard and Gifford pushed for the senator's attendance. Obama was the first candidate to accept the invite. It was no big deal — and a far cry from how such a request would have been received by the presidential campaigns in the United States just four short years ago.
"The people in Chicago trust us," says Bernard, "because we've performed and haven't steered them wrong. When we suggested a gay fund-raising event after the forum, they thought it was a great idea."
Six months later, Bernard was sitting with Obama in his black SUV, a Secret Service agent at the wheel, going over gay issues — the issues that mattered to Bernard the most — with a rising presidential candidate.
"It really hit me, as I was sitting there, how far I had come in politics since working with David Mixner [an openly gay political operative who was based in Los Angeles during the 1970s] and Clinton, and how far the gay movement had come in all of those years," says Bernard.
For decades, the gay vote was handled with a wink and a nod, and if a wealthy contributor was known to be queer, politicians would usually return the check as if it were from a convicted felon. "People were nervous as hell," says Mixner. "They wouldn't accept our money."
Things started to change in 1976. U.S. Senator John Tunney was running for re-election in California, and Steve Smith and his friends wanted to contribute to his campaign. "We held probably one of the first all-gay fund-raisers in Los Angeles," says Smith, who now works as the gay-and-lesbian-outreach coordinator for the Obama campaign in California. More than 400 gay men attended the private event held in Smith's Beverly Hills home, with Tunney making an appearance.
The senator, who eventually lost his re-election bid, was shocked by the size of the crowd. Years later, one of Tunney's aides walked up to Smith. "He told me that the senator thought the evening was much more important than the money raised," says Smith. "Tunney realized there was something new on the horizon."
Smith and his friends realized something too: Gays, especially the rich ones, were willing to contribute large sums of money to stake a claim in the traditional, mainstream political process. With the help of Mixner, Smith and other gay men founded the first openly gay political action committee in the nation: the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles.
MECLA first focused on the Los Angeles City Council and holding "MECLA breakfasts," where candidates were vetted by the committee's members. If everything was kosher, the politician would receive a sizable check. Within a couple of years, MECLA was contributing to local, state and national campaigns and fighting off antigay ballot measures like the Briggs Initiative, which promised to fire gay public school teachers and their allies.
MECLA eventually dissolved, only to be replaced by Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality (ANGLE) in 1989. David Mixner, current West Hollywood Mayor John Duran and other community leaders made up the board. Two years later, Governor Bill Clinton asked Mixner to join his presidential campaign's kitchen cabinet and tap into gay money in Southern California. Mixner enthusiastically jumped aboard.
Around that time, Mixner met Jeremy Bernard, who was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, where his parents were active in liberal politics. Bernard's father, Herschel, raised money for Robert and Ted Kennedy's presidential campaigns, and Mixner knew him. Mixner was a regular at Trumps — an upscale restaurant in West Hollywood. Bernard remembers it well. "I was a waiter." He and Mixner "talked often about politics and things, and one day he asked me if I knew Bill Clinton. I said my parents knew him and they thought he was kind of a jerk. Then David told me he was a part of Clinton's kitchen cabinet, and I thought, 'Shit, I just blew that one.' But he asked me to work for him anyway."
By the time Bill Clinton was elected president, Mixner and Bernard had raised $4 million in gay money. "It was an enormous sum back then," Mixner says. The gays had helped Clinton get elected, but then came a succession of disappointments with the new president's about-face on lifting the gay ban in the military and the creation of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in 1993. Clinton also signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 during his re-election campaign. DOMA's language defined a spouse as someone of the opposite sex and prevented states from recognizing the legality of gay marriages or civil unions performed in other states.
Despite the sour feelings among gays toward Clinton, Bernard had been on the inside, and had learned something incredibly valuable — how the political elite operated. "David always said that the way to get power, politically, and the way to get people to see you, is to raise money," Bernard says. "If you raise money, people will come because they want your money, and they will talk to you and they will listen. It is not that they will ignore what issues are out there, but they're not going to hear it, time and time again, unless you're in front of them. And the fact of the matter is, politicians spend most of their time raising money. It's a sad state of our process.