Obama's Gay Gold Mine
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.
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.
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Niche marketers: Obama's gay-outreach coordinator, Steve Smith (left), discusses gay-voter-turnout strategies with Rufus Gifford.
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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.
Bernard is visibly grinding his teeth again. But in another part of the room, his lover and business partner, Rufus Gifford, sits at the bar, talking to Hollywood überagent Ari Emanuel over an iPhone and ignoring the bumbling Bonior and the celebrity speakers. Gifford is focused entirely on setting up another big-money, high-profile fund-raiser for Obama before the February 5 primary in California and 21 other states.
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.
Like many savvy political operatives playing at the national level, Bernard and Gifford never thought that a presidential campaign would need to raise at least $100 million, but that's the record level this bruising multicandidate fight has reached — and the campaign consultants for Obama back in Chicago expect large checks from Southern California. So far, Bernard and Gifford have out-raised the other regions of the Obama campaign three out of the last four quarters, with Los Angeles events they organized for DreamWorks and Oprah Winfrey bringing in nearly $5 million.
In a massive primary like February 5, with some of the biggest media markets in the world to reach, including not just California but New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Massachusetts, the race between Obama and Clinton could come down to having the money to woo the millions of "soft voters" who polls show have settled on a candidate but could still change their minds.
Rufus Gifford stands in the driveway outside the Fishers' multiwinged, contemporary mansion on the night of the big event. He's dressed in a navy pinstriped suit with a red tie and watches the guests stroll toward him. Obama hasn't arrived.
"Do you need anything?" Gifford asks a woman in a long brown dress.
"Oh, no, dear, I'm fine."
Bernard, dressed in a black suit with a yellow tie, walks around inside, telling jokes and shaking hands with people as they eat minicheeseburgers and sip red wine. Bernard and Gifford know how to work a room, people like them.
Gifford now walks inside and spots Bernard. He tells him everything looks okay, and they crunch the new numbers. They figure some 600 guests, bringing in at least $850,000. The guys look at each other and smile — it's going to be a lucrative evening.
An hour or so later, Barack Obama, dressed in a dark suit, makes his way through the glass doors that lead to the backyard. It looks like a rainforest, lit up like a movie set. Hundreds of people surround Obama as he stands on a little stage covered with black AstroTurf. Mike Medavoy is looking up at him, a foot away. Bill Paxton stands behind the presidential candidate. Dick Zanuck, the Republican movie producer who told Gifford he has never before contributed to a Democrat, flanks Obama's right. The senator goes into his speech of hope and changing America and tells the crowd, "Running against the Clintons ain't no cup of tea."
Bernard and Gifford stand inside and watch the scene from the kitchen. It's the kind of night they signed up for a year ago, when they decided to work for Obama. Hillary Clinton's campaign offered them a job too, and for more money, but Bernard and Gifford just couldn't see themselves raising the big bucks for a candidate who they felt was largely running on Bill Clinton's presidential record, which wasn't always good to gays. "The only way I could honestly sell her to people would be to say she's going to win," says Bernard. "What's the point of that? When we started our company, we wanted to pick only candidates we would be enthusiastic about. Obama was that candidate. He absolutely has the best record on gay and lesbian issues."
On February 1, 2007, Bernard and Gifford went to work, but the campaign infrastructure for Obama in California was sketchy. "There was nothing," Bernard says. Veteran political operative Mitchell Schwartz, for example — who has worked for Barbara Boxer, Bill Clinton and Gray Davis, among others — wasn't hired as the California political director until August. With the help of a few other true believers, Bernard and Gifford took on the added duties of advance men, political strategists — and even Obama's bodyguards, when he came to California during those first six months.
It wasn't an entirely bad situation, at least for the two guys. Few handlers were attached to Obama at that point, so whenever he came into town, Bernard could get coveted face time with the candidate. He could also schedule impromptu meetings, like the one between Obama and several gay leaders from Los Angeles at the W Hotel in Westwood. "They talked about their concerns with Barack," says Bernard.
Bernard also set up a crucial meeting between Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti and Obama. "It was a time when Eric was being heavily wooed by both Obama and Clinton," Bernard says. "So I asked if I could break the golden rule and allow Eric to take a ride with Barack to an event. When Eric came out of the car, he told me he was going to absolutely endorse Barack. He was very excited."
Although endorsements by local politicians have very little effect on what voters do, they are believed to add heft to a campaign, helping with fund-raising — and with gaining endorsements from other politicians. Garcetti, utterly unknown outside Los Angeles, was an important endorsement to land simply because many elected officials in Los Angeles, at that point, were heading to Clinton's camp.
Bernard and Gifford, along with other Los Angeles staffers, were also pushing the campaign honchos in Chicago to send the candidate to speak at the influential and politically oriented First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Los Angeles, which styles itself a leader in endorsing black candidates. "We thought it was important for Barack to do a political event when he was here for fund-raising," says Bernard. Usually money men like Bernard think only about the big-buck event, but the First AME speech turned into a major happening by earning national press and introduced Obama, the skilled orator, to a national audience.
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.
"Before I started with [Mixner], I had no idea how that worked. And he really showed me how to put passion and money together. For me, it's not asking people for money for a new car or something. You're asking for a better country. It may sound corny, but it's true. He really showed me how the system worked, right or wrong — mostly wrong."
Mixner eventually broke off his relationship with Clinton, and this year raises money for John Edwards. Bernard became active with ANGLE and the Victory Fund, which contributes money to openly gay candidates across the country — whether Democrat or Republican. He also landed a job as political adviser to Marc Nathanson, founder and former chairman and chief executive officer of Falcon Holding Group Inc., a cable TV operator. Working for Nathanson, Bernard made his contacts with a lot of very rich folks on the Westside of L.A. During John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004, Bernard met Rufus Gifford.
Gifford, from Manchester, Massachusetts, had just quit his job at Davis Entertainment, where he developed and produced family comedies such as Garfield and Daddy Day Care, finding it "wildly unfulfilling." Always a political junkie, he used family connections to find work in the Kerry campaign, where his soft-spoken, easy way with people made him an effective fund-raiser. That job opened doors at other campaigns after Kerry lost the general election to George W. Bush. Within a matter of two years, staffers for Clinton and Obama were calling. After they accepted the Obama offer, Bernard and Gifford formed a consulting firm, B + G Associates. And no one told them to be discreet about their sexual orientation.
"Jeremy and Rufus are two of the best political fund-raisers in the country," says David Mixner. "It's going to make them extremely powerful."
At the Paradise Cantina in Las Vegas, volunteers and staffers are not celebrating. For the second primary in a row, their candidate has lost to Hillary Clinton. (Little do they know that one week later, Obama will win a landslide victory over Clinton in South Carolina and nail down two major endorsements, from President John F. Kennedy's daughter, Caroline, and brother, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, changing the momentum of the presidential campaign.)
Jeremy Bernard and Rufus Gifford look around the Mexican-themed bar.
"Well, I guess it's time to move on to the next one," Bernard says to no one.
A few hours later, as the guys walk around the Excalibur Casino, e-mails start coming into Gifford's iPhone. Chicago is deploying every available hand to South Carolina. The senator from Illinois needs a win.
"Are we going too?" Bernard asks.
"I don't think so," Gifford says.
Bernard and Gifford would go if called, but they have another high-dollar event to organize in Los Angeles. With a need to drench California with costly television ads, it appears the campaign brass want them to focus on raising money. They plan on targeting young Hollywood types and rich gays for the big haul.
"We've surpassed every fund-raising goal we've made for ourselves in the past," Gifford says, "so we won't stop now."
These days, Bernard and Gifford have realized the race has become very personal. "Usually you like to keep some distance in case your candidate loses," says Gifford, "but this one has been different."
They started to feel a true fondness for the candidate back in August, when he appeared at a gay forum televised on the LOGO cable network. After the show, Bernard and Gifford organized a gay fund-raiser at Area, a nightclub on La Cienega Boulevard. In just a few hours, they raised more than $100,000 from 400 gays and lesbians, and Obama gave a speech that some saw as exceptional.
"It was truly phenomenal," says Gifford. "He equated all social injustices with the injustices gays and lesbians have to face."
Just before Obama vanished into his motorcade that warm evening last summer, he draped his arms around Bernard and Gifford and asked them if he did them right. Bernard looked at him, "Senator, you always do us right. This time, you did us proud."
Gifford, the urban sophisticate, started to choke up. Not only did he realize he was finally doing something that would matter, but he seemed to be getting results. On that August night, he thought, possibly the next president of the United States was standing there for all to see, literally embracing him and his lover.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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