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The Gay Mafia That’s Redefining Liberal Politics

12 minute read
John Cloud/Beverly Hills

A few weeks before Virginia’s legislative elections in 2005, a researcher working on behalf of a clandestine group of wealthy, gay political donors telephoned a Virginia legislator named Adam Ebbin. Then, as now, Ebbin was the only openly gay member of the state’s general assembly. The researcher wanted Ebbin’s advice on how the men he represented could spend their considerable funds to help defeat anti-gay Virginia politicians.

Ebbin, a Democrat who is now 44, was happy to oblige. (Full disclosure: in the mid-’90s, Ebbin and I knew each other briefly as colleagues; he sold ads for Washington City Paper, a weekly where I was a reporter.) Using Ebbin’s expertise, the gay donors–none of whom live in Virginia–began contributing to certain candidates in the state. There were five benefactors: David Bohnett of Beverly Hills, Calif., who in 1999 sold the company he had co-founded, Geo-Cities, to Yahoo! in a deal worth $5 billion on the day it was announced; Timothy Gill of Denver, another tech multimillionaire; James Hormel of San Francisco, grandson of George, who founded the famous meat company; Jon Stryker of Kalamazoo, Mich., the billionaire grandson of the founder of medical-technology giant Stryker Corp.; and Henry van Ameringen, whose father Arnold Louis van Ameringen started a Manhattan-based import company that later became the mammoth International Flavors & Fragrances.

The five men spent $138,000 in Virginia that autumn, according to state records compiled by the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project. Of that, $48,000 went directly to the candidates Ebbin recommended. Ebbin got $45,000 for his PAC, the Virginia Progress Fund, so he could give to the candidates himself. Another $45,000 went to Equality Virginia, a gay-rights group that was putting money into many of the same races.

On Election Day that year, the Virginia legislature stayed solidly in Republican hands; the Democratic Party netted just one seat. But that larger outcome masked an intriguing development: anti-gay conservatives had suffered considerably. For instance, in northern Virginia, a Democrat named Charles Caputo (who received $6,500 from Ebbin’s PAC) had beaten a Christian youth minister, Chris Craddock, by an unexpectedly large margin, with a vote of 56% to 41%. Three other candidates critical of gays were also defeated, including delegate Richard Black, who had long opposed gay equality in Richmond. Black had had no single donation as large as the $20,000 that Ebbin’s PAC gave his opponent. “This was my ninth election campaign, and it wasn’t unusual to have homosexuals involved,” says Black, who now practices law. “But it was different, certainly, in degree. There had not been a concerted influx of money from homosexuals as a group before.”

The group that donated the money to use against Black and the others is known as the Cabinet, although you won’t find that name on a letterhead or even on the Internet. Aside from Bohnett, 52; Gill, 55; Hormel, 75; Stryker, 50; and Van Ameringen, 78, the other members of the Cabinet are Jonathan Lewis (49-year-old grandson of Joseph, co-founder of Progressive Insurance) and Linda Ketner, 58, heiress to the Food Lion fortune, who is running for Congress against gop Representative Henry Brown Jr. of South Carolina.

Ketner’s is something of a long-shot bid–her district has been reliably Republican for years–but recently Congressional Quarterly described her “suddenly strong run” against Brown as “the biggest surprise” in this year’s House races. Ketner, who was invited to join the all-male Cabinet as a way of diversifying it, declined to discuss her role in the group.

Among gay activists, the Cabinet is revered as a kind of secret gay Super Friends, a homosexual justice league that can quietly swoop in wherever anti-gay candidates are threatening and finance victories for the good guys. Rumors abound in gay political circles about the group’s recondite influence; some of the rumors are even true. For instance, the Cabinet met in California last year with two sitting governors, Brian Schweitzer of Montana and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, both Democrats; political advisers who work for the Cabinet met with a third Democratic governor, Wisconsin’s Jim Doyle. The Cabinet has also funded a secretive organization called the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), which a veteran lesbian activist describes as the “Gay IRS.” MAP keeps tabs on the major gay organizations to make sure they are operating efficiently. The October 2008 MAP report notes, for example, that the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force fails to meet Better Business Bureau standards for limiting overhead expenses.

According to the online databases Opensecrets.org and Followthemoney.org the seven members of the Cabinet have spent at least $7.8 million on political races since the beginning of 2004, although their true level of giving is doubtless far higher, since Followthemoney.org–which is run by the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics–does not capture all contributions to PACs (for instance, the Cabinet money that went to Ebbin’s PAC in 2005 doesn’t show up on the website). The Cabinet spends at least as much each election cycle as does the PAC run by the Human Rights Campaign, the world’s largest gay political group. And yet the Cabinet has operated in stealth, without accountability from watchdogs. (The Cabinet does not subject itself to MAP analysis.)

Cabinet spending shows up in races all over the country where pro-gay candidates have a good shot. For instance, Bohnett, Gill and Van Ameringen have given $143,000 this year to New York Democrats, who are within two seats of controlling the state senate. A Democratic New York legislature would likely approve equal marriage rights.

The Cabinet’s Gill and Stryker have seen their money achieve remarkable results in their respective states, Colorado and Michigan. Stateline.org (a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts) reported that in 2006, Stryker gave “at least $6.4 million to candidates or political committees in at least a dozen states, including Michigan, where he can boast that Democrats gained a majority in the state house for the first time in 12 years.” Some Cabinet members also donated tens of thousands of dollars in certain Iowa and New Hampshire races in 2006, when Democrats regained control of both states’ legislatures. Those states’ Democratic majorities now ensure that, among other things, efforts to amend the Iowa and New Hampshire constitutions to ban same-sex marriage will fail.

And yet the Cabinet is noteworthy not only because its treasure begets political influence but also because its very existence shows how dramatically the culture wars–and liberal politics as a whole–have changed in the past decade. Next summer gays will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the 1969 Manhattan demonstrations that began when cross-dressers angry about police raids at the Stonewall bar began throwing bottles and punches. Today, though, the street movement is basically defunct. And increasingly, the center of gay power is moving out from Washington toward the interior–toward powerful foundations like those run by Stryker in Kalamazoo and Gill in Denver. Since the beginning of 2001, Stryker’s foundation, which is called Arcus and has offices in both the U.S. and the U.K., has given away $67 million, about three-quarters to gays and about one-quarter to apes. (Stryker, who got a pet monkey as a gift when he was young, is a major donor to the conservation of ape habitats.)

The Cabinet is emblematic of a larger shift on the left since 2004 in the direction of big-money politics, a shift most clearly seen in Barack Obama’s refusal of public financing for his campaign. The Cabinet is only one of several flush, members-only liberal groups that have formed since 2004, the most famous (and richest) being the Democracy Alliance, whose sponsors include billionaires George Soros, Peter Lewis (father of Cabinet member Jonathan) and Pat Stryker (sister of Cabinet member Jon).

That raises questions: What does a civil rights movement look like in an era of massive wealth? Can you still inspire a grass-roots movement when all the street troops know that the billionaires can just write bigger checks? And is it possible that the left has become a movement as coldly obsessed with money as it always assumed the right was?

Gays may see the cabinet as powerful, almost numinous, but its own members see themselves as largely unorganized and highly independent. “It’s a group of people who like and respect each other and their opinions,” Ray Mulliner, a longtime Hormel adviser, told me recently. “It’s nothing more than like-minded donors getting together to share strategies.” When I mentioned that similar organizations on the right had received press scrutiny–I was thinking of the Arlington Group, a coalition of movement conservatives–Mulliner angrily rejected the comparison: “You have no reason to be curious about this. You’re going to write a piece that’s going to start a fire that needs to get put out, and it’s going to cost a lot of money to put it out,” he said.

The Cabinet first came together three or four years ago, according to Van Ameringen, as a “meeting place” for donors who wanted to use their money with greater strategic acumen. Gill got the idea for the group after he and Lewis attended a Democracy Alliance meeting. The donors felt they could accomplish more for gays if they shared information rather than operate as “silo” givers. Some members were frustrated that the established gay movement in Washington hadn’t made greater progress in a society rapidly coming to see homosexuality as a mere variation rather than a moral degeneration.

Today it’s difficult to find a gay organization that has not enjoyed the Cabinet’s largesse. In 2007, for example, Stryker’s Arcus Foundation gave away $11.8 million as part of its Gay and Lesbian Program. The money reached both big-name groups like the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (which got half a million dollars) and little organizations like the Actors Theatre Co. of Grand Rapids, Mich., which got $25,000 to produce a play called Seven Passages: The Story of Gay Christians.

The web of connections among the Cabinet members is complex. All the other members have donated the maximum amount allowed to Ketner’s congressional campaign. Gill, Lewis and Stryker employ political advisers–respectively, Denver attorney Ted Trimpa; Paul Yandura, who worked in the Clinton White House’s political-affairs office; and Lisa Turner, a former political director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee–who regularly speak with one another and with others who work for Cabinet members.

There’s nothing illegal about the Cabinet’s coordination of its members’ giving, according to Lawrence Noble, campaign-finance expert with the Washington-based firm Skadden, Arps. The contributions would be illegal only if the members agreed to give up control of their donations entirely or coordinated them directly with a campaign. There’s no evidence of either; several people associated with the Cabinet made clear that its members make their donations without anyone’s review. And yet as the National Review’s Byron York has pointed out, Americans were horrified to learn during Watergate that Richard Nixon’s friend Clement Stone had donated an outrageous $2 million in cash to the President’s campaign. Cabinet members have spent at least five times that amount in various races in the past four years; the Soros-backed Democracy Alliance has spent probably 50 times that amount.

Still, it’s hard to argue that the left in general and gays in particular should sit on their hands while foes outspend them. Strategically, the Cabinet makes sense; most people who defend its secrecy offer a Machiavellian understanding of ends and means. “I could lose a lot of sleep about it, and I do wonder why they have abandoned [gay] organizations that have a 35-year track record in order to have their own operations,” says a seasoned Washington gay activist. “But if that’s the way the rules of the game are being played, I need to maneuver within what the realities are.”

The larger question is what role wealthy groups like the Cabinet will have in reshaping the politics of the left. There’s been a great deal of (largely self-congratulatory) talk among liberals about the progressive movement’s success in using new technologies to harness the netroots, to use the fashionable liberal argot. But there has been less reflection about what impact the great gobs of Sorosian money will have on the movement. Michael Fleming, a Los Angeles political macher who advises Cabinet member Bohnett, worries that rank-and-file gay people–the ones who might have picked up a rock at Stonewall–are increasingly relying on billionaires to cut checks. “Where is the outrage?” he asks.

The answer is that outrage has given way to smugness, the kind of self-satisfaction conservatives displayed after electoral successes in 1980 and 1994. Groups like the Cabinet and the Democracy Alliance suggest a new kind of moneyed progressivism, one that shows little of the class discontent that animated earlier strains of leftist thought. Is this a sign of maturation–throwing off radical excesses–or capitulation, a surrendering to the idea that efforts to reduce the power of money in our democracy have failed? Probably a little of both.

For its part, the Cabinet seems poised to prod the gay movement into being sleeker, faster, more tactical. When the remaining veterans of Stonewall march down Fifth Avenue next summer, those shimmeringly romantic, slightly foolish days of 1969 will have never seemed so distant.

$27 MILLION Conservative estimate of the amount that Cabinet members spend each year on gay causes

$6.4 MILLION Amount that a single Cabinet member gave to campaigns in 2006

3 Number of governors who have met with Cabinet members or their aides

7 Members of the Cabinet, the most powerful force in gay politics

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