Banking on a Winner

Article excerpt

Looking for influence, gays and lesbians are donating millions of dollars that political parties need to turn the tide in national races this year

On the hot summer night of June 29 in a private home just off 16th Street in the northwest section of Washington, D.C., Brian Steffan found himself sharing a gourmet dinner of lamb, potatoes, and asparagus with Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore. Seated next to the second lady, Steffan shared stories about his hometown of Arlington, Va., and cooed over the dessert platter, which included a delicate mousse and homemade cookies baked by a New York City chef flown in just for the occasion.

"We both joked about how we were going to pay for eating such fattening stuff," Steffan recalls of his conversation with Gore. While the price in pounds may be uncertain, there was a clear premium for attending the soiree: a cool 10 grand, minimum.

The intimate gathering was thrown for the 10 founding members of the Gay and Lesbian Leadership Council, a group of donors formed this past June. Admission to the elite club: a $10,000 personal check made payable to the Democratic Party or $20,000 of other people's money raised on the party's behalf.

Including the price tag of the dinner with Gore, Steffan estimates he's dished out as much as $25,000 to the Democratic Party in the past four months, including $5,000 for the Barbra Streisand concert during the Democratic national convention in Los Angeles, $1,000 for an August picnic with Al Gore, and $1,000 for Cher's Philadelphia fund-raising concert in September.

Steffan is not alone in digging deep into his pockets to mine money for the Democrats. This election cycle gays and lesbians are forking over a record amount of cash both for individual candidates and for the Democratic Party at large. While the distinction may sound academic, it is critically important.

Federal law limits contributions to individual politicians to $1,000 per person, but the amount of money an individual can give to a political party for "party-building activities" is restricted only by the size of his or her bank account. This year gay and lesbian donors are being very generous.

"I know gays and lesbians are giving more money today than ever before," says Andrew Tobias, treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. Tobias estimates that this election at least $5 million in DNC donations can be tagged directly to gay and lesbian contributors. He believes millions more may be going to individual candidates.

By the end of September, membership in the well-heeled Gay and Lesbian Leadership Council swelled to 130 from its original 10 members. Also, before this year, entertainment magnate David Geffen was the single openly gay member of the Jefferson Trust, a group of contributors who give $100,000 or more to the Democratic Party; today, says Tobias, the Jefferson Trust has gays and lesbians "numbering in the double digits." Members include Kathy Levinson, former president of Internet brokerage company E*TRADE, who gave $100,000, and Tim Gill, founder of software company Quark Inc., who dished out $250,000.

The Democratic establishment has taken note of the power of pink money and has organized like never before to take advantage of the formerly untapped wells. Tobias points to the April 11 fundraising dinner at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., as just one example: Fifty patrons, predominantly gay and lesbian, raised $930,000.

The fund-raising fetes are not limited to the Beltway either. On September 27, President Clinton spent three hours in the Dallas home of Charles Marlett, corporate secretary of American Airlines, and his partner, Jim Vasilis, a criminal defense lawyer. The private $5,000-per-plate luncheon, attended overwhelmingly by gay and lesbian donors, netted the DNC $250,000.

Tobias counts at least five such gay and lesbian-targeted fund-misers hosted this election cycle by President Clinton, two by Vice President Al Gore, two by Tipper Gore, and one each by First Lady and Senate candidate Hillary Clinton and vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman. …