Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


Article excerpt

A new trans political action committee made a big impact on 2017 elections. So why didn't they get the credit?

In the wake of the 2016 elections--and subsequent attacks on transgender rights--a group of pioneering trans activists decided that getting more trans candidates on the ballot would be more impactful than checking one off. Together they formed the Trans United Fund, the first and only national political advocacy group focused on empowering trans and gender expansive people. Its Breakthrough Fund is the first bipartisan transgender political action committee (PAC) and was designed to help a handful of key political candidates by providing funding or other resources--sometimes both.

In the 2017 elections, TUF won big: Virginia's Danica Roem became the first transgender woman in the United States to win a seat in a state legislature, and two trans candidates were elected to the Minneapolis City Council. Andrea Jenkins became the first out trans black woman, and Phillipe Cunningham became the first out trans black man elected to public office.

If it weren't for the money TUF raised, the connections and resources it provided, or the voter mobilization it spearheaded, it's quite likely these trans candidates would not have won. TUF executive director, Hayden Mora, credits its success to determination, risk-taking, and having trans people "build our own political power and speak with our own voices."

But, when TUF-backed candidates won tough races in Minnesota and Virginia, the ensuing media coverage failed to mention Trans United Fund. Instead, journalists quoted popular LGBT leaders from Victory Fund, Human Rights Campaign, and National Center for Transgender Equality.

The leaders of TUF say the group can go beyond the standard commitment of a political advocacy group (which is usually limited in how much money or support they can give to a candidate). PACs get around this legislative limitation by foregoing any communication with the candidate that includes non-public information. It's called an independent expenditure. And in 2017, TUF's Breakthrough Campaign did just that, providing its endorsed candidates with financial support as well as access to needed connections, planning, and expertise by partnering with organizations like OutFront Minnesota. TUF hopes its strategy of taking big risks to get candidates elected will make lasting change for people who need it most. It looks to be paying off so far--but that success was far from preordained.

Days before the 2017 elections, one of TUF's top donors pulled out of their agreement, leaving TUF with a $45,000 hole in its budget, just as candidates like Cunningham were being attacked by million-dollar hate campaigns. Facing the choice of assuming the massive debt itself or shutting down its operations, TUF decided that abandoning candidates was not an option. For TUF, the fight was personal: its board is primarily made up of trans people of color, who know first-hand the history of racism, transphobia, sexism, and income inequality Cunningham had already faced as a black trans man. The organization wouldn't abandon him after

his campaign had come so far.

Cunningham--who shares the historic distinction of being the first out trans man elected in the U.S. with Pennsylvania's Tyler Titus, who also won in 2017--credits his narrow win (by just 157 votes) to TUF, because, "what they did was strategic, it was well invested, and it was great--I can tell you that those 157 [votes] absolutely came from the field plan and strategic investment that came from TUF."

When TUF took on that additional debt in order to continue supporting its endorsed candidates, the organization reached out for help from larger, established political organizations with similar mission statements. According to long-time Texas activist Monica Roberts (who sits on TUF's advisory board), some of the groups she, Danni Askini (founder of Gender Justice League), and Mora approached simply wouldn't take on the added responsibility or financial burden to help push the candidates to victory. …

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