Victory Fund Eager for Election Day
The morning of Nov. 7 could be a very good day at the downtown D.C. office of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.
Having wrapped up federal, state and local endorsements earlier this month, Victory Fund has put the weight of its coveted endorsements behind a record 180 LGBT candidates across the country in a continued effort to increase LGBT representation at all levels of government.
''On the day after Election Day, will we have real exciting news to share? Yes,'' declares Victory Fund president and CEO Chuck Wolfe. ''We will have potentially our best Election Day ever.''
On the federal level alone, the number of out members of Congress could double from the current four to as many as eight after Election Day. And Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) could become the first out LGBT person ever elected to the Senate.
Founded in 1991, Victory Fund's influence has increased dramatically in recent years. As the country's largest LGBT political action committee, Victory Fund funnels millions of dollars, as well as strategic and technical support, into races across the country, having helped elect thousands of qualified, out LGBT candidates over the years.
For almost a decade, Wolfe, 50, has been the man behind Victory. Since taking the reins in 2003, Wolfe has increased revenue from $1.5 million to $5 million in 2011. And today, there are out elected officials in all 50 states.
''This year, for the first time in history, we have someone elected in every state in the union. It took until 2012 for that to happen,'' says Wolfe.
Despite the high profile federal races Victory Fund has stepped into, including Baldwin's tight race against former Republican Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, Victory Fund's focus remains largely on the local level where many politicians get their start.
The organization has made nearly 100 endorsements in state legislative races as it continues to build LGBT caucuses in all 50 states. Where Victory Fund has built those caucuses - including in Maryland, Maine, Washington, New York and California - the organization has seen momentous victories for LGBT-rights legislation.
That is not to say Victory Fund's rigorous endorsement process has not come without controversy. Of the eight congressional candidates Victory Fund has endorsed, one is a Republican and what impact his election may or may not have on Capitol Hill has exposed continued riffs between the LGBT community and the GOP.
Richard Tisei is an out gay Republican who has served in the Massachusetts State Legislature for 26 years and would be the first out gay Republican elected to Congress as a non-incumbent. He supports marriage equality, is pro-choice and repudiated the Republican Party's socially conservative national party platform in September.
Despite his party affiliation in a heavily Democratic state, Tisei's candidacy has been propelled by his moderate social views and long history in the state. Moreover, he's garnered the support of much of the Republican establishment in his efforts to unseat Democratic Rep. John Tierney, who has represented Massachusetts's 6th District since 1997.
Republican Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown - engaged in his own high-profile race against Elizabeth Warren, who hopes to reclaim the seat once occupied by Sen. Ted Kennedy for the Democrats - has campaigned for Tisei, as has House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Although both men oppose marriage equality, they have been emphatic in their support of Tisei.
Victory Fund's decision to endorse Tisei isn't all that surprising. As a nonpartisan organization whose sole mission is to achieve equality through representation on both sides of the aisle, Tisei is just the kind of candidate they have long supported.
''With an openly gay candidate in the race who is completely viable with 26 years of history inside the Massachusetts Legislature, there's no doubt we're going to endorse someone like Richard Tisei,'' says Wolfe. ''Our belief is, if you're trying to build a representative democracy, that instead of just giving it lip service, you actually do it.''
While gay voters have long been more inclined to vote Democratic than Republican, that is not to say that trend is not changing.
A poll released by Logo TV earlier this summer found that 26 percent of LGBT voters would consider supporting a Republican if the party more closely mirrored the stances of the Democratic Party on gay issues.
Tisei appears to be one of those Republicans.
Although many Republican leaders still hold hard-line stances on key LGBT issues, like marriage equality, polls show those views are shifting. It's a trend particularly visible among young conservatives, and one not lost on Wolfe.
''You're starting to see more and more conservatives acknowledge this is backwards from being a true conservative,'' Wolfe states. ''A true conservative is not about government intervention in people's bedrooms. It's about less government, not more government. The more that conservative ideology is reminded to those on the right, then we'll probably see some progress.''
Wolfe adds, ''I think the idea that all gays have to have the same belief on everything is just not realistic.''
What has made Victory Fund's endorsement of Tisei particularly controversial is his opponent, Rep. John Tierney. Tierney has long been a friend to the LGBT community and supporter of key legislation during his nearly 15 years on Capitol Hill.
According to the Human Rights Campaign's Congressional Scorecard, which grades members of Congress on their support for LGBT-rights, Tierney scored a 100 percent in the 108th and 109th sessions of Congress, and a 95 percent during the 110th.
HRC, which does not base endorsements on sexual orientation, has put the organization's support behind Tierney.
''As part of our endorsement process, we stand up for people who have stood up for us in the past,'' says HRC spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz. ''Our endorsement criteria favors incumbency and gives an incentive for members to understand if they're with us we're going to get their back as well.''
Aside from HRC, Tierney has also garnered the support of one of the LGBT community's most visible representatives, out gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
Frank, who made waves in August when he equated Log Cabin Republicans to ''Uncle Toms'' and will retire at the end of his term, has been critical of Victory Fund's endorsement and of Tisei's candidacy.
''One of the biggest differences between the parties is on LGBT rights,'' Frank told Metro Weekly. ''If the Republicans control the House we get nothing.''
Although supporters of Tisei have argued his views on gay issues could influence the Republican caucus, Frank thinks otherwise and says his election would do nothing more than block gay-rights legislation by securing a Republican majority. Moreover, he does not believe Tisei's record as a state legislator in Massachusetts shows any signs that he will be able to influence the party.
''I know he said he's going to talk to John Boehner - he can talk to the wind, it's going to have the same effect,'' Frank quipped.
Under different circumstances, like if the seat was open, Frank says he would be less vehemently opposed to Tisei's candidacy. But in this case, Frank says supporting Tisei over Tierney is bad strategy that jeopardizes alliances with straight members of Congress.
''To go to someone who's tried to be our friend in every case and say, 'We're going to try to defeat you, even though you've been very good because we don't like who you have sex with,' that seems to me to go beyond what we want to say. Sexual orientation shouldn't be the only factor,'' Frank adds.
For Wolfe, Tisei's race in particular is about chipping away at preconceptions long built up in the Republican Party.
''I understand Congressman Frank's point of view. We've endorsed him, we support him, we've raised him plenty of money. In a hyper-partisan conversation I think that people sometimes say things during elections that aren't really what it takes to govern,'' Wolfe says, adding that Tisei's election has the power to change the conversation about LGBT-rights.
According to Wolfe, ''The conversation shouldn't be a partisan one. And the more we try to make it partisan, I think we do ourselves a disservice. We shouldn't put ourselves out there as our rights being a partisan football.''
Tisei's race is one of 12 Victory Fund has declared will be very close. And talking to Wolfe, it's clear it is one they believe could be very significant.
Already, Victory Fund knows out gay Wisconsin state Rep. Mark Pocan will assume the House seat being vacated by Rep. Tammy Baldwin. Having secured his party's nomination in a heavily Democratic district, Pocan's election as the eighth out member of Congress in American history is all but guaranteed.
In November, Krysten Sinema of Arizona could be elected as the first out bisexual member of Congress and Mark Takano of California as the first out gay Asian-American member of Congress.
And in Wisconsin, Baldwin is pulling ahead of Thompson in many polls in a Senate campaign that has seen little focus on her sexual orientation.
For Wolfe, who came to Victory Fund at a time when it was not only inconceivable for a Republican Speaker of the House to campaign with a gay candidate, but when he was battling many state Democratic parties to put LGBT candidates on the ballot, the progress made in the past 10 years has been tremendous.
Says Wolfe, ''It makes you feel really good about the future knowing these are the people our community will look to for leadership in years to come.''