A controversial appearance by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley prompted participants in a closed-door conference of wealthy LGBT political donors, held May 15-16 in Chicago, to breach a strict a confidentiality policy after he told the gathering he favors civil unions over same-sex marriage.
O’Malley was one of at least four U.S. governors invited to address the annual Political OutGiving conference, a highly confidential event for a network of more than 200 big-stakes LGBT contributors to political campaigns.
The network is operated by the Denver-based Gill Action Fund, which was founded in 2006 by gay entrepreneur and multimillionaire Tim Gill
Members of the network are warned that violating the confidentiality policy could result in their expulsion.
But several participants, speaking on condition that they not be identified, ignored the warnings and informed the Washington Blade about an exchange between O’Malley and Julie Goodridge, the lesbian plaintiff in the Massachusetts lawsuit that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in that state.
Goodridge reportedly interrupted O’Malley and told him that he appeared to be talking about civil unions the way people did in the early 2000s, multiple sources attending the event said.
“It’s 2010,” the sources quoted Goodridge as saying. It’s totally unacceptable to be pushing civil unions in a state like Maryland at this time when full marriage equality is gaining momentum among voters, sources paraphrased Goodridge as saying.
At least three people present during the exchange said the audience applauded Goodridge for her comments to O’Malley.
They said O’Malley, who expressed support for LGBT rights, replied that voters in his state aren’t ready for gay marriage. A recent Washington Post poll found for the first time that more Marylanders now support same-sex marriage than oppose it.
Joanne Kron, a spokesperson for Gill Action Fund, said in an e-mail that the group would not comment on the Goodridge-O’Malley exchange because “we don’t discuss the Political OutGiving conference, which is a private event.”
“Political OutGiving is a focused, bipartisan state-based strategy that concentrates on delivering resources from dedicated and generous donors to select campaigns in a limited number of states,” Kron said in her e-mail.
“Political OutGiving started in 2006 when hundreds of donors contributed around $3 million to targeted campaigns aimed at protecting or increasing the number of pro-LGBT supporters in state legislatures,” she said. “Political OutGiving similarly engaged in elections in 2008 and will be involved in campaigns in 2010.”
Goodridge did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment on her interaction with O’Malley.
Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesperson for O’Malley’s re-election campaign, said O’Malley flew to Chicago to attend the OutGiving conference on May 15, after presenting the winning trophy at Baltimore’s annual Preakness horse racing event.
“The governor’s position has been clear on this issue and consistent — that he does support civil unions and that he felt we could have reached a consensus within the Maryland General Assembly to move the issue of civil unions forward,” Abbruzzese said.
“He has not supported gay marriage in the past,” he said, adding that while O’Malley doesn’t believe enough support exists to pass a same-sex marriage bill, he feels the legislature “could move and pass legislation on civil unions.”
But O’Malley once favored same-sex marriage. He privately told LGBT supporters in 2006 and 2007 in e-mails and during meetings that he supported civil marriage rights for gay couples, before the state’s high court ruled against such rights. He once told a Baltimore TV station that he backed civil marriage rights for gays.
Sources familiar with the OutGiving conference, which was held in Chicago’s upscale Peninsula Hotel, said O’Malley was joined at the event by Democratic governors Chet Culver of Iowa, John Lynch of New Hampshire, and Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania.
Also attending were Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish of New Mexico, who is running for governor, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.).
Attendees said a session in which O’Malley, Denish and other panelists participated was moderated by gay journalist Jonathan Capehart, who is an editorial writer for the Washington Post. Capehart could not immediately be reached for comment. Sources familiar with the event said Capehart, like most other participants in the event, agreed to keep his role and the meeting itself off the record.
Due to OutGiving’s confidentiality policy it could not be determined whether the Gill Action Fund, which operates the donor network, would give its support to O’Malley, who is being challenged this year by Republican former Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
O’Malley defeated Ehrlich in 2006, and political insiders are predicting a close race between the two rivals this year.
Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland, a non-partisan statewide LGBT group, said that while the group is disappointed in O’Malley’s support for civil unions over same-sex marriage, she noted that he has repeatedly pledged to sign a same-sex marriage bill should it reach his desk.
By contrast, Meneses-Sheets points to Ehrlich’s decision to veto during his tenure as Maryland governor a limited domestic partnership bill that called for giving hospital visitation right to same-sex partners and medical decision-making authority for an incapacitated partner. She noted that Ehrlich has expressed opposition to same-sex marriage and, unlike O’Malley, could be expected to veto a marriage bill passed by the legislature.
Meneses-Sheets said that although pushing a same-sex marriage equality bill through the legislature next year will be a “challenge,” she and her Equality Maryland colleagues are hopeful that the remaining members of the State Senate who have blocked advancement of a marriage equality bill will be defeated in the November election.
“We have a plan in place and we’re working on all of the pieces it will take to get a win,” she said. “This is not a pie in the sky.”
Other LGBT activists in the state have expressed concern that O’Malley’s pledge to sign a marriage bill rings hollow because he refuses to use his political influence to push wavering lawmakers to back a marriage measure. Some activists say they doubt the November election, in which all members of the legislature come up before the voters, will result in enough new supporters to pass a marriage bill.
‘Moneyed gay people making things happen’
Although Gill Action’s Political OutGiving has been the subject of media coverage, including coverage in the LGBT press, the exchange between Goodridge and O’Malley appears to have triggered for the first time discussion and questions among members of the donor network about the need for the secrecy imposed by Gill Action’s leaders.
In response to the Blade’s inquiries about the Chicago conference, Gill Action Fund’s executive director, Patrick Guerriero, and its deputy executive director, Bill Smith, sent a joint e-mail to network donors on Tuesday urging them not to speak with the media.
“Doing really important work often attracts the media and we’ve been informed that a reporter is buzzing about the 2010 Political OutGiving conference,” the two said in their e-mail.
“As you know, the event is private and participant attendance is confidential,” Guerriero and Smith said.
Smith, who heads the Gill Action Fund’s Washington office, is a former aide to Bush administration official Karl Rove. Smith told the Advocate in a 2008 interview that pragmatic and sometimes hard-hitting tactics employed by Rove can be used by Gill Action for the advancement of LGBT equality.
“We’re not afraid to learn from anyone across the political spectrum who’s doing really smart work, be it EMILY’s List or GOPAC,” Smith told the Advocate.
EMILY’s List is a Democratic, liberal leaning group pushing for women’s rights that’s credited with helping elect Democrats to Congress. GOPAC is a Republican political action committee said to be responsible for helping Republicans win control of Congress during the 1990s.
Guerriero is a former Republican state legislator from Massachusetts and former president of the national gay GOP group Log Cabin Republicans.
Guerriero and Smith have said in the past that Gill Action Fund assesses candidates running for public office to determine whether they should be supported or opposed. It then sends its recommendations to its “top secret” donor list, according to one source familiar with the group.
The donors then make individual contributions to the recommended candidates. The system makes it difficult to measure which candidates are benefiting from the gay network.
Although the names of contributors must be reported to the Federal Election Commission, which makes its reports available for public inspection, reviewing FEC records would be useless for identifying OutGiving donors because Gill Action Fund never releases their names.
“The fact that it’s being kept out of the public eye — that’s bad news,” said New York gay rights attorney and activist Bill Dobbs. “It’s too much wheeling and dealing behind closed doors.”
One of the OutGiving donors who spoke to the Blade on condition of anonymity disagreed with the strict confidentiality policy.
“I think part of it is they don’t want to run the risk that there would be stories that these rich gay people get together and push their agenda and it’s the moneyed gay people that are making things happen,” the donor said.
But the donor said the donations were helping the LGBT rights movement in the long run by sending more supportive lawmakers to Congress and the state legislatures.
Sources who attended the Political OutGiving conference said that in addition to the donors, a number of prominent officials with other LGBT rights groups attended the event. Among them were Evan Wolfson, executive director of the same-sex marriage advocacy group Freedom to Marry; Steve Elmendorf, a gay former congressional staffer and Washington political consultant; Mary Breslauer, a Boston-based consultant for the Human Rights Campaign; Chuck Wolfe and Robin Brand, director and deputy director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund; and Matt Foreman, former National Gay & Lesbian Task Force director and a current official with the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund, which awards grants to LGBT organizations and causes.