Sometimes being conspicuous is a good thing.
It was for Sherry Harris, an electrical engineer in Seattle who holds the record for being the first candidate ever endorsed by the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, an organization that works to help LGBT candidates get elected to public office at all levels of government.
The group, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend with a Sunday brunch at the Hilton in Washington (go to victoryfund.org for details), helped Harris win a four-year term on Seattle City Council.
Harris, who’ll be in town this weekend to speak at the brunch, remembers that her involvement with the then-new fund in 1991, started innocuously.
She was in D.C. to meet with former U.S. Rep. Jolene Unsoeld (D-Wash.) and heard about the Fund through friends.
“Someone just told us about it, I’m not sure who,” Harris says. “But we went over to their offices. … They were going to be having an event while I was there and said, ‘Why don’t you come to this event?,’ and referred me to that. I was happy to hear about the organization but I wasn’t expecting anything.”
Harris was asked to speak that night and found herself with support. She says a “process” the Fund put her through — which it does to this day to vet candidates – was “more of a formality” in those early years.
On a mailing list sent to Fund supporters, Harris says her status as a black lesbian helped her stand out.
“I seemed to draw a lot of money,” she says. “I did very well. Back then there were almost no black women running. I think I stood out because I was so unusual.”
Though Harris served only one term — she lost her bid for a second — she is essential to the Victory Fund story. It, too, began somewhat innocuously.
Two gay political activists — Vic Basile and Terry Bean — had noticed that a group called Emily’s List had, since 1985, done wonders at helping female candidates campaign competitively against better-funded male opponents by establishing a network of donors who agreed to contribute at least $100 to two or more List-endorsed candidates. Basile and Bean wondered if the model could be adapted to help more gays and lesbians get into office. After researching the idea, they came to feel such an entity was desperately needed.
“I believe it helps change people’s opinions about members of our community and lets everybody else know there isn’t a special agenda, they have the same agenda,” says Chuck Wolfe, Victory Fund president. “They’re there working on what their constituents need. Their transportation needs, from fixing potholes to building a new highway connector. They’re there doing what everybody else is doing and the idea that they’re there and simply changing the fabric of leadership in their community has a huge advantage for us. It pays dividends in so many ways but more importantly, it lets everybody see that there’s no reason to be exclusionary in hiring practices, in the business sense. It has ramifications across sectors.”
The organization has grown enormously in the last two decades. Initially, the only employee was the first director, William Waybourn, a former Blade co-owner. About $30,000 was directed to candidates that first year. In recent years, more than $1 million has been given each year. The Fund now employees 21 full-time staff members and has endorsed 952 LGBT candidates over 20 years that has resulted in 637 wins. Last year was the organization’s most successful with 107 races won out of 167 endorsed.
U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), now in her seventh term in the House, credits the Fund for helping her achieve her goals.
“The Victory Fund’s early support and mentoring not only helped me get elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly, but gave me the encouragement, skills and crucial financial backing to run for a seat in Congress,” Baldwin wrote in an e-mail. “By propelling openly LGBT candidates into office, the Victory Fund continues to change the face of American politics for the better.”
State Sen. Matt McCoy (D-Iowa) said in an e-mail that his years in office, aided by the Fund, have helped achieve pro-gay strides there.
“Iowa is well positioned on equality issues having adopted the non-discrimination act and applied this to [LGBT] citizens,” McCly wrote. “Iowa has also adopted anti-bullying legislation that bans school and cyber bullying based upon real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. I have had the privilege to serve while these progressive decisions were adopted and signed into law. I believe that having a visible, out gay state senator has positively impacted the public debate and ensured positive results.”
Harris, who enjoyed her time in politics but is now content in the private sector, agrees.
“It’s very important that we be open and show our presence in this country where there’s still discrimination and prejudice to this day,” she says. “It is very important for gay and lesbian candidates to run and to have people in these rooms speaking on our behalf. … It makes a profound difference when we have a seat at the table.”
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) first became a Victory Fund candidate in the early ‘00s when he ran successfully for mayor of Providence, R.I.
“They’ve done a spectacular job over the last 20 years to ensure members of our community are elected to office,” he says. “I’m a firm believer that one of the most powerful and effective ways we move forward is by having members of our community serving in elected office. There’s no question the Victory Fund has done it very successfully.”
Gay candidates sometimes seek help from the Fund; other times the Fund contacts them. Many candidates go through a four-day training program that’s held four times a year. Between 150 and 200 are trained each year.
Candidates are evaluated for their “viability” as opposed to “winability,” Wolfe says. He says the Fund looks for “reasonable investments” and potential leaders who’ll be “solid” once they’re in office.
Fund staff occasionally help closeted officials to come out in a planned, strategic way. The Fund made a “case study” video using gay U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) as an example.
A Victory Fund endorsement can mean direct cash, independent expenditures, bundled money, technical assistance, field work or staffing, depending on the needs of the candidate.
Additional anniversary brunches will be held in Houston (April 17), Sacramento, Calif. (Oct. 23) and New York (Sept. 18). A San Diego brunch was held in February. The Fund is based in Washington.