Gay former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman was among the speakers at a secret LGBT donor conference that took place over the weekend in D.C. and was attended by advocates and high-ranking public officials.
According to a program schedule obtained by the Washington Blade, Mehlman, who came out as gay in 2010, spoke on at least two panels during the annual OutGiving conference hosted by the Gill Action Fund. The organization works at the state level to advance LGBT rights, and to oust lawmakers who oppose them.
A source who attended the conference, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mehlman spoke on a panel about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal with Winnie Stachelberg, vice president of external affairs at the Center for American Progress, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who was the lead Republican in the Senate pushing for legislation to repeal the military’s gay ban.
Another source familiar with the event, who also requested anonymity, said Mehlman was among 30 or more speakers at the event and presented a session on Republican evolution on LGBT rights with Margaret Hoover, a straight LGBT-friendly conservative activist who testified last year before the Maryland Senate in favor of the same-sex marriage bill.
Mehlman worked for the White House and was later RNC chair at the same time former President George W. Bush was advocating for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. However, the gay Republican later apologized for his involvement with campaigns exploiting marital politics and is credited with helping to lobby on behalf of the marriage equality bill in New York.
Mike Rogers, a D.C.-based gay activist known for his outing of closeted gay politicians who pursue anti-gay policies, praised Mehlman for taking part in the conference and said it helps him reverse the damage he caused as a GOP operative. Rogers didn’t attend the OutGiving conference.
“I am happy to see Ken Mehlman working to undo the years of damage that he inflicted on the American people and the LGBT community,” Rogers said. “Ken is taking the steps toward redemption and his participation in donor conferences is important in helping to secure new supporters of our movement in the corporate community. I commend him for his recent work.”
The anonymous attendee also said David Plouffe, a campaign manager for President Obama during his 2008 run and now a senior adviser at the White House, gave a speech to attendees about the work the administration has done over the course of Obama’s first term. Clo Ewing, an Obama campaign spokesperson, said his remarks weren’t available.
Also in attendance was lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who’s pursuing a run for U.S. Senate; she delivered a speech, the source said.
The OutGiving conference is an annual gathering where leading donors and LGBT advocates converge to plan strategies and secure financial commitments for state and federal elections around the country. The conference this year took place at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, starting on the evening of April 26 through April 29. The event is secretive and individuals participate on the condition that they pledge not to speak publicly about it.
One donor who attended the event, who spoke on condition of anonymity, estimated that between 100 and 200 donors, activists and other individuals were in attendance. The donor wouldn’t reveal anything about the nature of the discussions or panels, but said programs and content haven’t “changed dramatically” from previous years and that it was “a very positive conversation.”
More information about what was said during the talks wasn’t known. Unless otherwise noted, the offices for the named individuals in this article didn’t respond to a request for comment or declined to say anything.
According to the schedule obtained by the Washington Blade, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was another scheduled speaker at the event. She’s considered a leading LGBT advocate in the Senate and was a proponent of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in 2010.
A number of governors were slated to participate in the event. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, who recently pushed through same-sex marriage legislation in their states, were set to speak on one panel.
On another panel, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell were scheduled to speak. Sue Abbey, a Shumlin spokesperson, confirmed the governor participated in the conference, but didn’t respond to a request to comment further.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick was set to talk on the same panel. But Alex Goldstein, a Patrick campaign spokesperson, said a last minute conflict prevented the governor from attending, even though he backs the work of OutGiving in supporting “the cause of equality across the nation.”
High-profile LGBT advocates were also among the speakers scheduled to participate. Mary Bonauto, the civil rights project director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders who recently argued before the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals against the Defense of Marriage Act, was scheduled to speak. Ted Olson, who’s litigating on behalf of the American Foundation for Equal Rights against California’s Proposition 8, was another scheduled speaker. Sean Eldridge, president of the small-business investment fund Hudson River Ventures and senior adviser at Freedom to Marry, was also set to talk.
Advocates affiliated with Gill Action were also slated to speak, including Tim Gill, the gay billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded the organization in 2005, and Chris Cormier, the organization’s director of donor relations. One source familiar with the event said Kirk Fordham, the newly named executive director of the organization, had offered general remarks and the summit marked his first OutGiving. Former individuals affiliated with Gill Action — Patrick Guerriero and Bill Smith — were also on the schedule.
Others listed as participants at the event — but not as speakers — were Patrick Murphy, the former U.S. House member who led the way for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and until was running for Pennsylvania attorney general before he lost the Democratic primary, and Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster.
Also on the schedule was lesbian political satirist Kate Clinton, whose speech was likely intended to lighten the mood at the event amid serious discussion of LGBT advocacy.
John Aravosis, who’s gay and editor of AMERICAblog, said the secretive nature of the OutGiving summit doesn’t bother him. He wasn’t in attendance.
“If you hold strategy sessions in public, then they’re press conferences and not strategy sessions,” Aravosis said. “We don’t need the religious right taking notes about what our plans are for the next year.”
CORRECTION: An initial version of this article reported that Patrick Murphy was still pursuing a run for Pennsylvania attorney general. The Blade regrets the error.