There is no question that the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund had a great election cycle and the LGBT community had a fantastic night on Nov. 6. But as we build for the future and look to many more such cycles some would question whether the Victory Fund has retreated a little from what many believe was its initial mission. It was seen as the organization supporting and promoting LGBT candidates even when other organizations wouldn’t because they didn’t see the value in promoting them. The Victory Fund was building a strong bullpen of LGBT candidates — the future leaders at all levels of government.
Today the Victory Fund coordinates with and sometimes determines whether to support candidates partially based on what groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) do. I would assume since they are non-partisan they look at what the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee thinks as well. It appears they may be more concerned with their percentage of winning candidates rather than building for the future. Many of our finest politicians lost their first campaigns and went on to have stellar political careers. First time potentially viable LGBT candidates need our support and most believe it is the Victory Fund’s mission to provide that support and encouragement.
A recent congressional race in Michigan’s 3rd District is a prime example of where the Victory Fund has gone astray. Trevor Thomas, a gay man running in the primary asked for a Victory Fund endorsement early in his campaign. The Victory Fund turned him down suggesting that if he could raise $100,000 on his own and prove he was a viable candidate it would reconsider. Trevor did that and the Victory Fund turned him down again. A Victory Fund board member recently told me that the group decided not to endorse Thomas because they thought even if he could win his primary he couldn’t win the election. That board member also told me that the Victory Fund looked at the DCCC and saw that it wasn’t supporting Trevor in the primary but instead supported a self-funded candidate.
Thomas raised a lot of money on his own in the primary. He received the endorsement of two current members of Congress early in his campaign. About a month before the primary, the DCCC realized that in the pre-primary reporting period his opponent raised a weak $4,000, while Thomas pulled in nearly $40,000 in less than 15 days without a single dollar coming from PACs. The DCCC then gave the green light for other sitting members of Congress to endorse, including Barney Frank. He received endorsements from two former members of Congress, including Patrick Murphy, the leader in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Still, the Victory Fund wouldn’t endorse. Thomas found support from former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm; from the state’s former lieutenant governor who had just run for governor; a progressive PAC dedicated to veteran’s issues and Cecile Richards of National Planned Parenthood. The chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, Rep. Diana DeGette, along with Frank, started raising money for him. What he didn’t ever get was support from many big LGBT donors who told him they only contribute to candidates endorsed by the Victory Fund.
Trevor Thomas wasn’t an unknown quantity. He was deputy communications director at HRC and communications director for SLDN during the final fight for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The executive director of the SLDN was an active supporter and fundraiser for Thomas.
Thomas raised about $400,000 for his campaign and had an independent group backed by veterans chip in another $150,000. He got 45 percent of the vote against a competitor not particularly friendly to the LGBT community, who spent $700,000. If only Thomas had had the early support of the Victory Fund, he might have either kept his opponent out of the race or gone on TV earlier to get his message out. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman shared a poll early in the campaign with the Victory Fund showing if Thomas had the money to get his message out he could win big — with one test showing a win by as much as 20 percent. Thomas’s story was compelling, including the fact that he was a product of the auto-industry, both his parents working the line for more than 30 years.
In Trevor’s case it wasn’t the mere $5,000 the Victory Fund gives to endorsed candidates but rather making people aware of his candidacy so they would give. While the Victory Fund wasn’t even interested in listing him on its website, National Planned Parenthood and a national veterans group, along with Jennifer Granholm, didn’t blink. They knew Thomas, knew his talents, but then so did the silent Victory Fund.
The time has come for the Victory Fund to take a look in the mirror and perhaps rethink their mission. The Victory Fund is based on ground broken by EMILY’s list whose name stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast. Early money is often primary money for an LGBT candidate. It allows them the chance to grow and get their message out. I fully understand having a set of criteria for an endorsement but it is clear that if Trevor Thomas didn’t qualify there is a problem with the current criteria. In Michigan it was EMILY’s List that stood early with Jennifer Granholm when others stood with her primary opponent in her race for governor. The source and power of EMILY’s List is clear; they stand loyal in oftentimes divided primaries, going up against the DCCC if needed and they fight like hell and win. That’s a lesson to be learned.
Maybe it’s time to develop another organization so LGBT candidates can get their names out to the broader community; a place where every “out” candidate can list themselves, their bios, their positions and an analysis of how they see themselves winning. If the Victory Fund doesn’t feel it necessary to review its current criteria maybe they shouldn’t be the only gatekeeper to funding for LGBT candidates. We need the Victory Fund but if they don’t feel this is their role then we also need an organization dedicated to building that bullpen of LGBT candidates who will become the leaders of the future.