[Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series.]
Engaging in tasks from fundraising to digital initiatives to public outreach, President Obama’s re-election campaign staff is already hard at work helping to secure a second term in the White House — and many members of the LGBT community have high-profile roles in that effort.
The Washington Blade interviewed four gay and lesbian staffers who are working to re-elect Obama from the campaign headquarters in Chicago. This article is the first in a two-part series and features interviews with two of the campaign workers: Rufus Gifford, the finance director, and Teddy Goff, the digital director.
For Gifford, who’s gay, seeing Obama serve another two years in office is important because he believes the administration so far has been “two of the most productive years in American history.”
“I’ve been on board with the campaign in one way shape or form since January 2007 — nearly from the moment I met Sen. Obama,” Gifford said. “I was certainly a believer in him and his message and his politics, etc. So, I do believe that the last two years have been two of the very most productive years in American history. In my mind, truly, if we can get four more, think of how much more we can accomplish.”
Gifford said Obama’s accomplishments for the LGBT community — most notably “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal — are “obviously very, very personally important” to him. Still, Gifford also counts among the president’s victories passage of the economic stimulus plan and health care reform as well as ratification of the START Treaty, a nuclear-arms reduction agreement.
As finance director, Gifford overseas the funds raised for both the Obama campaign as well as a joint committee that raises funds between the campaign and the Democratic National Committee. It’s similar to his role as finance director of the DNC, which he occupied immediately before joining the Obama campaign, and his role in raising money for Obama in California during the 2008 campaign.
“Every morning I start the day with a 9 a.m. senior staff meeting with the campaign leadership,” Gifford said. “I am a huge believer that finance should never be siloed within a campaign.”
Gifford said he believes the campaign will be stronger and raise more money if he’s talking to the directors of the field department, the digital department, the tech department and the communications department.
In the second quarter, fundraising for the Obama campaign beat expectations. Obama raised more than $86 million for his re-election campaign and the Democratic National Committee, which far outpaced Republican candidates seeking to oust him from the White House.
The third quarter numbers are yet to be made public. Media reports state that the campaign is expecting to rake in less cash because the president had to cancel fundraisers to attend debt ceiling negotiations with congressional leaders.
One difference that Gifford faces working with the Obama campaign in 2012 as opposed to his work in 2008 is the fact that he’s now separated from his partner, Jeremy Bernard, who serves as the White House social secretary.
In 2008, Gifford and Bernard were featured in numerous media outlets as a gay power couple and were named in Out magazine’s listing of the Top 50 power gays.
Gifford declined to comment on his separation from Bernard, but confirmed the couple split in 2009. Gifford’s current partner resides in D.C.
While Gifford manages fundraising for the Obama campaign, another gay member of the president’s re-election team, Goff, handles digital outreach efforts.
As digital director, Goff runs Internet communications for the campaign, which includes outreach via e-mail or social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.
“Our job in the digital department is to talk to millions of Twitter followers, millions of e-mail subscribers, millions of Facebook fans everyday, and that’s a viewpoint that I think is helpful even in helping shape and inform broader discussions about how we talk to people and how we build,” Goff said.
Goff, who’s 26 and gay, comes to the Obama campaign after his most immediate position working with Blue State Digital, a digital agency in New York. In 2008, Goff ran digital programs at the state level for the Obama campaign.
Goff’s commitment to see Obama re-elected stems from the president’s record over the course of two-and-a-half years in office, which Goff said is “without parallel in my lifetime or even my parents’ lifetime.”
“So for me, he’s every bit as inspiring and compelling a figure as I ever thought he was.”
The main priority for 2011, Goff said, is making sure existing Obama supporters have avenues to make their voices heard.
What’s the best online platform for the Obama campaign to connect with its supporters? Goff said “everybody’s different” in the way they want to interact.
“There may be one person who wants to hear from us via e-mail, and another person who wants to hear from us on Twitter, but our point of view is that isn’t so much what matters,” Goff said. “Most things come and go. This time, four years ago, Myspace was a really big deal. Now people aren’t talking about that so much anymore. The perspective that we try to bring to it is what’s the basic content that’s going to engage people, how can we shape a relationship that’s going to make them feel engaged and feel like a part of the family.”
But the fight to re-elect Obama in 2012 could be more of a challenge than it was making sure he won the White House in 2008. Recent polls have placed Obama’s approval rating at its lowest point during the course of his term. A few weeks ago, Gallup found that Obama’s approval rating was at 39 percent, marking the first time his approval rating had dipped below 40 percent.
Gifford said he’s not in a position to say whether a win for Obama will be more challenging than it was in 2008, but asserted supporters will push on in the effort to claim victory.
Similarly, Goff said he doesn’t know if winning the White House will be more challenging for Obama in 2012, but said he expects the commitment of campaign workers would lead the president to victory.
The support that Obama will receive from the LGBT community in his re-election efforts remains to be seen. Significant milestones in LGBT rights occurred under his watch — most notably the passage of hate crimes legislation and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Obama also received praise earlier this year for dropping the administration’s legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act in court.
But other actions sought by the LGBT community remain outstanding — such as the enactment of employment protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The president’s lack of support for same-sex marriage riles some in the LGBT community as the fight to win marriage equality continues throughout the states.
Gifford said he’d tell anyone who says Obama hasn’t done enough on LGBT issues during his first term in office that “you cannot make the argument that this is not the most pro-gay administration in history.”
How can other LGBT people help who want to see Obama re-elected in 2012? Goff said those who are interested should check out the campaign website or participate in an on-the-ground field program that is being built in communities across the country.
“There are things for people who want to be involved only or primarily in LGBT issues,” Goff said. “We should have LGBT people do that, but also hope that LGBT people will get involved in the broad program and organize their community just like anybody else.”