November 3, 2011 at 12:29 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Tempers flare over negative messages in Va., S.F.

Negative campaign messages were unleashed on behalf of openly gay candidates in Virginia and San Francisco during the past two weeks, raising the ire of LGBT activists and their straight allies.

In both cases, the messages were issued by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a non-partisan group that raises money and campaigns to help elect openly LGBT candidates across the country.

One of the group’s messages, issued in the form of an email sent to the Victory Fund’s members and donors, targeted Virginia State Sen. Janet Howell (D-Reston), who is being challenged by gay Republican Patrick Forrest, an attorney and former senior official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The other message came in the form of a mailing that targeted San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who is being challenged in his race for San Francisco mayor by gay former San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty. Both are Democrats and the two are among 16 candidates running in the hotly contested mayoral race.

Victory Fund spokesperson Denis Dison said the email in Virginia and the mailing in San Francisco were aimed at informing Victory Fund supporters in Virginia and mostly LGBT voters in San Francisco of the gay candidates’ qualifications and their opponents’ shortcomings as part of a widely used campaign practice in American politics.

But the messages angered some gay Democratic activists in Virginia as well as LGBT Democrats and independents in San Francisco who are backing Herrera. The messages were signed by Victory Fund president and CEO Chuck Wolfe.

In the Virginia email, Wolfe cited a Washington Blade story last month that reported Forrest and his supporters had accused the Howell campaign of using “gay baiting” tactics against Forrest. The Blade story reported that Forrest and his supporters learned that a Democratic Party volunteer approached voters and asked them if they knew that Forrest was gay and allegedly told them he would promote a “homosexual agenda” in the state’s public schools.

Without mentioning Howell by name, Wolfe stated in his email, “That kind of divisive campaigning has no place in politics, and it’s wrong no matter which party does it.

“We’re standing up for Patrick because openly gay voices in politics are far too rare in places like Virginia, and because he’ll be the only openly LGBT Republican state legislator in America if he wins his campaign,” Wolfe said in his email.

Howell told the Blade the Democratic campaign worker was not part of her campaign and acted without authorization and was quickly dismissed from any role in the party dealing with the Howell campaign.

Leaders of LGBT Democrats of Virginia, a statewide group, called Howell one of the LGBT community’s strongest straight allies in the Virginia Legislature. The group notes that Democrats are clinging to a razor-thin majority in the State Senate and a defeat for Howell and just one other Democrat would flip the Senate into the control of Republicans, opening the way for passage of anti-gay bills next year and the certain defeat of LGBT-supportive legislation.

“I get their interest in wanting to endorse a gay candidate,” said Terry Mansberger, chair of the Virginia Democratic Party’s LGBT Caucus. “But I don’t think it was necessary to attack Janet Howell, a very supportive LGBT ally.”

Mansberger said Forrest’s support for LGBT equality, including same-sex marriage, would make him a welcome addition to the State Senate. But he called Forrest’s candidacy ill timed and the Victory Fund’s support for him irresponsible, saying the ouster of Howell and a GOP takeover of the Senate would be devastating to LGBT equality in Virginia for at least the next two years.

David Lampo, president of Log Cabin Republicans of Virginia, a gay group that has endorsed Forrest, disputes that assessment, saying Democrats would likely retain control of the Senate through wins in other races. He said Forrest would be a strong advocate for LGBT rights in the Senate and within the Senate’s GOP caucus regardless of whether Republicans gain control of the body.

Dison of the Victory Fund disputed claims by Howell and her gay supporters that the Victory Fund had attacked Howell or issued an “attack” ad, as some Howell backers have described it.

“Based on information published by the Washington Blade, the Fund asked its own supporters via email to donate to Patrick’s campaign in the face of gay-baiting reportedly employed by Democratic Party operatives,” Dison said. ”That email never mentioned the name of Patrick’s opponent, so charges that we have somehow “targeted” or “attacked” her are baseless.”

In a separate race, Democrat Adam Ebbin, a gay member of the Virginia House of Delegates, is considered the strong favorite to win a seat in the State Senate representing parts of Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax counties.

The Victory Fund has also endorsed Ebbin. Lampo said his group chose not to endorse Ebbin’s Republican opponent, political newcomer Tim McGhee. Lampo said McGhee declined to endorse proposed legislation to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for state employees.

McGhee created a stir last month when he appeared before an election forum sponsored by the Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance and recited biblical passages to stress his personal beliefs as a Christian and questioned whether most gays are comfortable reconciling their sexual orientation and religious upbringing.

Similar to Ebbin, Forrest has expressed strong support for legislation banning employment discrimination for Virginia state employees as well as other LGBT-supportive measures, including marriage equality for same-sex couples and the repeal of a state constitutional amendment approved by Virginia voters in 2006 that bans same-sex marriage in the state.

In a development that LGBT activists see as a positive sign, a third openly gay candidate in Virginia will be on the ballot in the Nov. 8 election. Michael Sutphin, 27, a public affairs coordinator at Virginia Tech University, is running for a seat on the Blacksburg, Va., Town Council.

Sutphin is a graduate of Virginia Tech University, which is located in Blacksburg, and served as president of the college’s LGBT Alliance. He currently serves on the board of Equality Virginia, a statewide LGBT group.

He’s among five candidates running for three seats up for election on the Blacksburg Council. Under the town’s election rules, the three candidates receiving the highest number of votes win election to the seats. Sutphin received the endorsement of the Roanoke Times, the region’s most prominent daily newspaper.

In San Francisco, the Victory Fund mailing outraged some LGBT activists who are supporting Herrera, a City Attorney who is considered one of the strongest LGBT-supportive politicians in California.

Both Herrera and Dufty, along with most of the other 14 candidates in the mayoral race, are Democrats.

Dufty is vying to become the first openly gay mayor in a city considered to be the nation’s epicenter of LGBT rights and equality. The Victory Fund, which endorsed him earlier this year, released its campaign mailing against Herrera last month at a time when Herrera was considered Dufty’s strongest competitor for LGBT votes.

The ad includes a brightly colored depiction of a fish impaled on a hook described as a fishing “lure,” which the ad says illustrates how powerful law firms in the city landed lucrative city contracts from the Office of the City Attorney, which Herrera headed. The ad, citing news media sources, says at least five law firms that donated to Herrera’s campaign for mayor have received a combined total of more than $1.2 million in city contracts.

“The donors are fishing and Dennis Herrera is taking the bait,” the ad says.

Victory Fund spokesperson Dison said his group produced the ad independently from the Dufty campaign without the approval of — or any interaction with — Dufty’s campaign. Dison noted that the practice is used widely by Democrats and Republicans in election campaigns as a means of informing voters of the shortcomings and potential problems of an opponent.

“There’s some criticism there, but it’s all coming from people who are involved in local politics and who have their own candidates and old rivalries,” Dison said. “It gets extremely complicated, but they’re essentially asking us to back off from our support for Bevan Dufty, and we’re not going to,” he said.

“He is an obviously viable and an experienced candidate,” Dison said of Dufty “He has been in government for more than 20 years. He has been elected twice to the Board of Supervisors. And the Bay Area Reporter, when they endorsed him, said he is as qualified as anybody in the field of candidates and it’s time we elected a gay person as mayor.”

The Bay Area Reporter is San Francisco’s LGBT community newspaper. The city’s two LGBT Democratic Clubs, the Harvey Milk and Alice P. Toklas clubs, endorsed Herrera over Dufty.

However, the Toklas Club endorsed Dufty for “second choice” in a first-of-its-kind mayoral voting system for San Francisco that allows every voter to select three candidates and designate them as their first, second and third choice for mayor.

San Francisco gay activist Cleve Jones, a collaborator with San Francisco’s famed gay leader Harvey Milk in the 1970s and the lead organizer of the 2009 LGBT Equality March on Washington, is supporting Herrera. He said he’s outraged over the Victory Fund’s attack ad targeting Herrera in an effort to boost Dufty’s candidacy.

Jones points to Dufty’s role as a lead supporter of the appointment of then San Francisco City Administrator Ed Lee as interim mayor in January of this year. At the time, Lee, who became the city’s first Asian-American mayor, promised he would not seek election for a full term. The Board of Supervisors appointed him mayor to fill the unexpired term of Mayor Gavin Newsom, who resigned after winning election as lieutenant governor.

Lee upset many of his fellow politicians and city officials when he announced he had changed his mind and would enter the mayoral race this year. Many in the Asian-American community along with other supporters urged him to run, saying, among other things, that his role as the city’s first Chinese mayor was historic and he should stay on as mayor beyond his interim appointment.

Jones told the Blade that he and other LGBT activists believe Dufty entered the race as Lee’s stalking horse, with the aim of taking gay votes away from Herrera, who has been viewed as a longstanding champion among gay voters.

“All of the polls show that Bevan is not placing at all,” Jones said.

Dufty, in a telephone interview with the Blade on Tuesday, called Jones’ claims “ridiculous.” He said that under the new voting system for mayor that gives voters three choices, he believes he has a strong chance of winning the race in the second round of “virtual” vote counting.

Under the new system, if no candidate receives at least 51 percent of the “first choice” vote, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and the city counts the second choice votes of that candidate. The process is repeated until a candidate obtains a 51 percent majority.

Dufty, who said he’s convinced the vote count will go to at least one additional round, points out that he has raised $1.3 million for his campaign, the second highest amount raised after Lee, who raised just under $1.5 million. He said polls showing Lee far ahead of all the other candidates are wrong because the polls can’t accurately predict the outcome in the “ranked choice” voting system.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • This Virginian is going to ignore the Victory Fund robo-call I received this morning, attacking Senator Janet Howell, a long-standing pro-LGBT ally. I am furious they are involving themselves in a state they clearly know NOTHING about. If we lose her seat and only one other, our state Senate, which is controlled by the Democrats, goes over to GOP control. Our House of Delegates is already right wing Republican tea party fringe, and without a Democratically controlled senate to counter some of their right wing fringe policies, I fear how back woods Virginia can go in 2 short years. It should never be the orientation of an individual which makes a person decide how he/she will vote, but the ISSUES and records of the candidates. Howell has a perfect pro-LGBT and human rights record. Patrick Forrest may be gay, but he is also a Republican, and if you want things to be worse for not only LGBT, but ALL minorities in Virginia, give control of the state senate to the GOP, and see how backward this state can go. If you need any proof of how scary southern Republican state legislatures have been of late, check out some of the other states and their lurches to the moonbat right, see NC, TN and many others. It’s been bad enough already, with Gov McDonnell and AG Ken Cuccinelli. I will never give another penny to the Victory Fund; this whole thing enrages me.

  • Again with respect to San Francisco’s mayorial race, a Letter to the Editor in today’s Bay Area Reporter, entitled “What’s up with the Victory Fund?,” captures the views of many San Franciscans in their outrage at the Victory Fund:

    “What’s up with Victory Fund?

    What in the world is the national Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund thinking attacking San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera?

    Even to promote former Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who I support for mayor, even a political action committee organized to promote lesbian and gay candidates, should never attack a local hero of SF’s LGBT movement. I’ve worked hard in the LGBT legal movement nationally and in San Francisco for over 20 years, and never been more impressed than I was with Herrera and his entire office while they have ceaselessly fought for my marriage equality.

    And to do it with negative smear piece I just got in my mailbox, leaves me speechless, and of no mind to support the Victory Fund ever again. To me, it smells like a dirty trick engineered against the power of the LGBT community’s vote for either of our two hero candidates – Herrera or Dufty – and perhaps for Ed Lee. Shame.

    Charlie Spiegel, Esq.
    San Francisco”

    * * *

    Feel free to express your personal outrage to at the Victory Fund.

  • In SF, I support Bevan for Mayor, contrary to Denis Dison’s assertion in this article. But I think the questions are (1) what tactics are appropriate to use in supporting LGBT endorsed candidates running against straight leaders of the LGBT rights movement, (2) what standards the Victory Fund has for making these decisions in the future, (3) what local input is received before making such a decision, and (4) what is the role of political consultants?

    On the ground, the Victory Fund has not “coalesced the gay community around Bevan” but actually divide the community and by doing that likely re-elect termporary Mayor Ed Lee. The DC Victory Fund’s misstep has done great damage to our local LGBT community in SF.

  • San Francisco Bay Guardian, Nov. 3, 2011:

    Hit pieces are common in San Francisco politics. So, sadly, are negative mailers funded by outside independent expenditure committees that can raise unlimited money.

    But it’s highly unusual for an organization devoted to electing queer candidates to fund an attack on a candidate who is endorsed by both leading LGBT organizations and is, by all accounts, an ally of the community.

    That’s what happened last week when the Washington-based Victory Fund — the leading national organization for LGBT political candidates — sent out a bizarre mailer blasting City Attorney Dennis Herrera for taking money from law firms that do business with the city.

    The Victory Fund has endorsed former Sup. Bevan Dufty, who is the most prominent LGBT candidate in the mayor’s race. That’s to be expected; it’s what the Victory Fund does.

    But why, in a race with 16 candidates, would the fund go after Herrera, who has spent much of the past seven years fighting in court for marriage equality? Why try to knock down a candidate who has the support of both the Harvey Milk Club and the Alice B. Toklas Club?

    It’s baffled — and infuriated — longtime queer activist Cleve Jones, who is a Herrera supporter. “I have long respected the Victory Fund,” Jones told us. “But I’ve never seen them do what they did here. And it’s going to undermine the fund’s credibility.”

    Jones dashed off an angry letter to the fund’s president, Chuck Wolfe, saying he was “appalled that this scurrilous attack, in the waning days of a mayoral campaign, would go out to the San Francisco electorate under the name of the Victory Fund.

    “You really screwed up, Chuck, and I am not alone in my anger.”

    We couldn’t get Wolfe on the phone, but the fund’s vice president for communications, Denis Dison, told us that the mailer “is all about fighting for our endorsed candidates.”

    So how does it help Dufty, in a ranked-choice election, to attack Herrera? (In fact, given the dynamics of this election, the person it helps most is probably Mayor Ed Lee). Dison couldn’t explain. Nor would he say who at the fund decided to do the attack mailer.

    But there are a couple of interesting connections that might help explain what’s going on. For starters, Joyce Newstat, a political consultant who is working for the Dufty campaign, is active in the Victory Fund, sits on the board of the fund’s Leadership Institute, and, according to a March 24 article in the Bay Area Reporter, was among those active in helping Dufty win the Victory Fund endorsement.

    But again: Supporting Dufty is one thing. Attacking Herrera is another. Who would want to do that?

    Well, if there’s one single constituency in the city that would like to sink Herrera, it’s Pacific Gas and Electric Co. And guess what? PG&E Governmental Affairs Manager Brandon Hernandez chairs the Victory Fund’s Leadership Institute. PG&E’s corporate logo appears on the front page of the fund’s website, and the company gave the Victory Fund more than $50,000 in 2010, according to the fund’s annual report.

    Dison insisted that neither Hernadez nor anyone else from PG&E was involved in making the decision to hit Herrera and said the money went to the Leadership Institute, which trains LGBT candidates, not directly to the campaign fund.

    Maybe so –- but the folks at the private utility, who are among the top three corporate donors to the Victory Fund, have to be happy. (Tim Redmond)

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