One month before his planned departure as CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, Chuck Wolfe’s mood is upbeat — even jovial.
Sitting in his personal office last week at the start of an interview with the Washington Blade, Wolfe cracked a joke as the Blade photo editor crouched in preparation for a shot.
“I just want to clear the record and make sure everyone knows,” Wolfe said, “you’re the only person in this office who’s ever been on their knees.”
His sense of humor was evident throughout the interview as he sometimes responded to questions with inquiries of his own, asking about this reporter’s newly grown beard, among other things. That attitude may well explain why Denis Dison, communications director for the Victory Fund, referred to him affectionately by the nickname “Chuckles” before the start of the interview.
After more than a decade as CEO of the Victory Fund — and its sister non-political education and training organization the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute — there is ample reason for Wolfe’s good mood. During his tenure, the Victory Fund has endorsed 1,183 candidates at all levels of government across the United States, and 751 of those candidates have won.
As a result of the 2014 elections, at least one openly LGBT person is set to hold elected office in all 50 states. The Victory Institute-led President Appointments Project has helped at least 300 openly LGBT people land appointments within the Obama administration.
His biggest accomplishment? Tammy Baldwin’s win in 2012 as the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate. His biggest disappointment? The loss of Jim Roth in 2008 to statewide office in Oklahoma as corporation commissioner.
Wolfe didn’t chalk up the successes of the Victory Fund to his own efforts, but rather to the changes in attitudes in the LGBT community and its greater engagement in politics.
“The biggest difference in 10 years is the complete change in understanding of LGBT participation in the political process,” Wolfe said. “Back in 2003, the big battle was to get people to come out of the closet. Now, it’s how to manage multiple LGBT candidates in a single race. That’s an unusual place to be and I think that’s the biggest change. That’s not all because of me being here, that’s not all because of Victory, but certainly that’s because there has been a lot of work done to change the perception of what public servants can do.”
Wolfe is set to depart the Victory Fund on Dec. 31. The board of directors is expected to announce his replacement in early 2015.
In his last election year as head of the organization in which the results were abysmal for Democrats, the Victory Fund suffered some disappointments. For starters, none of the non-incumbent congressional candidates the organization endorsed during this cycle — K. Marcus Brandon, Sean Eldridge, Dan Innis or Richard Tisei — were elected to the U.S. House.
Wolfe brushed off those losses as a small percentage of the races in which the Victory Fund is engaged, saying he doesn’t know why those races get the most attention, except perhaps because “we live in Washington.” He also noted the largest LGB delegation in history will return to Congress next year.
“We won 63 percent of our races this year,” Wolfe said. “So, even in a year like this, where it was not a particularly good year for progressive candidates, if you will, we had a good year. Not our best year ever, but certainly a good year.”
But one loss was particularly poignant. In Maine, Mike Michaud lost his race by a few percentage points to oust Tea Party Republican Paul LePage from the governor’s mansion, robbing the Democrat of the distinction of being the first openly gay person in the country elected as governor.
In the days prior to Election Day, Wolfe spent time in Maine assisting with campaign efforts, and spent the hours after polls closed with Michaud at a Portland event intended to be a victory celebration.
“It started out more celebratory, more hopeful, obviously it didn’t end up that way,” Wolfe said. “It was a victory party for all the high-profile Democratic candidates in Maine. So, they did a joint party. You had a congressional victory, and you had some other races that people were talking about, but then you had the governor’s race, which everyone was just waiting and waiting for. It took a long time that night.”
Calling the outcome of the race “disappointing,” Wolfe said he had no personal interaction with Michaud that night. Insisting Michaud presented “a deep contrast to the current incumbent,” Wolfe blamed the loss on the Republican wave that swept the country and the presence of independent candidate Eliot Cutler in the race.
“The math isn’t hard to calculate,” Wolfe said. “There was a much larger Republican turnout throughout the United States. That’s not news. And in this case, there was a third-party candidate in the race as well.”
In addition to the losses in some key races, the Victory Fund was criticized by progressives within the LGBT community for some of its endorsements.
Chief among those endorsements was Tisei, a Republican who was initially planning to run against Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) for his seat in Massachusetts’ 6th congressional district. After that lawmaker lost his primary, Tisei ended up running against, and losing to, Democrat Seth Moulton.
The concern over Tisei among progressives was based on his intended vote for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) as presiding officer of the U.S. House, whose majority control of the chamber obstructs pro-LGBT legislation.
Calling the criticism “situational and politically expedient comments,” Wolfe said the Victory Fund has no intention of changing its endorsement process to consider leadership votes of candidates. The race gained attention, Wolfe said, because “one former congressman said something about it” — presumably a reference to former Rep. Barney Frank, who endorsed Tierney — and others picked up on it.
“Our long view, which we’ve held now since 1991, is that putting LGBT people in positions of responsibility ensures that eventually we change policies and laws for our community,” Wolfe said. “In that same period since 1991, people have voted for presidents, House speakers, Senate presidents who have not been supportive of LGBT rights — and if in that same time period we had stopped endorsing our candidates because they supported any of those people, where would those people be today?”
Another criticism of the Victory Fund endorsement process: It’s too difficult for well-qualifed openly LGBT candidates to win support if their chances of winning are small, especially in areas where LGBT representation is needed in the South and Midwest.
That view was expressed last month by lesbian journalist Kerry Eleveld in an article for The Advocate titled, “Where LGBT Candidates Need the Most Help, Get the Least,” which used the unsuccessful Democratic primary bid of gay Michigan congressional hopeful Trevor Thomas in 2012 as an example of a candidacy that would have benefited from Victory Fund support.
Wolfe dismissed those concerns, saying the win rate of Victory Fund-endorsed candidates demonstrates no need for change, although he insisted his organization doesn’t “ever wish ill on any LGBT candidate.”
“If you look at data of the candidates who don’t get endorsed, they don’t win,” Wolfe said. “The candidates who get endorsed win, and there’s a dramatic difference. There’s a long-standing tradition that the board vets the candidates thoroughly, decides who to endorse in a thoughtful, reflective, meaningful way. We don’t get it right every time; only 63 percent of our candidates won in a very rough year this year. And as many as 74 percent of candidates have won in our best year.”
Looking to the future, Wolfe was relatively tight-lipped. He wouldn’t say anything about what he thinks the Victory Fund’s priority races will be in the next cycle, nor would he offer his successor any advice.
But he did venture a guess for when the LGBT community would achieve a certain milestone: the election of an openly transgender candidate to a state legislature. In New Hampshire, Stacie Laughton won election as a state legislator in 2012, but wasn’t seated because of her record as a felon.
Wolfe said the election of a transgender person to a state legislature would happen “in the next six years” and would likely precede the election of a transgender person to Congress.
“It will be as important as Tammy Baldwin’s election in 1998,” Wolfe said. “Tammy was the first out person elected without having to come out in office to Congress, and I think it’ll be as important as that.”
An even bigger ambition: A Victory Fund-endorsed presidential candidate. Fred Karger ran as an openly gay Republican presidential candidate in 2012, but was deemed a long shot and didn’t receive the organization’s endorsement.
“I’d say within the next five presidential cycles, which is the next 20 years, you’ll see a qualified LGBT candidate for the White House,” Wolfe said. “Now whether they’ll end up in the primaries or whether they’ll be a nominee for president, I don’t know. But I think you’ll see a qualified ready and running candidate for the White House.”
As for his own future plans, Wolfe said he intends to decompress and take a vacation in the first quarter to visit family in Florida, go horseback riding and sit on the beach.
Wolfe, who announced to his board in September he would depart as head of Victory Fund, spoke publicly earlier this year about suffering a heart attack and acknowledged that “absolutely” played a role in his decision to leave.
“It was at the back of my mind,” Wolfe said. “And then, Labor Day weekend, I had my sister drop off my nieces with me and I took care of my nieces, sitting there playing with them. This was in Rehoboth. And I just knew, that’s when it clicked. Why are you battling this in your head? It’s time to go.”
Behind him in his office is a white cowboy hat given to him in Texas by a Harris County sheriff. It’s not the hat he’ll wear when horseback riding, but it looks good on him and adds to his cheerful demeanor.
“I will offer my successor anything they want, if they want it, but I will certainly not give them any advice,” Wolfe said. “It’ll be their role, and they’ve inherited a really special place. It’s a place that operates with a crystal clear vision of the future and a definitive mission that people understand and get. Sometimes people want to create drama, but rarely. And it’ll be their ship to steer for a while.”