Saturday, November 17, 2012

Victory Fund Needs New Leadership With A Coherent Strategic Vision


An OpEd by Peter Rosenstein in the current issue of the Washington Blade takes Beltway gay careerist organization, the Victory Fund, to task for the shortcomings that were demonstrated by their approach to the 2012 election cycle. Although they would like to claim credit for helping Tammy Baldwin win a Senate seat, they will be better remembered for their strategically flawed attempt to defeat a tried and true friend of the LGBT community, John Tierney, while working to replace him with a top GOP/Young Gun priority, Richard Tisei, a gay conservative, who only stopped voting against gay people when he finally came out of the closet. As Rosenstein noted, the Victory Fund is "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." Victory Fund has an ugly history of refusing-- often with special cruelty-- to support LGBT grassroots candidates. Blue America watched the disappointment and heartbreak in several candidates made to jump through childish hoops only to be shunned by the insipid, power-crazed Victory Fund careerists. This past cycle we saw that in New Jersey with Ed Potosnak and in Michigan with Trevor Thomas. The Victory fund was too busy with Richard Tisei to help either of them.

As you might recall, Ed Potosnak, a science teacher and small business owner, ran a hard fought race in 2010 in a New Jersey Congressional district that President Obama carried in 2008. As a candidate for Congress who was openly gay, Ed made his case for support to the Victory Fund to no avail. Despite this lack of support, Ed was able to secure the nomination over the Democratic Party’s insider candidate in the primary. Ed then went on to mount an aggressive, grassroots, campaign against the freshman incumbent/teabagger Leonard Lance. Blue America supported Ed because of his commitment to keeping America competitive, creating jobs, ending cronyism and reforming elections, strengthening the middle class, and protecting the safety net. After an unsuccessful first bid, Ed reentered the race for the 2012 as an even stronger candidate in NJ’s most completive district. The second time around the DCCC added Ed’s race to their watch list, but the Victory Fund insisted on sitting on the sidelines. During the critical “off-year” Ed continued to campaign and raise money amassing more than $175,000 by year end, all without the help of the Victory Fund-- although, he did have some help from fellow LGBT progressives Barney Frank and Jared Polis. Ed ended his campaign this past January to lead the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, still dismayed that the Victory Fund refused to back him.

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. [Let me mention that the self-funded candidate, Steve Pestka is a rapid anti-Choice fanatic and a really vile social conservative.]

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.

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