TOPICS > Politics

Obama’s Shift on Gay Marriage Lucrative for Campaign

July 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
From California, correspondent Spencer Michels reports on how President Obama's public endorsement of same-sex marriage triggered a flood of support from the gay community -- which is now providing campaign support both in votes and in fundraising.
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GWEN IFILL: We come back to politics now with a two-part look at how Democrats and Republicans are raising their money.

First, the key constituency which has come to play an important and lucrative role in the fall election.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our report.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SPENCER MICHELS: When the president told ABC News in May that he now endorses same-sex marriage, the lesbian and gay communities were newly energized.

Bob Michitarian is a San Francisco corporate attorney who volunteered to raise money from gays and lesbians for President Obama’s reelection, a job that became much easier after the announcement.

BOB MICHITARIAN, Volunteer Obama Fund-Raiser: There was some hesitancy about supporting the president earlier in his term. He has been seen — he has seemed to people to be slow to support marriage equality.

SPENCER MICHELS: In the three days after Mr. Obama announced his shift in thinking, the campaign raised almost $9 million in donations over $200. That was triple the amount for the previous three days, according to an NPR study.

BOB MICHITARIAN: The Obama campaign has — is deliberately raising money from the gay community. They have set up a national finance committee focused on fund-raising from that community. And I think that they appreciate every dollar they get.

SPENCER MICHELS: In San Francisco’s Castro district, long one of the major centers of gay political activity in the country, one prominent store celebrated the president’s announcement with a playful depiction in its window of Mr. Obama.

But there was nothing whimsical in the reactions of gay leaders and donors like James Hormel. He’s been an activist and large donor in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender — or LGBT — community for more than 30 years.

JAMES HORMEL, activist: Finally, there was no question that we as an issue had arrived and that — and that this issue from this point forward will be addressed more honestly and directly than it ever has.

SPENCER MICHELS: As a Democrat, Hormel was a major supporter of Bill Clinton, who rewarded him with an appointment as ambassador to Luxembourg, despite opposition from conservatives and Republicans. He was the first openly gay ambassador. He’s already given the maximum to the Obama campaign. Years ago, he says, such political donations, especially to gay organizations, were rare.

JAMES HORMEL: It was very difficult to raise money from gay people, because they didn’t want their accountants to see the checks written to a gay organization way back when.

SPENCER MICHELS: For years, Hormel advocated for gay rights and gay political power and watched as that power and the visibility of gays and lesbians out of the closet grew, especially in the Bay Area. He saw politicians just begin to court the gay vote.

Now, Hormel says, much has changed. Politicians routinely take part in gay pride parades around the country. Studies estimate that between 3 and 10 percent of Americans are gay or bisexual. And surveys report that nearly 70 percent of gay voters identify as Democrats.

MAN: Let’s hear it for pride, everybody!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SPENCER MICHELS: This summer, officeholders in New York, as well as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and several officials in San Francisco, marched down main streets in concert with often flamboyant contingents of gay marchers.

But Wade Randlett sees the risk in politicians becoming too close to the gay community. While not a member of that community, he raises or bundles money for the Obama campaign in Northern California.

WADE RANDLETT, Obama Fund-Raiser: I think what meant so much to the people who are giving and raising money is that they know that this may not be the best thing in Western Pennsylvania or Eastern Ohio or other swing states.

SPENCER MICHELS: That concern was reflected in columns and articles alleging that both the president and presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, want to keep the policies of gay marriage below the radar.

The Obama campaign was reluctant to comment on its efforts to fund-raise in the gay and lesbian community. A campaign spokesman told the NewsHour that it wouldn’t be able to accommodate our request to interview key fund-raisers.

But several gay Democrats point to a Barack Obama website specifically for LGBT voters as evidence the campaign is open about its support for gays.

And Scott Wiener, a newly elected openly gay supervisor in San Francisco, said the president isn’t holding back at all.

SCOTT WIENER, San Francisco supervisor: The president went on national television to talk about his support for marriage equality. I don’t see how you get more public than that.

SPENCER MICHELS: For fund-raiser Randlett, money from gays and lesbians is vital, especially in certain areas.

WADE RANDLETT: Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco are probably 90 percent of the total gay money in the country. And that is certainly where that center of activism is.

SPENCER MICHELS: Not all the money Randlett and others have raised recently has come from gays.

WADE RANDLETT: Most of the money that came to me as somebody who is trying to support the president was from non-gay people, especially women, who frankly think that a more compassionate, more just society is part of why they supported the president in the first place.

SPENCER MICHELS: At a June fund-raiser in Los Angeles specifically aimed at gays and lesbians, President Obama spoke of one Marine who had thanked him profusely for repealing don’t ask, don’t tell. Mr. Obama assumed the Marine was gay.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He said: “Oh, no, sir, I am not gay. It was important to me because I have had friends in my unit that were. And I know how much that tore them up. And I didn’t think it was right. And I think we’re a better Marine Corps because they can be who they are and serve our country.”

SPENCER MICHELS: Of course, not all gays are Democrats, nor Obama supporters.

Chris Bowman, a political consultant, is a member of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian political club that has not yet endorsed a presidential candidate. He can’t imagine contributing to or voting for the president, even though Gov. Romney has said he’s against civil unions for same-sex couples, a point Bowman tries to explain.

CHRIS BOWMAN, Log Cabin Republicans: I think he does support domestic partnerships. He did when he was in Massachusetts. And it was a fairly extensive domestic partners law — just like for Mr. Obama’s evolving process.

SPENCER MICHELS: Bowman’s position and that of some other conservative gay groups is that the same-sex marriage issue can be trumped by other issues like jobs or war.

CHRIS BOWMAN: If we’re under invasion or if the economy tanks, you know, so what if we have the right to marry or we have the right for equal employment or non-discrimination, if there are no jobs?

SPENCER MICHELS: For years, the entire gay political movement concentrated on fighting the AIDS epidemic. Now that, domestically at least, AIDS is mostly controlled, gay Republicans like Bowman are focused on jobs and the economy, while gay Democrats like James Hormel remain zeroed in on social issues like marriage. And many are opening their wallets to support the president.

GWEN IFILL: There is more online, as Spencer reflects on how the gay community’s political muscle has grown in the 30 years since he covered his first gay pride parade in San Francisco. Also on our website, you can find a blog post about how much the gay vote may or may not matter in November.