Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund Founded to Build LGBTQ Political Power
In 1990, Diane Abbitt had enough. All around her in Southern California, men were dying of AIDS while politicians kept silent.
She got up at a fundraiser at Dr. Scott Hitt’s house in the Hollywood Hills and angrily declared that she would no longer give a check to any candidate who did not say the words “gay and lesbian.” Abbitt—the respected first female co-chair of MECLA—was referring to former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who tried to kill an AIDS-related drug bill and was running for California governor against San Diego Republican Senator Pete Wilson. Her words had a ripple effect with some checkbook activists voting for Wilson, who had promised Log Cabin Republican Club founder Frank Ricchiazzi that he would sign the perennial gay civil rights bill. Wilson won by just over 3 percent of the vote. In 1991, Wilson vetoed that bill, AB 101, prompting massive protests for two weeks. Feinstein won Wilson’s old Senate seat in 1992 and later became a staunch advocate for marriage equality.
But LGBTQ political power was strengthening.
Vic Basile was a prominent gay rights activist in Washington, DC, who was the first executive director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund (HRCF) before doing development work for EMILY’s List founder Ellen Malcolm and learning how a “bundling” political action committee (PAC) worked.
“It soon became apparent to me that the concept was ‘portable,’” Basile recalls, “that is, it could work for just about any well-defined constituency.”
Inspired by the success of EMILY’s List and Texas Governor Ann Richard’s successful campaign, Vic Basile and William Waybourn dreamed of creating a PAC that would prioritize gay and lesbian political candidates and grow LGBTQ political power at a time when some politicians still returned checks from gay organizations.
Waybourn rallied support around Texas while Basile contacted his network in Washington, DC, who “loved” the idea. David Mixner got members of ANGLE (Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality) involved, including Abbitt, Roberta Bennett, and Hitt. Basile also rounded up HRCF donors, including Malcolm, Randy Klose, Hilary Rosen, Lynn Greer, Joy Tomchin, Howard Menaker, Tim McFeeley, Jim Hormel, and others who became early donors and board members of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.
Referring to bundling – the practice of encouraging an organization’s donors to also give directly to a candidate as a means of multiplying the impact of an endorsement – when Vic Basile raised this “alternative way” to support gay candidates, Rosen says, the founders realized Victory Fund needed to be a separate organization, not a division of HRCF, which had been discussed. That enabled gay politicos to “do more work and investment at the more local electoral level, which we knew would be necessary to grow the next level of federal officials.” These state and local officials would be a pipeline for future leadership roles and also allow local communities connected to local officials to feel empowered.
In May 1991, about a dozen prominent LGBTQ leaders gathered in a Marriott hotel conference room in Virginia and discussed organizational plans on how to elect openly LGBTQ candidates. It would not be an easy task: their friend Harvey Milk had been assassinated; Elaine Noble needed the protection of state troopers during her campaign; others among the more than forty openly LGBTQ elected and appointed officials in America had also endured frightening ordeals. With EMILY’s List as a model, the group launched the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund with Mixner and Lynn Greer as board co-chairs, Waybourn as executive director, and Basile, who had already done a lot of legwork with an organizational plan and budget, as advisor and fundraiser.
The rest is history.