The current Atlantic Monthly has what I find to be a brilliant and informative article titled, “They Won’t Know What Hit Them.” Anyone who digs the intricacies of politics should read it for some of the insights it provides into how politics works in this age of campaign finance reform. The article focuses on how a small group of wealthy gay donors are working “stealthily” behind the scenes to make our country more “Gay-friendly.” On its surface this doesn’t have anything to do with South Asian Americans (unless they are gay), but by the time I get to the end you’ll see that it could have everything to do with us.
A tough loss can be hard to swallow, and plenty of defeated politicians have been known to grumble about sinister conspiracies. When they are rising stars like Danny Carroll, the Republican speaker pro tempore of Iowa’s House of Representatives, and the loss is unexpected, the urge to blame unseen forces can be even stronger–and in Carroll’s case, it would have the additional distinction of being justified. Carroll was among the dozens of targets of a group of rich gay philanthropists who quietly joined forces last year, under the leadership of a reclusive Colorado technology mogul, to counter the tide of antigay politics in America that has generated, among other things, a succession of state ballot initiatives banning gay marriage. Carroll had sponsored such a bill in Iowa and guided it to passage in the state House of Representatives, the first step toward getting it on the ballot…
Over the summer, Carroll’s opponent started receiving checks from across the country–significant sums for a statehouse race, though none so large as to arouse suspicion (the gifts topped out at $1,000). Because they came from individuals and not from organizations, nothing identified the money as being “gay,” or even coordinated. Only a very astute political operative would have spotted the unusual number of out-of-state donors and pondered their interest in an obscure midwestern race. And only someone truly versed in the world of gay causes would have noticed a $1,000 contribution from Denver, Colorado, and been aware that its source, Tim Gill, is the country’s biggest gay donor, and the nexus of an aggressive new force in national politics.
Carroll certainly didn’t catch on until I called him after the election, in which Democrats took control of both legislative chambers, as well as Carroll’s seat and four of the five others targeted by Gill and his allies. [Link]
As I read this article it got me thinking about some of the races and candidates that we’ve highlighted on SM in the past. Remember Durbin, Abraham, and Webb? I think in the case of Macaca-Gate, South Asian money did have some impact on the race. That effort had no real organization behind it, however. I also realize that unlike the gay community (to an extent), South Asian Americans aren’t necessarily a voting block, but are rather voting “icebergs” (a term I like to forward). Still, some of the ideas that Gill has put into practice could work very well for other groups.
Here is one particular gem:
Gill decided to find out how he could become more effective and enlisted as his political counselor an acerbic lawyer and former tobacco lobbyist named Ted Trimpa, who is Colorado’s answer to Karl Rove. Trimpa believes that the gay-rights community directs too much of its money to thoroughly admirable national candidates who don’t need it, while neglecting less compelling races that would have a far greater impact on gay rights–a tendency he calls “glamour giving.” Trimpa cited the example of Barack Obama: an attractive candidate, solid on gay rights, and viscerally exciting to donors. It feels good to write him a check. An analysis of Obama’s 2004 Senate race, which he won by nearly fifty points, had determined that gays contributed more than $500,000. “The temptation is always to swoon for the popular candidate,” Trimpa told me, “but a fraction of that money, directed at the right state and local races, could have flipped a few chambers. ‘Just because he’s cute’ isn’t a strategy…” [Link]
I’ve always hated the term “Think globally act locally,” because it seems to take too long to enact important policy, but the above makes sense to me.
Most antigay measures, they discovered, originate in state legislatures. Operating at that level gave them a chance to “punish the wicked,” as Gill puts it–to snuff out rising politicians who were building their careers on antigay policies, before they could achieve national influence. Their chief cautionary example of such a villain is Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who once compared homosexuality to “man on dog” sex (and was finally defeated last year, at a cost of more than $20 million). [Link]
So for ’08 I am going to keep an eye on candidates and measures that I find to be both for and against the best interests of a large number of South Asian Americans. It’s hard to point out what that means exactly, which is why I hope SM might serve as a good conduit to bring such issues and candidates to the attention of young and wealthy South Asians, a community that continues to grow. Eventually we’ll get more organized. I love the idea of some candidate doing a post-mortem of his/her campaign and seeing that a bunch of desi donors from all over the country had given to his/opponent in a small-time race.