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Same-sex marriage money flows quietly

Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, said Tim Gill, founder of the software publishing company Quark, approached him at a fundraising event and asked if Faust would be interested in receiving donations from gay rights advocates. (File photo)

Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, said Tim Gill, founder of the software publishing company Quark, approached him at a fundraising event and asked if Faust would be interested in receiving donations from gay rights advocates. (File photo)

Tim Faust and Tim Gill don’t appear to have much in common, aside from their shared first name.

Faust lives in Hinckley (population 1,800), and works as a Lutheran pastor, serving a pair of congregations in east-central Minnesota. Before that he worked for a farm supply company.

Gill, who lives in Denver, founded the software publishing company Quark in the early 1980s, and sold his stake in that company for around $500 million in 2000. He has since become a notable social issues philanthropist and advocate.

But there’s another things the two Tims share: Both want Faust, a Democrat in his third House term, to get re-elected, and both are willing to spend out-of-pocket to support that end.

Gill is one of a handful of hugely successful gay rights supporters from across the country whose names pop up repeatedly on Minnesota legislative campaign finance reports. Donations like those — which, for example, find a Wall Street executive funding rural Minnesota politicians — represent a new stage of political involvement for Minnesotans United for All Families, the key organizing group in favor of same-sex marriage.

Phase one was a massive 2012 fundraising effort to beat back the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The group then turned its efforts to passing same-sex marriage into law during the 2013 legislative session. Now, the focus is on connecting well-heeled donors with the elected officials who might have jeopardized their political futures in supporting that law.

Richard Carlbom, the former head of Minnesotans United who now contributes on a voluntary basis, said the strategy was built into the advocacy group’s original plans at the time organizers decided to launch a political action committee in 2013.

“We have partners in the state, either donors or volunteers — and some nationally — that care about this issue,” Carlbom said. “We’re focusing our efforts on the different groups out there who have relationships and … trying to determine [which candidates] need the most help.”

MN United PAC largely dormant

Over the course of 2012, as voters weighed a ballot question that would have inscribed a ban of gay marriage in the state constitution, Minnesotans United for All Families grew into a fundraising juggernaut unlike any other in state history. The group raised more than $10 million, all told, and spent nearly all of it, with much of it devoted to messaging, including television ads, and paid staff.

The PAC version of the same organization is pared down, to say the least: The MN United PAC entered 2014 with less than $5,000 in cash on hand, and raised nearly $72,000 through the end of May. With around $50,000 in total expenses, the fund now has $27,364 in its bank account.

The committee was founded specifically to help re-elect Gov. Mark Dayton and, just as important, legislators who voted in favor of gay marriage, with a focus on the so-called “Minnesota 15,” whose votes were potentially risky for their re-election hopes. The PAC’s campaign finance report, and those of individual legislators, show that one key part of that strategy calls for candidates to receive and spend money as they see fit.

Carlbom said the fund’s approach, switching from money magnet to a networking shop, might come as a surprise to some, but was arrived at by design.

“I think the common misperception is that Minnesotans United is going to do a bunch of independent expenditures,” said Carlbom.

Instead, the group will leverage its two residual strengths from the 2012 campaign: a team of volunteers, many of them involved with the OutFront Minnesota LGBT advocacy group, and its vaunted list of donors.

Far-flung donors

Some of those contributors come from far-flung corners of the United States. Aside from Gill, who also donated $50,000 to the DFL-aligned outside spending group the 2014 Fund, a few names repeat on several of the “Minnesota 15” legislators’ reports. Among them:

  • John Barabino, a former Google executive
  • David Dechman, a former executive at Goldman Sachs
  • Mel Heifetz, a Philadelphia real estate mogul who gave $1 million to a political action committee backing President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign
  •  Weston Milliken, a strategic planning consultant based in Los Angeles
  • Esmond Harmsworth, a successful literary agent who lives in Boston

During 2013, the most recent period for which legislators’ campaign finance reports are available, each of these six donors contributed to the campaigns of six House members — four Democrats and two Republicans — who voted in favor of gay marriage. In each instance, the contributor delivered a check of $500. Those lawmakers’ prior knowledge of the donations seems to vary by individual cases.

In Faust’s case, Gill approached him at a fundraising event in the Twin Cities and asked if the DFLer would be interested in receiving donations from gay rights advocates.

“I really was not surprised by that,” Faust said. “I got emails from really around the country, from people saying that they appreciated my vote, saying they appreciated my positions, liked my [House floor] speech. It only makes sense that money may come from all over as well.”

Things were rather different for Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake.

“I just started receiving checks in the mail,” said McNamar, who added that his only contact with those donors consisted of the same thank-you note that he sends to each of his contributors.

McNamar said the vast majority of his contributions still come from his own area, and estimated that “maybe one out of 50” of the thank-you notes he’s written this year have been addressed to an out-of-state destination.

The other two Democrats receiving donations from the half-dozen gay rights donors were Reps. Shannon Savick (Wells) and Joe Radinovich (Crosby), who are both expected to face difficult re-election fights.

On the Republican side, the donors gave to Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, now in the middle of a pitched primary campaign against an anti-gay marriage challenger, and Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. Garofalo observed that he gets donations from all over, and for a variety of reasons, including his positions on education reform and energy, as well as his support of same-sex marriage.

Asked if he had continued to receive similar donations during 2014, Garofalo laughed and said: “It’s safe to say I’m continuing to raise money, and the money I’ve raised will show up in my next [campaign finance] report.”

Direct donation strategy

Jake Loesch, former communications manager for Minnesotans United, said the change in donor strategies makes sense from both a practical and messaging standpoint. (Loesch, like Carlbom, has since taken a position with the national Freedom to Marry organization, and said his comments represented only his own views.)

“Minnesota was at the heart of the marriage debate for probably three years,” Loesch said. “Folks probably saw some hesitancy [toward donating], because people thought that Minnesotans United is sort of done. And that’s not wrong, right?”

Donating directly to candidates has the added bonus of “cutting out the middle man,” said Loesch, who pointed out that he felt personally compelled to donate to Loon’s campaign based on her statements about the issue.

How the issue itself plays out in competitive districts is still unclear, according to Faust. He still hears from some constituents that they won’t vote for him because of his support for gay marriage, but typically assumes they have not voted for him in the past, and never would have. For the general electorate, Faust said, he does not know the how the issue breaks down.

“We just don’t know those numbers,” Faust said, “and we probably won’t know those until 8 or 9 o’clock on November 4.”

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