Campbell Spencer, a lesbian and political consultant, moved to Washington in the 1990s to work in LGBTQ advocacy. She wooed gay and lesbian voters for Al Gore, worked a stint in the Obama White House and now serves on the board of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which this year issued its first-ever endorsement of a presidential candidate: Pete Buttigieg.
But so far, Kamala Harris has wowed Spencer more than any other candidate in the race.
“Mayor Pete, he’s a trailblazer,” Spencer said in an interview. “But I’m one of these women who thinks we are way overdue for having a woman in the White House. That’s a lens through which I’m going to filter my decision.”
Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Ind., has drawn notable support from gay voters and donors for his presidential bid. But interviews with a dozen prominent Democrats in the LGBTQ community spotlight a remarkable collision of goals and ideals in the community of lesbian political activists this year. As the 2020 field slowly winnows, people are divided over which glass ceiling to break first.
The majority of the women POLITICO interviewed for this story did not want to speak on the record, citing a desire not to damage Buttigieg’s campaign. But especially when compared with the laborious ascent of Hillary Clinton, Buttigieg’s swift rise in national politics hints of male favoritism, some said. Others applauded his run — but feel more strongly about the need to elect a female president.
“It feels like a slap in the face to just go directly to the white gay guy, when for decades you’ve been trying to elect a woman and it didn’t happen last time,” said one lesbian Democrat who works in national politics. “If Pete Buttigieg is elected it won’t feel like a vindication of Hillary Clinton. If a woman is elected, it will.”
LGBTQ voters made up a relatively small 6 percent of the electorate in the 2018 midterm elections but voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, according to exit polls. And gay donors are a formidable source of campaign funds in the Democratic Party: One in six of Barack Obama’s top campaign bundlers in 2012 were openly gay, according to a Washington Post analysis at the time.
The LGBTQ community has been an important launch pad for Buttigieg’s presidential bid. He has fundraised at the homes of several prominent gay donors — such as television producers Ryan Murphy and Richie Jackson, each of whom have hosted Buttigieg for events in their homes this year — and received campaign checks from power players including Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and lesbian megadonor Laura Ricketts.
But the broad 2020 Democratic field includes historic diversity and choice for LGBTQ voters looking for new representation in the White House, or at least on the Democratic debate stage.
“There are black gay men and Latina lesbians — we have all these identities,” said Annise Parker, the former Houston mayor who is now president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund. “I talk to donors who are really glad that Pete’s running, but want Julián Castro to be on the debate stage. Or who say, ‘I want Cory Booker or Kamala Harris to be on stage.’ I say that’s a great thing.”
Parker, who became the first lesbian elected to lead a major American city only a decade ago, said she plans to vote for Buttigieg. But she also feels the pull of electing the first female president.
“As a woman, as a lesbian, as someone who was all in for Hillary Clinton and as someone who was a historic first myself, I would love to see a woman at the top of the ticket,” Parker said.
“And talking with other women inside the community and not, we understand the importance of Pete’s candidacy — but dammit, we’re half the population. It’s time” for a woman president, Parker continued.
Several lesbian donors and activists interviewed by POLITICO said they see in this election a continuation of the gender politics of 2016, when Clinton’s nomination was a vindicating moment for many Democratic women — and Trump’s position as the GOP nominee heightened the stakes of the race, as well as the burn of Clinton’s loss.
“To have a woman candidate finally running for president was extraordinarily galvanizing to substantial portions of the women’s community and the lesbian community,” said Elyse Cherry, a Massachusetts-based lesbian community activist and former member of Clinton’s New England finance committee. “When she lost, people were even more galvanized.”
Cherry pushed to build a movement for same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, starting in the early 1990s when the idea was a political outlier. She chaired the board for MassEquality, which advocated for the state’s gay marriage law and worked to guard it from challenges in the years after it was enacted.
Cherry plans to vote for her senior senator, Elizabeth Warren.
“Having a woman, finally, as our president is important to me,” Cherry said. “The mistake is to suggest that we all stay in one lane — for example that if you’re gay you should be supporting gay candidates, or if you’re a woman you should be supporting women candidates.”
LPAC, an organization that focuses on building power among LGBTQ women, has not endorsed a candidate, but its endorsement discussions will begin at an upcoming board meeting, the group’s president Stephanie Sandberg said, adding that there is a "strong possibility" that LPAC will endorse a candidate.
Nabeela Rasheed, a Chicago-based lawyer and activist backing Buttigieg, said “there is absolutely a conversation that’s happening” among lesbian donors in her area about the value of supporting a female candidate over Buttigieg.
“I don’t think the county is ready for a West Coast Democrat, and a female at that. And I don’t think this country can take an East Coast female either. They need someone who understands Main Street,” Rasheed said. So Rasheed — who is of Pakistani descent — has been raising money for Buttigieg and trying to introduce as many women of color to his campaign as possible.
Buttigieg surprised observers by surging to national prominence this spring and raising $24 million between early April and the end of June, the most money of any candidate in the field.
One foundation for his success was a bloc of openly gay male donors and fundraisers who threw their support behind his campaign early in the race. Among the people who have already raised more than $25,000 for Buttigieg’s campaign were Terrence Meck, co-founder of the nonprofit The Palette Fund; and Alex Slater, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Clyde Group.
Other high-profile gay donors, such as software entrepreneur Tim Gill and philanthropist David Bohnett, have donated to former Vice President Joe Biden, who was an early proponent of same-sex marriage in Washington.
Kelly Dermody, a former Hillary Clinton bundler and employment lawyer who has represented women in sexual harassment cases, said that while Buttigieg’s candidacy is “exciting,” federal lawmakers who are running have more experience.
Dermody is backing Harris, who she believes is the strongest candidate, in part because of her experience as a woman and person of color. She said that one highlight of the 2020 campaign for her has been Harris’ husband, Douglas Emhoff, a frequent presence at campaign stops and an unbridled booster of his wife on social media.
“It’s just been really nice seeing him at various events and see what it looks like to have a female leader have the support of a strong male partner,” Dermondy said. “He has his own job and he’s a real star lawyer in his own world, but he also has embraced this [campaign].”
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to better reflect Campbell Spencer's preferences on the 2020 Democratic field. So far, she is most impressed by Kamala Harris, but she says she has not made a final decision about who to support.