Lynch speaks at national gay donor event

Last modified: 7/10/2010 12:00:00 AM
Until the day he signed New Hampshire's gay marriage law last year, Gov. John Lynch expressed great ambivalence about the issue. Though he had said he personally opposed letting same-sex couples marry, Lynch eventually supported the measure as a civil rights matter.

One year later, Lynch was welcomed as a guest speaker at a national conference of wealthy gay donors focused on furthering the cause of equality for gay and lesbian people.

Lynch's appearance at this year's meeting of the Political Outgiving network underscores his own evolution on the issue of gay marriage, from opponent to exemplar. It also illustrates the potential boost in campaign contributions Lynch may see from out-of-state donors impressed with his support for same-sex marriage.

'As time has passed, (Lynch) has become more comfortable taking credit for this,' said Rep. Jim Splaine, a Portsmouth Democrat who helped lead the effort to pass gay marriage. 'I think he should use his position on this as an example of how he's been a good governor.'

As Lynch readies his re-election bid this fall, gay marriage has already emerged as a campaign issue. The National Organization for Marriage, a New Jersey group opposed to gay unions, has run television ads attacking Lynch for his support of New Hampshire's law. One of his potential Republican opponents, John Stephen, has said he would support repealing the state's gay marriage statute. And Lynch has highlighted his signing of the law in recent appearances before Democratic groups, including at the state convention in May.

But Lynch has not always embraced gay marriage as a hallmark of his record. He did not mention the issue in his state-of-the-state address earlier this year, and his campaign website makes no mention of it. A section on the site labeled 'civil rights' notes that Lynch signed a bill allowing civil unions for gay couples three years ago but does not mention the marriage law.

But as the only state in which gay marriage remains legal through an act of the Legislature with the governor's signature, New Hampshire is a potential model to supporters of the issue. Lynch's appearance at the Political Outgiving conference in May put him in front of about 200 wealthy donors who focus on state elections where gay rights are at the forefront.

Pam Walsh, Lynch's campaign manager, said Lynch was invited to the two-day conference in Chicago to deliver a luncheon address. She said that it was his first time attending the group's conference and that Lynch paid his own expenses.

The Washington Blade, a gay newspaper, first reported on the gathering. According to the paper, Lynch was one of four Democratic governors in attendance at the event, which took place at Chicago's Peninsula Hotel.

The conference is a network of political donors operated by the Denver-based Gill Action Fund, an organization that focuses on local elections to encourage the state-by-state expansion of gay rights. The group's members are encouraged to contribute to local candidates or political committees deemed supportive of gay rights, but tracking those donations is nearly impossible because they come from individuals, not the fund itself.

Such practices are common in the world of high-stakes fundraising, and interest groups across the political spectrum employ similar methods to leverage their campaign donations. But the Gill Action Fund has a reputation for keeping a low profile. According to the Blade article, members of the donor circle are warned that violating the group's confidentiality policy could result in their expulsion.

The May event in Chicago was not a fundraising event, but it gave Lynch the opportunity to introduce himself to a large network of deep-pocketed donors. Walsh said Lynch was invited by the group at the same time that the National Organization for Marriage began running ads criticizing him.

She said Lynch's luncheon address - she did not have a copy of the speech - touched on other issues in addition to gay marriage, including abortion rights and the environment.

'Gov. Lynch is receiving support from many people because they support his effort to move New Hampshire forward on a variety of issues,' Walsh said.

The Gill Action Fund, the organization behind the Political Outgiving conference, was started in 2005 by Tim Gill, a gay philanthropist and multimillionaire who founded the computer software company Quark. Within campaign finance circles, Gill is known as a savvy and strategic donor, targeting a limited number of states at any one time.

Denise Roth Barber, research director at the National Institute on Money in State Politics, said Gill and his network of donors focus solely on state legislative races, where they feel most pro- and anti-gay initiatives are born.

'His strategy is to say, 'Let's identify state legislatures where party control is up in the air and see where we can have the biggest effect on altering the outcome of the election,' ' Roth Barber said. 'And there's certainly a concerted effort on both sides of the issue to pass gay marriage measures via ballot measures and other legislative means.'

Harrell Kirstein, spokesman for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said state party officials had made no 'overt solicitation' for donations from Gill's network, but he said the party supported Gill's efforts to expand gay rights.

A spokeswoman for the Gill Action Fund did not respond to phone and e-mail messages this week.

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