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Power, pride and pocketbook 

Tim Gill wants gay rights and even Colorado is finally listening

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Money can't buy the gay community love, but it can purchase something better: legislation.

So thinks Colorado millionaire Tim Gill, who, along with his 501(c)(4) issue advocacy organization, the Gill Action Fund, dropped more than $1.6 million on Colorado elections in 2006.

That same year, he spent $15 million on political donations throughout the nation, according to The Atlantic Monthly.

Gill, a gay philanthropist who made a fortune in the publishing-software business, has a simple goal. He wants to sway gay-rights politics on local and state levels, with the hope that federal changes follow.

That's not a bad strategy, says Susan Sterett, a University of Denver political science professor.

"When we have had significant constitutional change, what's tended to make that stick is building consensus state by state," Sterett says. "For example, votes for women, which did go state by state for a very long time."

Two years ago, Gill was one of three contributors to Colorado Springs-based Rally in Support of Education, or RISE, which channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the ultimately successful John Gudvangen-Tami Hasling-Sandra Mann slate in the School District 11 election. With the 2007 election season unofficially underway D-11 incumbent Jan Tanner announced her candidacy a couple weeks ago and politicians everywhere starting to jockey for '08 races, eyes will soon be turning toward Gill again.

Big fish

A skilled political player, the 53-year-old Gill has surrounded himself with counselors like Ted Trimpa, a lawyer and former tobacco lobbyist, who help him allocate his money. Gill uses his cash sparingly, often to tip close races. He's put emphasis on elections in areas where a slight shake-up can change the balance of power in local or state governments.

Sometimes it's not how much money you have, but how you use it, as Metro State College political science professor Norman Provizer explains.

"He's a big fish in the pool of Colorado," Provizer says of Gill. "But in the national pool, millionaires are a dime a dozen ... A million dollars can mean something in a state campaign; it means nothing, essentially, in a national campaign."

Gill has tasted success. When Colorado Democrats seized both houses of the Legislature in 2004, for the first time in 40 years, they did so with a significant boost of Gill's money.

In 2006, a confident Gill strategically targeted 70 candidates across the nation whose defeat he hoped would further the gay rights movement. Fifty candidates went down.

Wins and losses

He doesn't work alone. In Colorado, Gill is known as one of the "Four Millionaires," an unofficial group of gay-friendly political contributors. Together, Gill (and the Gill Action Fund), Pat Stryker, Jared Polis and Rutt Bridges spent nearly $2.5 million on Colorado's 2006 election.

Gill is also known to work with many small donors, who may pelt a candidate with low-dollar checks that seem innocuous until you add them up. He doesn't want candidates to know the money is coming from him until after the election, and often they don't.

Why so stealthy?

"Politics so often revolve around personality, that there's something to be said for trying to take some of the personality element out of it, and focus on the policy element," Provizer says. "You can keep the focus on the issues and not on you."

Gill hasn't won every battle.

In 2006, he gave small donations to many candidates in Colorado, but the bulk of his (and the Gill Action Fund's) Colorado contributions went to a group called the Coloradans for Fairness Issue Committee. The group's goals were to oppose Amendment 43, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, and to support Referendum I, which would have given gays domestic partnership rights. Gill also gave nearly $350,000 to the anti-43 group Don't Mess with Marriage.

Referendum I was defeated, and Amendment 43 passed.

"I don't think it's at all a failure for the Gill Action Fund that Referendum I didn't get passed," Sterett says. "They did a spectacular job of incorporating volunteers and sent out lots of volunteer speakers, and all the evidence suggests that when people know gays and lesbians then they're more likely to be accepting and supporting."

Provizer says having the country discuss gay rights is a political victory in itself.

"You don't have to go back very far, and if you were to tell someone there was actual discussion about these questions they would have laughed at you," he says. "It's no longer a laughing matter."

Buying acceptance?

Gill made his name and his money as the co-founder of software and publishing company Quark, Inc. He went on to found the major philanthropic organization, the Gill Foundation, to focus on equal rights for all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. The Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, a program of the foundation, financially supports non-GLBT Colorado nonprofits that enhance quality of life in the state.

Over the years, the foundation has given more than $110 million to charities, which is why the Gill Foundation and The Gay and Lesbian Fund are listed as funders of everything from children's programs to art events to civic leadership organizations.

But as a gay man, Gill has been disappointed by Colorado politics. He has said the passage of Colorado's anti-gay Amendment 2 was a political awakening for him. (The amendment was later rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.) As debates over the issues of gay marriage and domestic partnerships became heated, Gill became progressively more involved.

For Gill, speaking with his wallet was natural. A self-described introvert, Gill isn't fond of giving interviews, let alone speeches. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

But as Gill's political impact continues to be felt, he's being recognized. Out magazine recently named him the fourth most powerful gay in the country.

Representatives of the Gill Action Fund have declined to comment on future strategies. All Gill Foundation spokeswoman Joanne Kron will say is that the past strategies of the fund aren't necessarily indicative of its future actions. Gill Action Fund director Patrick Guerriero could not be reached over a two-week period to comment on this story.

But if Gill continues his impressive run of political victories, Colorado and the nation might experience significant changes in the attitudes and policies toward gay rights.

That begs the question: Is it conscionable to buy acceptance?

"The idea of putting financing behind campaigns to get a particular perspective out is perfectly legitimate otherwise you just get the other perspective," Provizer says. "No one complains when other groups spend money." stanley@csindy.com

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