President's support of same-sex marriage energizes donors

President Obama’s embrace of same-sex marriage may go a long way toward giving his campaign something it’s been missing from Hollywood this time around: genuine enthusiasm.

Along with the advocates, bundlers and donors who have been pressuring him on the issue, there has been a significant influence from showbiz — not just via the cultural impact of shows like “Will & Grace” and “Modern Family,” but a push from the industry’s own activists, who have taken a much more visible and strident role in clamoring for equality.

Three years ago this month, producer Bruce Cohen and political consultant Chad Griffin got some face time with the President at his first Hollywood fundraiser since taking office, this one at the Beverly Hilton.

They used the opportunity to press Obama on same-sex marriage, knowing that while he didn’t embrace gay nuptials, he was opposed to California’s Proposition 8. Griffin and Cohen, along with other Hollywood activists and donors, had just filed a federal suit challenging the state’s same-sex marriage ban. They asked the President if he knew about the suit, and a bit surprisingly, Cohen recalls, Obama told them that he knew all about the case. “He said, ‘You have two great people,’?” referring to the legal team they assembled, Ted Olson and David Boies. Obama supported the idea that Prop. 8 was unconstitutional, Cohen says.

As their org, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, won victories in federal district court and in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the legal rationale behind the case, as well as a skilled publicity strategy, undoubtedly helped make opponents’ positions that once sounded nuanced instead appear just plain contradictory and illogical. Where once Obama and other politicians expressed dismay about Proposition 8 yet were still dragging their feet on support of same-sex marriage, the argument presented by Olsen and Boies helped clarify the issue. “We feel our case is one element that closed that gap,” Cohen says.

While Obama bundlers had little trouble selling out an event at the home of George Clooney last week, and gay and lesbian bundlers were looking to healthy returns from a June 6 event, Obama’s announcement on Wednesday that his views had evolved to support same-sex marriage gave a boost to those philosophically in the Obama camp who had otherwise expressed reluctance to get actively involved.

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black last month had questioned why donors were still backing candidates who had yet to fully embrace same-sex marriage rights. In fact, while he attended the White House Correspondents Assn. dinner, he recalled being needled by Fox News’ Chris Wallace on how the industry could bring itself to support Obama given his waffling on the issue.

But after Obama’s announcement, which Black calls “perhaps one of the greatest moments in our movement,” he says he is wholeheartedly encouraging contributions to the campaign. “As unenthusiastic as I was two weeks ago, I am equally if not more enthusiastic today.”

Cohen says the announcement will galvanize the President’s base.

“It is going to energize all the kids who got involved in presidential politics for the first time in 2008, and may not have been feeling it as much this time around,” he says. “(And) when you look at the huge list of major figures in the entertainment industry who have gone on record in support of same-sex marriage, every single one of them is at odds with (where Obama was). The fact that now that (has changed) is just hugely exciting for the campaign, for the party and for the future of the country.”

Norman Lear and his wife, Lyn, had not planned to donate to Obama’s campaign, but after the announcement, they decided to write a check.

While Obama’s support of same-sex marriage will boost fundraising and enthusiasm among the President’s progressive core, it’s not clear the effect it will have on the electorate, and particularly on young voters.

A recent Gallup poll showed that 71% of voters ages 18-29 support same-sex marriage. Other surveys have made clear, however, that the economy remains the No. 1 issue for that age group, particularly with the young having been hit disproportionately hard by unemployment.

Griffin, who is soon to be president of the Human Rights Campaign, says he believes voters will make a decision based on jobs and the economy. But that doesn’t mean that Obama’s support of same-sex marriage won’t have resonance. “For first-time voters and young people and college students, Democrats and Republicans, this is a significant issue for them,” Griffin says. “They cannot fathom leaders not favoring equal rights for all of our citizens.”

Griffin, who is among the Obama campaign’s bundlers, already felt that the President’s accomplishments on gay rights — ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and refusing to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act — provided a stark contrast with that of his opponent, Mitt Romney, who opposes same-sex marriage and civil unions that are “identical to marriage.” In fact, even while urging Obama to embrace same-sex marriage, Griffin says that he doesn’t think the President’s decision was politically motivated, but that he “did this because of what he believes.”

In Hollywood, Silicon Valley and many major cities, it’s easy to get ahead of the reality of where the public is in its own evolution, made entirely clear by the sobering North Carolina vote where a ban on same-sex marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships passed by a whopping margin. Given all that has happened, Proposition 8 may seem like a long time ago, but the memory of dashed hopes and deceptive polling data is fresh. One thing is sure, however: The President laid out his reasons in language that is impossible to refute.

“He talked about it in very real human terms,” Griffin says, “and that is the way that many Americans talk about this issue.”

For Black, it was difficult to not to verbalize his exultation over the announcement. The screenwriter says he caught himself muttering the Obama campaign’s 2008 slogan, “Yes, We Can.”

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