Dialing for AIDS Dollars

In the world of lesbian and gay politics, David Fix is what you might call a gold mine. His checkbook is always open for groups like the AIDS Foundation, Mobilization Against AIDS, the Bipartisan Alliance, the Lesbian and Gay Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign Fund.

Donating so much to so many different organizations, Fix says he has to be careful. Advocacy groups are fraught with the same mismanagement and feather-bedding that sometimes plagues government.

So when a new organization hits him up, the soft-spoken San Francisco accountant requests a financial statement to make sure that salaries and fundraising don't make up too much of the budget. But when Deary Duffie — a personal friend and a board member of the American AIDS Political Action Committee, a Washington, D.C.-based PAC formed in 1993 — asked for a contribution to AIDS PAC in 1994, Fix sent it off without another thought.

Imagine his chagrin when Fix learned last week that $217.50 of his $250 check went to pay off a telemarketing firm, which put the bite on donors to generate a database for subsequent campaigns. “I believed my money was going to go to candidates in 1994,” Fix says. “If I'd been told that it was going to develop a database for future years, I wouldn't have given as much.”

AIDS PAC raised an impressive $850,000 in 1994. A mere $47,000 found its way into the campaign coffers of candidates. Close to $700,000 went to the El Segundo telemarketing firm of Gordon and Schwenkmeyer.

“It made me ill when I saw that,” says one of the country's top lesbian and gay political fundraisers, who asked not to be named.

Critics are upset with AIDS PAC for concentrating its resources on developing a funding base when it might have been fighting to protect AIDS funding, which was kicked into the cellar of priorities in the new Republican-controlled Congress.

Halfway through the '94 fundraising cycle, a top lesbian and gay fundraiser, who wished to remain anonymous, tried to convince AIDS PAC treasurer Tom Sheridan that the group's strategy was unwise — to no avail.

Professional fundraisers say AIDS PAC could have conducted a mail campaign and held much cheaper fundraising events, freeing up more money for candidates. Telemarketing, they say, is a notoriously expensive fundraising process. And one fundraiser, who asked not to be named, says the few big telemarketing firms that have a lock on the phone fundraising business tend to overcharge because they don't have any competition.

But what most disturbs them about AIDS PAC spending, Fix and other donors say, is that they were led to believe their money was going to candidates who would fight for AIDS research, prevention and treatment.

Michael Barrett, who works as Sen. Dianne Feinstein's treasurer and gave the PAC $250, listened to Sheridan speak at AIDS PAC's July 1994 San Francisco event. He said Sheridan, a prominent Washington, D.C., lobbyist, stressed the importance of the upcoming elections and the need to elect candidates who were supportive of AIDS funding. But Barrett can't remember Sheridan or any other speaker saying explicitly that so few dollars would go to candidates.

The invitation for the July 28, 1994, fundraiser at a SoMa furniture showroom states: “AIDS PAC is the only national PAC whose sole mission is to support federal officeholders and candidates who are committed to increased funding for AIDS … Our donors want to support the federal officeholders who are actively working toward this goal [increasing AIDS funding], as well as the candidates who have pledged to do so. A contribution to AIDS PAC is an opportunity to combine your voices with many thousands of other voices.”

Sheridan defends the organization's decision to concentrate on building a robust fundraising base.

“The intention all along was to build to the 1996 presidential and congressional elections,” he says from the Washington office of Sheridan Group, his lobbying firm.

Asked if the PAC made it clear to donors that their money would not go to candidates until '96, Sheridan says, “That was not part of the generalized message. They were told that their money was going to candidates and programs.”

Told that some contributors felt the PAC misrepresented itself, Sheridan changes his tune.

“Those donors would have to speak with me or my board,” he says, growing defensive. “I would be very surprised if [the donors] actually said that. I told people that we were going to spend two years building this organization.”

But even one donor who agrees with Sheridan's strategy, Charles Forester, a former aide to then-mayor Dianne Feinstein, says AIDS PAC didn't make clear to him that they were going to engage in the costly world of telemarketing.

Still, Sheridan defends his approach. “We talked to 250,000 voters about AIDS,” he says. “That was a substantial contribution to the 1994 elections; we are very proud of that.”

In reality, temp workers hired by Gordon and Schwenkmeyer phoned people and read from a script.

Sheridan adds that identifying a pro-AIDS-funding donor base — which cuts across many different constituencies — had never been done before. “We now have 20,000 voters who we can go back to in 1996,” he says.

Shouldn't he have concentrated on affecting the critical '94 elections, when everyone knew the Republican Party was poised to make great strides? “That's a fair criticism,” Sheridan says. “Everyone can Monday-morning-quarterback all they want.”

He points out that raising nearly a million dollars in 1994 makes American AIDS PAC one of the richest political action committees in the country, ranked 15th by the Federal Elections Commission, one notch below Speaker Newt Gingrich's GOPAC, Inc. “That's incredible,” Sheridan says. “That is powerful from a political perspective.”

But given the momentum the GOP built while AIDS PAC slept in '94, it's not clear at all that the group can do much to turn back the tide in 1996. Barrett was less than impressed with Sheridan's claim to ignite the Democrats in 1996. “I'll just wait and see about that,” he says.

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