WASHINGTON -- In 1988, well-heeled gay activists went to Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign with an offer to raise $1 million for his election effort.
"They turned us down flat because it was gay money," said gay-rights advocate David Mixner.
Less than a quarter-century later, the gay and lesbian community ranks as one of the most important parts of President Barack Obama's campaign-finance operation. The campaign has hosted a slew of events targeting gay donors, from intimate dinners to extravagant galas. Wealthy gay business executives and philanthropists fill the ranks of Obama's top bundlers. Twenty-one prominent gay individuals and couples raised a total of at least $7.4 million for the president's re-election through the end of March.
Born of the desperate urgency of the AIDS crisis, the fundraising powerhouse assembled by the gay community has propelled its concerns to center stage. The Obama campaign and gay activists reject the suggestion that the president's endorsement of same-sex marriage was tied to fundraising. But there is no doubt that a once-marginalized constituency is now mainstream, influencing electoral politics from city hall to the White House.
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"People just have a better understanding and appreciation about how much impact they can have," said Chuck Wolfe, president of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which works to elect openly gay and lesbian officials. Its budget has increased nearly sixfold in a decade.
Democratic candidates have overwhelmingly benefited from gay and lesbian support, an alliance bolstered by presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney's reiteration last week that he opposes same-sex marriage.
Among Obama's top fundraisers are such notable figures as Chicago Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts, software entrepreneur Tim Gill and former E-Trade President Kathy Levinson.
Financial support from gay and lesbian donors has largely made up for the steep drop-off in Wall Street contributions, an Obama fundraiser said.