Patrick Sammon is the president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a 501(c)(4) organization of Republicans working for gay and lesbian equality, and the Liberty Education Forum, its affiliated 501(c)(3) organization. Prior, he worked as a television news reporter and a documentary film producer.
Josh Israel interviewed Sammon on March 3, 2008.
To begin, just as a little bit of background, as I understand it, you’ve been leading the Log Cabin Republicans since 2006?
Yes, I took over on an interim basis in September and was named president in December 2006.
That was a short interim period. And before that you were executive vice president of the affiliated Liberty Education Forum?
Yes. I started in 2004 and then also became executive vice president of Log Cabin early in 2006. So I had a dual role.
You’ve been here for a while.
Just over four years.
Before that you were a reporter yourself?
I was a TV news reporter for six years. I moved to Washington and worked for a documentary production company for a year on a freelance basis. Then I also did some freelance work for Log Cabin during that year.
What brought you from that world into this one?
One of those cases in life where you end up somewhere you didn’t expect to be. I did some work for Log Cabin on a freelance basis and they were creating a new position at the same time that the documentary project was wrapping up. It was late ’03 right after the Goodridge [v. Department of Public Health] decision in Massachusetts [which legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts] so I knew that these issues would be a bigger part of the ’04 election. I wanted to try to, I guess, make a difference, for lack of a better term.
And you were right.
Yeah, I thought it was an important time to try to get involved. I decided to do that.
What would you say is the shortest description of what the Log Cabin Republicans are, where they came from?
Log Cabin is the largest organization of Republicans who are working for gay rights in the GOP. It started in California in the late ’70s to fight the Briggs Initiative, which was an initiative that would have prevented gay people from teaching in California public schools. That initiative was actually on its way to passage until a group of gay people convinced former Governor [Ronald] Reagan to speak out against the initiative. After he did that, the tide turned and ended up being defeated soundly.
From that, there was a loose-affiliated connection of chapters that started sprouting up around the country. Then in the late ’80s, early ’90s, it took on a closer connection. Eventually a national office opened in 1993. Log Cabin does a combination of lobbying and education of elected Republican officials at the state, local, and national level, a combination of lobbying and advocacy and education. A lot of our work also involves garnering media coverage such that we can spread our message to the broader Republican Party.
Fundamentally, we believe that equality is impossible to achieve without Republican votes. It’s important to have people working from inside the party to make it better. You can get mad that the party isn’t where it should be today, but the best way to change it is to work from inside the party. So that’s what we do on a daily basis — our members around the country doing the difficult work that it takes to move the party in the direction we want it to go.
Is it sort of a dual role of trying to make the Republican Party more friendly to your issues and at the same time make the gay and lesbian community more aware of the Republican Party?
Yeah, that’s certainly part of it. It really is a dual role. I believe two things. Number one, if LGBT people really want to be involved in the most important political fight right now for our equality, then Log Cabin is the organization for them to be involved with. Fundamentally, the ability to move the ball forward on LGBT issues in the next 10 years depends largely on our effectiveness. You can’t get anything done in Washington or in most states if you don’t have votes from both parties. Those on the left have done great work over the last 20 or 25 years moving the Democratic Party. Now the same work is being done on the Republican Party.
Talk a little bit about how big the organization is and how it’s structured. I know you have state affiliates.
We have 50 chapters and about 20,000 members. The chapters are all volunteer, grass-roots organizations. We have five full-time staff members including one in California and then two part-time staff members.
Are they statewide chapters and some local chapters?
Yeah, it’s a combination of structures. Some places cover an entire state or that’s their geographic responsibility; Tennessee, for example. Some places, California for example, there’s a state structure that governs the collection of local chapters. [There’s] flexibility depending on the needs of the particular state.
Nationally, Log Cabin Republicans is a 501(c)(4)?
Do you have an affiliated [501(c)(3)]?
Liberty Education Forum is the affiliated (c)(3).
And that is educational?
Exactly. Print educational materials, do grass-roots training.
Do you have PAC? 527?
No 527, just a PAC.
Do you also have state PACs?
Some chapters choose to establish state PACs, but we don’t have any that we at the national office control.
You mentioned then-former Governor Reagan’s involvement with defeating the Briggs Initiative. Did Log Cabin Republicans nationally exist in a form that you were involved in his campaigns at all when he ran for president?
No. There’s a video
Sort of the first big national news that I remember was in ’96 when Senator [Bob] Dole . . .
The organization nationally got its start after the Houston convention, which was so awful, where Pat Buchanan gave his culture war speech.
That was ’92.
That really energized gay conservatives and got them focused on starting a national organization and working on these issues. Certainly then by ’96, that was the time when a whole battle happened with the check to Bob Dole.
Can you describe what happened and look at how things have changed since 12 years ago?
It was long before my time involved with the organization, so I’m merely reciting what I’ve read or heard. I think Rich Tafel, one of my predecessors, wrote a book [Party Crashers] and he talked about what happened. I think, as I have been told, essentially he met with the [Dole] campaign staff, took a tour of the facility and then after that made a PAC donation to the campaign from the organization. Someone in the campaign decided to return it. That became a major news story. Again, I don’t know how it became a major news story, but it was something that gave [Dole] a black eye. He ended up, essentially, in the end, accepting the check.
I guess it’s unusual, relatively, for candidates to be not wanting contributions.
Yeah, so it was handled very ham-handedly. It was not handled well by his campaign.
That was 1996, which, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t that long ago. As far as GLBT progress, it was a different world. Would something like that happen today?
I think, if you look at this past campaign, there are still too many Republican candidates who try to capitalize on gay issues by using anti-gay politics. I think it’s less effective. We’ll see less of it in the future. The fact is that there are still people like Mitt Romney who lack integrity who are willing to try and use gay people as a political issue. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I think the environment is much better than it was back then.
In the 2000 elections, the club supported then-Governor George W. Bush. Come 2004, after he backed the constitutional amendment, the club not only didn’t endorse him, but also ran ads criticizing the constitutional amendment. Can you talk about the difference as far as how the party nationally reacts to an organization like yours? Again, I understand you weren’t as involved in 2000. An election where you’re sort of on board versus an election where you’re sort of — I don’t know if it made you pariahs or persona non grata within the party.
I really can’t speak to 2000 just because I wasn’t at all connected to it and really haven’t asked and just don’t know the information about the difference. Certainly we paid a price in 2004 for not supporting President Bush. It was the right thing to do because I think that the constitutional amendment was so inconsistent with the philosophy of our party that we needed to stand up with integrity. We paid a price for that. We certainly don’t regret that decision. We’re pleased that our party has nominated someone this time who doesn’t support that amendment, which was our signature issue. I think that’s a sign of important progress. We haven’t yet made a decision about whether to endorse Senator [John] McCain, but he certainly has a more inclusive record than President Bush. We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to support his campaign.
What affect did that decision in 2004 have on the group’s relationship with the GLBT community? Did it affect membership?
Between ’03 and ’04, we did have a spike in membership in a significant way. I think a lot of loyal gay conservatives had worked to advance the interest of the Republican Party. They got mad that Bush and others tried to politicize us. You certainly saw a positive in terms of membership. With other LGBT organizations, I think it gave us some more credibility and more people understood our mission and why it was important to have us working from inside the party to make it better.
Is there pressure being pulled sometimes in both directions?
Sure. I feel like we’re doing the right thing when my e-mail inbox is filled with critical e-mails from conservatives and from the gay left.
Moving to the 2008 election, you mentioned Governor Romney. The organization has not been very enthusiastic about his candidacy. You ran ads. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Mitt Romney spent millions of dollars painting himself as this principled social conservative. We thought it was important for Republicans to learn about his real record. We ran a TV ad in Iowa and nationally on Fox News and then a radio ad in New Hampshire. I think we’re the first outside organization to run a TV ad during the ’08 election. I think we got good bang for our buck in terms of the media coverage and in terms of the way we, I believe, impacted the debate and impacted the media coverage. Mitt Romney lost in part because he couldn’t get over the flip-flop problem. Our ads helped cement that perception about him. A real perception is not a perception. It was the reality of how he has run his public life.
So it was, I think, an effective effort that accomplished the goals we were looking at. We knew that we didn’t have the resources to pepper the airwaves in a huge way, but I think we maximized the resources we had to influence the debate and tone of the campaign.
Is that the sort of thing you do as a PAC? Is it a 501(c)(4)?
A (c)(4). We weren’t advocating people vote for or against a candidate. We were merely educating people about his record.
You said you haven’t endorsed Senator McCain, right? I assume you haven’t endorsed anyone?
So an organization that isn’t necessarily behind any one candidate can still play a role, it sounds like, relatively inexpensively in shaping the debate by making the ads newsworthy.
Yes. We obviously relied on our counsel for advice about how to meet FEC rules and laws.
Not to cross the line of advocacy for someone?
You mentioned that it got picked up by news outlets. How does something like YouTube play into that?
We were proud of particularly the TV ad. I think we approached 100,000 [hits]. It sort of pales in comparison to some of the successful YouTube videos out there. But from our perspective, we thought it was very successful in terms of the YouTube plays that it received. The earned media was the more critical component than YouTube.
The group was also somewhat critical, I gather, of Governor [Mike] Huckabee.
Yeah, we certainly had some critical news releases. Strategically, I never thought Huckabee could win the nomination. I was less concerned about having to devote energy and resources to try and stop that from happening. A more crowded field was hurting Romney. It was helpful that Huckabee was in the race.
It appears pretty unlikely at this stage that Huckabee will be the nominee, I gather?
I think it will be impossible by tomorrow.
I saw on your website, in April you have a presidential endorsement town hall meeting. Is that sort of where the organization meets to decide?
No, we don’t decide at that. The decision is made by the board of directors. It’s an opportunity to get input from members as that decision moves forward.
Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani I understand was not as vocal on these issues, perhaps, as a candidate as he was as mayor of New York — probably different constituencies, different messages. His record was fairly solid on GLBT issues as mayor. Was there any thought on backing him?
There were different candidates that had inclusive records. We strategically decided that it was not best to endorse Mayor Giuliani. Certainly he had a strong record and an inclusive record and many of our members supported him. At the same time, Senator McCain was a candidate we have endorsed previously. Ron Paul even had support from a fair number of our members. We didn’t think it was best to endorse one particular candidate.
Does an organization like yours work to coordinate members donating money?
Certainly I know that some of our members were working to raise money for different candidates. We haven’t made that a priority because we really turned our efforts toward the Romney strategy. That was the focus of our efforts in the campaign.
Is that something that you’ve done with congressional candidates?
That’s something that we’re doing differently this year. We are having some events specifically for congressional and Senate candidates.
Certainly you could, under the rules for . . .
I’m not saying we won’t do that, but given where the numbers are in terms of the dollars, I’m not sure that our efforts are best spent in that way because of the dollars being raised. It’s sort of a drop in the bucket.
A group like yours, certainly compared to these presidential candidates who are raising $12 million, $35 million, and apparently something around $50 million in a month, I’m guessing it’s probably hard for a relatively smaller group like yours to be raising that kind of money, assuming you’re not raising $50 million in a month, period.
Yeah, we’re sort of like the little engine that could. We operate on a lean budget. The money is so large now in politics. It’s an interesting process.
Without revealing any trade secrets, how does an organization, not necessarily yours particularly, but a 501(c)(4) raise money to be able to have a national organization play a role?
A combination of generous individuals, some corporate dollars, some income from events; our board of directors also contribute a fair amount of money — those four sources.
With an organization organized as you are, have you had any frustration with the campaign finance laws restricting you from doing things that ideally you’d like to be doing, or do you feel sort of free to do the things you need to do as an organization?
I don’t speak for the organization here because we don’t have a position on it. I’m someone who thinks that the campaign finance laws are too burdensome and they stifle free speech. As an organization that’s representing a certain viewpoint and speaking on behalf of our members, it’s unfortunate that we have to spend so much time going back and forth with our attorney. I think that impinges on our free speech and is against the principles of democracy.
Again, in your capacity as someone who’s been active and involved in political process rather than in your capacity representing the organization, what sort of system would you like to see ideally?
I’m not well-enough versed on the intricacies of campaign finance laws. All I know is that the laws that exist today are too burdensome and they stifle free speech. There has to be a better way to do it. What you need is giving information to voters. So long as you’re requiring candidates to report donors, and maybe it’s within two or three days, with technology, there’s no reason you can’t do it that way. The key is to communicate to voters who’s giving money to whom so that they then can assess whether a politician is bought and paid for.
The 2008 election, we’re seeing a bunch of historic candidacies. I guess now some of them are no longer possibilities, but the possibility of the first African-American president, first female president, first Latino-American president, first Mormon-American president. What do you think it would take before we have a serious contender to be the first openly-GLBT president?
I would say we’ll probably have a candidate in the next 20 years. We’re making a lot of progress. I’m an optimist about where we are in the fight for gay rights. I think it’s a long time before there would be a viable candidate. Again, progress is made at lightning speed, but I just think we’re a long way off from that one.
Do you think there would be any institutional advantages as far as the community rallying behind one of its own?
Certainly dollars could be raised. We’ve seen in this election that money isn’t everything. John McCain spent almost nothing compared to Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani. He’s the one that’s going to be nominated. We saw the same thing with Steve Forbes’s campaign, or in recent years Phil Gramm. The ash heap of presidential campaigns is littered with those who raised a lot of money. Raising money doesn’t mean votes.
I just think we’re a long way off. I’m an optimist and eventually we’ll get there, but I don’t think that there would be a viable candidate for a long time.