06.25.11

Gay Marriage’s Unlikely Hero

With New York's historic vote, the leader of Bush’s GOP emerged as a key advocate for equality. Samuel P. Jacobs talks to Ken Mehlman about how he helped buttonhole and raise bucks for victory.

On Friday night, joyful men and women massed at the Stonewall Inn, Manhattan's gay landmark, to cheer the New York legislature's vote to allow gay marriage. In their midst was a man many in the gay community had once cursed, as a champion of policies hostile to their cause. But on this night, he blended in, comfortable with the company—and, unbeknownst to many of the revelers, a key force behind their victory.

Ken Mehlman managed President George W. Bush’ s re-election drive in 2004. Courting the evangelical Christian voting bloc so crucial to the Republican Party, Mehlman’s boss campaigned on a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. When asked by Tim Russert in 2005 whether homosexuality is a choice, Mehlman, famous for sticking like pine tar to his talking points, said, “I don’ t know the answer to that question.”

But last year, Mehlman, at the age of 43, announced that he was gay. Turning the personal political, Mehlman then worked alongside a host of tightly organized conservative donors and operatives to plot a victory for same-sex marriage in New York. When the effort paid off, after days of high-wire suspense, arm-twisting, and a dramatic late-night vote, gay New Yorkers flooded into the streets—and packed the Stonewall, the bar where the gay rights movement was born in 1969. Mehlman, a man seemingly born in a well-pressed suit, basked in the victory, relaxed in a flannel shirt. “When Obama was elected, it was the same kind of feeling, a real joy and real happiness with people pouring out into the streets,” Mehlman said.

Mehlman was quick to credit New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo with leading the charge to victory, and downplayed his own role. “I’m a guy who follows others,” he said. But the veteran political operative did his fair share, making an argument unthinkable just a scant six years ago: that gay marriage should be reframed as a family values issue, and therefore belongs squarely in the wheelhouse of the Republican Party.

On May 6, Mehlman traveled to Albany to attend a meeting with the leaders of New York’s GOP-controlled legislature, and make his pitch. “There’ s a strong Republican and conservative case to be made in favor of the right to marry,” Mehlman told the room. “If we are all endowed by a creator with unalienable rights including the pursuit of happiness, how can that not include marrying the person you love?” And like any good campaign strategist, he buttressed his argument with poll data: nearly 60 percent of New Yorkers said in recent polling that they support same-sex marriage. The GOP should not, he hinted, wind up on the wrong side of history.

On June 6, two weeks before the legislative session was officially set to end, Mehlman was back in the state capitol to drive his argument home. He met one-on-one with 13 lawmakers, including the four Republican state senators who eventually voted in favor of the bill. Mehlman took pains not to draw too much attention to his efforts. As his friend, Bill Smith, political director at the Gill Action Fund, a gay-rights organization that orchestrated the conservative lobbying in New York, puts it, “he has been careful not to leave many fingerprints, like people who are looking for credit.” But the four Republican votes ended a deadlocked legislative session and made New York the sixth, largest, and most influential state to adopt same-sex marriage.

New York was not his first gay-rights campaign. Last fall, Mehlman teamed up with the White House and progressive lobbyists to press Republican senators considering voting to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy to that forced gay members of the U.S. military to hide their sexuality. Mehlman lobbied 10 GOP senators. Eventually, six Republicans voted to repeal the 17-year-old policy. When the White House invited Mehlman to attend the bill’s historic signing, he balked.

If we are all endowed by a creator with unalienable rights including the pursuit of happiness, how can that not include marrying the person you love?

That’s perhaps not surprising, given his general preference for keeping a low profile. Mehlman moved to New York City last summer where he’s a partner at the private equity giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Company. He settled in Chelsea, an area popular with gays, and counts Marc Jacobs and Lance Bass as his neighbors. He hasn’t shied from the neighborhood. On Wednesday, two days before the same-sex marriage bill passed, Mehlman rubbed shoulders with prominent gay journalists at a fundraiser hosted by Gawker media—a site which once asked, “Is Ken Mehlman a 44-Year-Old Gay Virgin?”

The key to Mehlman’s newfound clout has been bringing his old friends—and their formidable wallets—to the gay-marriage crusade. Shortly after coming out last August, Mehlman organized a fundraiser in New York at the swanky Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the gay rights group headed up by the political odd couple of David Boies and Ted Olsen. (Mehlman joined the board, agreeing to raise at least $1 million for AFER.) The evening was part Wall Street get-together and part reunion for the Bush 2004 campaign team. More than $1 million was raised. Many of those same donors resurfaced for the gay-marriage push in New York, giving around another $1 million.

“Ken is my kind of fundraiser,” hedge fund manager and major Republican donor Paul E. Singer said at the fundraiser last fall. “There’ s no amount that anyone gives that’s enough. In certain circles, I’m known as a fundraising terrorist, but Ken applies finesse to it.”

Will his efforts help push the GOP toward a more moderate social-issues profile in 2012? In a race crowded with hard-core conservatives like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, Mehlman is staying on the sidelines—at least for now. “I have a number of friends who are running. I make more than enough to break bread at work,” Mehlman said, adding that he doesn’t have “any current plans” to support a particular candidate.

He does have a message for those gunning for the White House: “I hope that what Republican leaders will consider is what they believe and where the voters are. They should recognize that allowing people to have equal rights under the law is frankly what our party is about.”