A few weeks before Virginia’s legislative elections in 2005, a researcher working on behalf of a clandestine group of wealthy, gay political donors telephoned a Virginia legislator named Adam Ebbin. Then, as now, Ebbin was the only openly gay member of the state’s general assembly. The researcher wanted Ebbin’s advice on how the men he represented could spend their considerable funds to help defeat anti-gay Virginia politicians.

Ebbin, a Democrat who is now 44, was happy to oblige. (Full disclosure: in the mid-‘90s, Ebbin and I knew each other briefly as colleagues; he sold ads for Washington City Paper, a weekly where I was a reporter.) Using Ebbin’s expertise, the gay donors — none of whom live in Virginia — began contributing to certain candidates in the state. There were five benefactors: David Bohnett of Beverly Hills, Calif., who in 1999 sold the company he had co-founded, Geo-Cities, to Yahoo! in a deal worth $5 billion on the day it was announced; Timothy Gill of Denver, another tech multimillionaire; James Hormel of San Francisco, grandson of George, who founded the famous meat company; Jon Stryker of Kalamazoo, Mich., the billionaire grandson of the founder of medical-technology giant Stryker Corp.; and Henry van Ameringen, whose father Arnold Louis van Ameringen started a Manhattan-based import company that later became the mammoth International Flavors & Fragrances.

The five men spent $138,000 in Virginia that autumn, according to state records compiled by the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project. Of that, $48,000 went directly to the candidates Ebbin recommended. Ebbin got $45,000 for his PAC, the Virginia Progress Fund, so he could give to the candidates himself. Another $45,000 went to Equality Virginia, a gay-rights group that was putting money into many of the same races.

On Election Day that year, the Virginia legislature stayed solidly in Republican hands; the Democratic Party netted just one seat. But that larger outcome masked an intriguing development: anti-gay conservatives had suffered considerably. For instance, in northern Virginia, a Democrat named Charles Caputo (who received $6,500 from Ebbin’s PAC) had beaten a Christian youth minister, Chris Craddock, by an unexpectedly large margin, with a vote of 56% to 41%. Three other candidates critical of gays were also defeated, including delegate Richard Black, who had long opposed gay equality in Richmond. Black had had no single donation as large as the $20,000 that Ebbin’s PAC gave his opponent. “This was my ninth election campaign, and it wasn’t unusual to have homosexuals involved,” says Black, who now practices law. “But it was different, certainly, in degree. There had not been a concerted influx of money from homosexuals as a group before.”

The group that donated the money to use against Black and the others is known as the Cabinet, although you won’t find that name on a letterhead or even on the Internet. Aside from Bohnett, 52; Gill, 55; Hormel, 75; Stryker, 50; and Van Ameringen, 78, the other members of the Cabinet are Jonathan Lewis (49-year-old grandson of Joseph, co-founder of Progressive Insurance) and Linda Ketner, 58, heiress to the Food Lion fortune, who is running for Congress against GOP Representative Henry Brown Jr. of South Carolina.

Ketner’s is something of a long-shot bid — her district has been reliably Republican for years — but recently Congressional Quarterly described her “suddenly strong run” against Brown as “the biggest surprise” in this year’s House races. Ketner, who was invited to join the all-male Cabinet as a way of diversifying it, declined to discuss her role in the group.

Among gay activists, the Cabinet is revered as a kind of secret gay Super Friends, a homosexual justice league that can quietly swoop in wherever anti-gay candidates are threatening and finance victories for the good guys. Rumors abound in gay political circles about the group’s recondite influence; some of the rumors are even true. For instance, the Cabinet met in California last year with two sitting governors, Brian Schweitzer of Montana and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, both Democrats; political advisers who work for the Cabinet met with a third Democratic governor, Wisconsin’s Jim Doyle. The Cabinet has also funded a secretive organization called the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), which a veteran lesbian activist describes as the “Gay IRS.” MAP keeps tabs on the major gay organizations to make sure they are operating efficiently. The October 2008 MAP report notes, for example, that the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force fails to meet Better Business Bureau standards for limiting overhead expenses.

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