By Celeste Smith
Posted: Monday, Feb. 20, 2012

The Human Rights Campaign’s N.C. dinner returns to Charlotte on Saturday against a different backdrop from when the gala was here in previous years.

The annual fundraiser for the nation’s largest gay rights advocacy group hasn’t always been embraced – here or elsewhere. In 2005, the first time the event was in Charlotte, gala planners asked for but didn’t get a welcoming letter from then-mayor Pat McCrory. That same year, organizers behind the state gala event in Utah had a major sponsor withdraw from the event days before, saying it didn’t want to support a gay rights group.

This time around in Charlotte, interest from businesses, attendees and politicians is running at an all-time high, according to organizers. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a national spotlight on Charlotte due to the Democratic National Convention coming in September. Given the number of politicians slated to attend or speak, organizers say, the dinner event at the Charlotte Convention Center almost will have the feel of a pre-DNC event.

“It’s a major event that’s going to open … the DNC cycle, the first major event of the year here with politicians coming and speaking,” said Roberta Dunn, political co-chair for the dinner.

The gala is a fundraiser for the national group’s advocacy work, which includes promoting workplace and family rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Attendance could top 2,000.

That’s not to say that there isn’t any resistance, in a year where there’s anything but political consensus on issues important to the group.

The biggest symbol of that is North Carolina’s statewide vote in May, where voters will decide whether to add a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. The two sides are pouring big bucks into campaigns to defeat or pass the ban, including the HRC, which local members say has contributed $100,000 in the effort to defeat the amendment.

Local organizers say they don’t want the dinner to be about the marriage amendment debate, although speakers can address the matter if they choose.

Mayor Anthony Foxx is slated to give the opening address. It’s the first time a current Charlotte mayor will attend. In 2005, McCrory refused to send a letter welcoming attendees, saying he disagreed with the national group’s political agenda.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is the keynote speaker. She’s the first sitting presidential Cabinet secretary to address an HRC gala audience, according to organizers.

Organizers won’t say how much money has been raised. But they say financial and in-kind donations are strong. This year, 30 businesses have signed on so far as local sponsors, compared to 14 in 2011, according to Jay Biles, in charge of fundraising for the event.

Three businesses – Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Time Warner Cable – signed on as top-level sponsors contributing $25,000 each. Last year, Wells Fargo was the solo top sponsor.

Businesses see it as a way to get the word out about themselves in a high-profile year for Charlotte, and also as a way to promote their gay-friendly workplaces, according to gala organizers.

“There’s definitely an appeal with wanting to sponsor an event in a city where the DNC is located. There’s some cachet around that,” said Biles, who works as a human resources manager in the mortgage division at Wells Fargo.

And “there’s a branding advantage … promoting yourself as a fair and equitable place to work,” Biles said.

Time Warner Cable has been part of the event for several years, but decided to boost its involvement this year to show its support for diversity and inclusion in its workplace, according to Janet Manzullo, vice president for talent acquisition.

“We’re really interested in attracting and retaining high-quality employees,” Manzullo said. “This seemed like a great avenue to support our existing LGBT employees, and to seek out new talent.”

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