An unabashed progressive activist, long time donor to the Democratic Party as well as LGBTQ causes, Jonathan D. Lewis died at his home earlier this month having battled CNS Lymphoma, a rare form of brain cancer.
In one memorable battle over progressive rights and LGBTQ equality a decade ago with the administration of then former President Barack Obama, Lewis who provided money to fund LGBT groups such as Freedom to Work and GetEQUAL, and provided the maximum amount of $30,800 to the Democratic National Committee, threatened to pull the plug on any more donations. The Miami-based philanthropist was angered by Obama’s reluctance to issue an executive order barring LGBT workplace discrimination.
Lewis writing in an op-ed in The Huffington Post, titled “No More Excuses: Mr. President,” called on Obama to issue the executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in LGBT workplace discrimination as a way to make amends for the absence of UAFA in immigration reform.
Lewis, whose fortune came from his family, the founders of Progressive Insurance, was described by his family in their tribute in his online obituary as; “A natural agitator, he challenged the status quo and relished going against the grain, never hesitating to make waves. He will be deeply missed by all who were fortunate enough to have entered his orbit.”
Jonathan D Lewis Obituary: (Edited & excerpted)
Born on November 1, 1958, in Cleveland Ohio, Jonathan, graduated from Shaker Heights High School. He went on to graduate magna cum laude from Boston University College of Communication.
After college, he moved to Miami to work at the Sheraton River House and help open the renowned five-star Grand Bay Hotel, which redefined fine dining in Miami. In 1983, he founded his own independent design and development firm, Jonathan Lewis & Associates, managing projects in Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, New York, Aspen and Atlanta.
Jonathan’s first solo restaurant project in Miami, Toby’s, named in honor of his mother, Toby Devan Lewis, garnered recognition as one of Esquire magazine’s “10 Best New Restaurants” in 1985. Food & Wine magazine honored it with their Best New Chef award, while the Miami Herald gave it five-stars out of four, the extra star for “pure class”.
Next, Jonathan opened Cafe Tu Tu Tango in Coconut Grove, Miami, earning another four-stars from the Miami Herald for its innovative approach to small plate sharing. As Cafe Tu Tu Tango flourished, Jonathan played an integral role in its operations as it grew to multiple locations.
Inspired by his father, Peter B. Lewis, Jonathan began his transition to political activism in the early 2000s, supporting progressive political efforts focused on the fight for LGBTQ equality and youth empowerment. To truly challenge the status quo and build a sustainable progressive movement, Jonathan believed that young people and their creative energy and idealism were essential.
One of his first major undertakings was funding and incubating the Young Voter Alliance, under the Young Democrats of America. The Young Voter Alliance used an innovative, collaborative model to capture and cultivate a powerful, measurable progressive youth voting bloc. The result, in 2004, was the highest youth voter turnout since 1972.
Following his initial political investments, Jonathan became disillusioned as he observed what he considered to be “access advocacy.” Progressive national organization leaders and activists seemed deterred from demanding radical accountability of those in power, settling instead for empty promises, excuses and privileged access with nothing to show for it.
He transformed into an agitator, more inclined to challenge those in power to bring about real change. He fearlessly voiced his dissent and, more importantly, utilized his personal resources to exemplify his unwavering commitment to meaningful change.
Out of his deep frustration and perception of limited progress, Jonathan funded a new, radical, direct action group, GetEQUAL. Its mission was to relentlessly push President Obama and the Democratic Party to make significant progress toward full LGBTQ equality and, specifically, legalize same-sex marriage and end the discriminatory Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that forbade openly gay and lesbian individuals from serving in the military.
GetEQUAL’s nontraditional and aggressive tactics to bring the issues to the forefront included activists chaining themselves to the White House fence, disrupting President Obama at public events and blockading Las Vegas Boulevard. They definitely got the attention of the national press and the president. Despite pushback, Jonathan felt immense pride in 2010 as he stood alongside GetEQUAL activists during President Obama’s official signing of the bill repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
Additionally, Jonathan served on the board of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), which brought together attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies, representing different ends of the political spectrum, to champion the fundamental right to marry.
This historic effort culminated in a landmark victory at the United States Supreme Court in 2013, establishing a binding precedent affirming the right to marry. Through his involvement with AFER and GetEQUAL, and many other groups, Jonathan played an instrumental role in advancing equality and justice for all.
One of the most ambitious theoretical to real world working models his foundation has undertaken is Farms Work Wonders, an experimental pilot project launched in 2016, that provides employment, teaches essential skills and supports the educational endeavors of local Appalachian youth. Since its inception, the project has created several successful non-profit social enterprise businesses that serve as dynamic living classrooms for youth including an organic farm, market, bakery, glass blowing studio and a restaurant opening in August, that will honor Jonathan’s hospitality roots. These ventures have touched the lives of many people and will continue to do so.
Jonathan is survived by his husband Mark Christopher Lewis and his siblings Ivy Beth Lewis and Adam Joseph Lewis (Melony). Jonathan is predeceased by his parents Peter Benjamin Lewis and Toby Devan Lewis and his nephew Dakota William Powell.
The Los Angeles Blade courtesy of the National LGBTQ Media Association.