August 4, 2010 at 3:41 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Push for LGBT bills continues during recess

Advocacy groups are planning to take advantage of this month’s congressional recess by stepping up efforts with district offices to build support for pro-LGBT initiatives while lawmakers are at home.

One joint effort between the Human Rights Campaign and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, for example, is geared toward influencing senators to support repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” when the issue comes before the Senate, possibly in September.

As part of this same effort, HRC is also working on building support for bringing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to a House vote.

Meanwhile, grassroots LGBT group GetEqual is considering ways to expand its direct action work outside the Capital Beltway to reach lawmakers in their home districts.

HRC and SLDN last week announced their effort, called Countdown 2010, which aims to mobilize new grassroots efforts to build support in part toward ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the Senate.

Marty Rouse, HRC’s national field director, said the effort consists of engagement from the organization’s field team as well as encouraging HRC members to reach out to key lawmakers.

“We can’t just talk to our legislators and members of Congress inside the Beltway,” Rouse said. “We have to talk to them in the district so that they see that there’s interest and concern back home.”

Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN’s executive director, said the effort will last until lawmakers return from their August recess and vote on the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill, the legislative vehicle to which the Senate Armed Services Committee in May attached a provision that would lead to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

“We’ll be down in the targeted states with veterans, former clients of SLDN, friends and family of veterans — hopefully to visit with senators and their key staffers to urge senators to support, one, the [Defense Department] bill and, secondly, to support the provisions in the bill as it came out of the Senate Armed Services Committee,” Sarvis said.

The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” portion of the Countdown 2010 effort is focused on influencing senators in 10 states — Arkansas, Indiana, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Virginia — where HRC and SLDN feel they don’t have a firm commitment from senators on the issue.

Rouse said the senators in the states on which HRC is focusing its efforts are Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), John Ensign (R-Nev.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.).

Although Rouse said HRC’s field team is engaged in nearly all of these states throughout the country as part of this effort, he added efforts aren’t yet underway in Montana because of priority and efficiency reasons.

“Montana is a big state, and it’s hard to cover and hard to get to,” Rouse said. “There’s no one in Montana right now, but there will be.”

One of the senators on the list has already publicly indicated his position on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the defense authorization bill. Last month, Lugar told the Blade he wouldn’t support removing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” language from legislation and is unlikely to support a filibuster of the main bill.

Sarvis said SLDN feels Indiana should nonetheless be among the states on which efforts are focused.

“With Sen. Lugar, the commitment is not as firm and unequivocal as we would like, so we hope to engage him back home,” Sarvis said. “But, yes, we are somewhat encouraged by what Sen. Lugar has said to date. But, again, it’s not done until all the votes are cast.”

Also as part of Countdown 2010, HRC is working to influence senators in the targeted states on ENDA while engaging House members in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas to build support for the bill. Rouse said urging senators to support ENDA in these three additional states is less of a priority.

“We really focused on the House and we need to do significant [work] in House districts throughout the country before we even can think of the Senate,” Rouse said. “Our focus right now in the field is making sure that we target these House members. That’s most important.”

Paul Guequierre, an HRC spokesperson, said the efforts in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas are geared toward influencing House Democratic members in these states that aren’t ENDA co-sponsors.

Five of eight House Democrats from North Carolina, five of 12 House Democrats from Pennsylvania and five of 12 House Democrats from Texas aren’t co-sponsors, Guequierre said.

Sarvis said the shared work between HRC and SLDN in this effort would complement the strength of each organization. He noted that HRC has more field organizers and thus would provide more field workers to the effort while SLDN would bring more service members and veterans.

“Whether it’s working with field organizers in place or SLDN veterans, clients, it’ll be a matter of sharing resources and bringing that [all] together over the next six to eight weeks in the most efficient way possible,” Sarvis said.

Rouse said HRC would look at local media to determine whether efforts in these states are making progress and noted that efforts in many states have already produced results.

“We’ve already seen letters to the editor printed, op-eds printed and meetings with the Senate staff have already taken place,” he said. “None of this would have happened were it not for HRC’s staff being on the ground, mobilizing and reaching out to people.”

But for SLDN, evaluating the progress of Countdown 2010 would depend on the results of the meetings with senators and their staffers in these states.

“But the bottom line is you won’t know until the votes have been cast,” Sarvis said. “In some cases, we may get affirmative answers over the next several weeks, but I suspect that in many cases, we won’t get a definitive answer until the senators’ votes.”

GetEqual plans district actions

Meanwhile, GetEqual is planning efforts to draw more attention to ENDA as lawmakers return from break. The efforts are intended to build off previous protests last month in Las Vegas and at the U.S. Capitol.

Robin McGehee, co-founder of GetEqual, said her group has been talking with local organizers about working collaboratively on direct action throughout the country on ENDA and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“We’re trying to work to set up some in-district actions,” she said. “At this moment, we don’t have any targets that we’ll release only because we’re trying to figure out where is the weakest link and what we feel like is going to be strategically the best one to plan most of our attention.”

McGehee said GetEqual will be sending out instructions on ways people can engage in the political process as lawmakers work in their home district.

“It may be some people planning actions; it may be just giving them avenues of engagement that can just get them to engage their legislator around ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ or ENDA,” she said.

McGehee said GetEqual is looking at lawmakers’ speaking engagements, town halls, fundraisers and office times as possible opportunities for action.

Wherever the actions take place, McGehee said GetEqual is in part learning from the tactics that conservative protesters used in interrupting town hall meetings last year over health care reform.

“Obviously, you don’t want to be compared to someone who has a conservative platform,” she said. “But, in my opinion, one of the things that we did learn from watching that was the squeaky wheel was getting the grease.”

In the past month, GetEqual asked supporters which of four lawmakers should be targeted for direct action over ENDA: U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) or Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).

According to GetEqual, Pelosi won 46.5 percent of the vote, Reid won 18.5 percent, Miller took 17.6 percent and Frank took 17.4 percent. The organization declined to make public the total number of votes.

McGehee said the first and second place rankings of Pelosi and Reid were behind a protest last month in Las Vegas, which was directed against Reid, and another protest in the U.S. Capitol, which targeted Pelosi.

But whether GetEqual continues to target Pelosi and Reid during their August break remains to be seen.

“I don’t know for sure that we’ll go back to those targets,” McGehee said. “Honestly, for us, it’s just looking at where you have local organizers that also want to be involved, and finding out from the advocacy groups that really have the inside strategy where do they feel like the hold up is actually happening.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • FAEN

    Hey GetEqual….how about getting off your butts and giving a wee bit of attention to the UAFA bill! Or are we too small of a minority within a minority for you to care?

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