Each Friday, the Human Rights Campaign sends an e-mail to its membership with a weekly update listing all the ways it has made our gay lives better. Last week’s e-mail update expressed disappointment at the failure of the U.S. Senate to advance the defense authorization bill, which contains repeal of the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on open service by gays in the military.
No one doubts that HRC is committed to repeal of the ban. Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported on Nov. 25 that HRC has committed $2.8 million to the latest push for repeal. That included online ads and sending field staff to eight states to organize members to pressure targeted senators to support repeal.
In the same article, Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications and marketing said, “It is a very important moment for our community, and we should not leave any opportunity on the table.” Recent conversations, however, have given me reason to believe that opportunities may have been left on the table.
According to a senior source involved in lobbying for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” HRC President Joe Solmonese was not active in lobbying senators to support repeal, opting to leave that work to staff. He did, however, attend meetings with congressional leadership and White House officials, the source said, adding that Solmonese views his role at the organization as chiefly a fundraiser.
I asked Sainz whether there was any truth to the allegation that Solmonese was not actively involved in lobbying members of Congress. His response: “That’s fucking bullshit.”
In a private e-mail from an HRC board member, I was also told it was “bullshit.” However, when pressed for any level of information, on the record or on background, that would show that Solmonese had been active in meeting with members of Congress, other than leadership, to lobby for repeal, none was offered.
This is in contrast to other organizations, which are forthcoming about their lobbying activities. In the same Roll Call article referenced above, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, R. Clarke Cooper, disclosed that he lobbied 13 Republican senators in the prior two weeks. Alex Nicholson, of Servicemembers United, said he had met with the office of every first, second and third-tier Senate target as well as attended events in each of their states.
The defensive reaction from HRC to questions about Solmonese’s role is troubling. (In the interest of disclosure, I worked for HRC for two months in 2006.) Over the years, HRC has been very effective at positioning itself as the voice of the LGBT movement on Capitol Hill. That means that a certain level of access is afforded to HRC that others don’t have. Even so, the protocol of Capitol Hill means that organizational staff usually meet with a member’s staff.
Securing a meeting with a senator usually requires the participation of an organization head, such as Solmonese. That’s why it is important to know if he has been on the Hill meeting with staff and members. Someone of Solmonese’s stature is perceived differently on the Hill and is able to be more effective at lobbying than others.
That’s why it is important to know if Solmonese has been working to lobby members of Congress. It is fair to expect HRC to be transparent about the work of its chief executive. However, if Solmonese has not been an active and effective lobbyist, it could help to explain the lack of progress on passing our legislative priorities such as repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act.
After his initial offensive (and defensive) response to my question, Sainz, offered a more professional response to characterize Solmonese’s lobbying work: “Joe has met with Republicans and Democrats that are key to a successful outcome.” Not very specific, but it’s better than curse words.
We are only going to win equality when everyone is willing to roll up his or her sleeves and do what is necessary. That includes having the leader of HRC actively engaged in everything necessary to win equality — and being transparent about it.