The Human Rights Campaign is expected to emerge as the coordinator of a reorganized coalition of national and local LGBT groups pushing for passage of a same-sex marriage bill in the Maryland Legislature next year, according to sources familiar with the effort.
In a separate development, a new statewide transgender advocacy organization called Gender Rights Maryland announced its presence on the Maryland political scene this week, saying it will take the lead role in pushing for a “comprehensive” gender identity non-discrimination bill.
Attempts failed earlier this year to pass same-sex marriage and gender identity bills in the Maryland Legislature. Now, insiders familiar with LGBT politics in the state say these two new developments represent a shakeup of the established order, where the LGBT group Equality Maryland led lobbying efforts on behalf of the two bills for the past seven years.
Meanwhile, rumors that HRC has offered to make a significant cash contribution to the financially troubled Equality Maryland in exchange for the group allowing HRC to select its next executive director were heightened this week when HRC’s regional field director, Sultan Shakir, began working at Equality Maryland’s headquarters office in Baltimore on Monday.
“HRC is working with local and national groups to help build a strong campaign to pass Equality Maryland’s entire legislative agenda next year,” said HRC spokesperson Fred Sainz. “While HRC currently has a field staffer working in the Baltimore headquarters to support their new executive director, there are no set plans to keep him there,” he said.
“Reports of large cash contributions in return for certain actions are completely false as evidenced by the fact that Equality Maryland has a leader,” Sainz told the Blade on Wednesday.
Sainz was referring to the selection last month by the Equality Maryland board of LGBT rights advocate Lynne Bowman of Ohio as Equality Maryland’s interim executive director. The board, which said it was conducting a search for a permanent executive director, named Bowman to the interim post after firing the previous executive director, Morgan Meneses-Sheets.
Meneses-Sheets’ dismissal prompted the group’s development director and chief fundraiser, Matthew Thorn, to resign in protest, raising questions about whether the staff turmoil would further hinder the group’s finances.
Two sources familiar with Equality Maryland who spoke on condition that they not be identified, said some Equality Maryland staffers and board members reported that HRC had expressed an interest in installing HRC’s Shakir as the lead decision maker for Equality Maryland regardless of the title he would assume.
The sources said Shakir is well-liked by most LGBT activists in Maryland who know him and is viewed as a qualified strategist on LGBT issues. But they said reports of HRC arranging for one of its chief lieutenants to assume a lead role in Equality Maryland’s day-to-day operations would be viewed by some Maryland activists as an intrusion by a national group into the affairs of an established state organization.
“Sultan is here to look at, with me, which is part of the job I was brought in to do, how the marraige campaign was run during the beginning of this year and to start to make some plans for how we can move foward,” Bowman said on Wednesday. “He is not an employee of Equality Maryland. He’s not going to start running Equality Maryland. It’s simply a partnership extra hand on deck as we move things forward.”
Bowman noted that Shakir worked on the marriage campaign during the Maryland legislative session this year as part of HRC’s field team.
“He has a history and perspective that I don’t have,” she said.
Patrick Wojahn, a member of the board of the Equality Maryland Foundation, which operates out of the same offices as Equality Maryland, said it wasn’t unusual for a staff member of HRC – which he noted is one of Equality Maryland’s national coalition partners – to be spending time in the Equality Maryland office.
“But I can tell you Sultan Shakir has no formal relationship with our organization right now and there is no intention to give him one,” Wojahn said. “I can say that we’re working together with HRC. We appreciate their support but our relationship is as a coalition partner with them and no more,” he said.
Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national same-sex marriage advocacy group Freedom to Marry, confirmed that his organization is among the national groups working with HRC to put together a revamped and strengthened Maryland marriage equality coalition.
“Freedom to Marry is going to look closely together with HRC, with Equality Maryland, with local leaders and other players at how best to set up the team effort to get the job done,” he said. “I look at this as a really positive thing.”
Wolfson acknowledged that many in the LGBT community were disappointed over a decision earlier this year to recommit Maryland’s same-sex marriage bill to committee in the state’s House of Delegates after it passed in the State Senate by a comfortable margin. Recommitting the measure to committee killed it for the legislature’s 2011 session, which ended April 11.
Advocates for the bill were divided over the decision to recommit it to committee. Some blamed the national groups — including HRC and Freedom to Marry — for pressuring Equality Maryland and the seven gay or lesbian members of the House of Delegates to go along with a decision to pull the bill rather than risk a losing vote.
“We decided we needed a little more time to make the case and pick up the extra couple of votes that were short,” Wolfson told the Blade on Tuesday. “And so what we’re looking at now is how we do that in the strongest, best way possible to pick up where we left off, fix the things that we need to do better and make the case to pick up the remaining votes.”
He said representatives of the emerging new coalition are already making plans for an aggressive outreach to the black community in Prince George’s County and other parts of the state where black lawmakers were reluctant to support the bill following opposition from black churches.
“We believe there is actually significant African-American support in Maryland and there are certainly many African-American families and allies who have important stories to tell that can help shore up the votes,” Wolfson said. “And we want to get those stories out there. So the work over the next several months is to do exactly that.”
Beyer to head new trans group
In a statement released on Tuesday, the newly formed group Gender Rights Maryland announced that former eye surgeon and nationally recognized transgender rights advocate Dana Beyer will serve as the group’s executive director.
Sharon Brackett, president and CEO of a Maryland-based systems engineering company, will serve as chair of the group’s board, a statement released by the group said.
Three other founding board members include Donna Cartwright, co-president of Pride AT Work, an LGBT group within the AFL-CIO; Caroline Temmermand, division chief for Parks and National Resources for Arlington County, Va.; and Alex Hickcox, former board member of Equality Maryland.
“The purpose of Gender Rights Maryland is to promote civil rights, education, tolerance, equality and acceptance on the basis of sex and gender identity/expression in the State of Maryland,” the group said in its statement. “Gender Rights Maryland’s initial legislative goal is to see the passage of a comprehensive gender identity anti-discrimination bill by the end of the 2012 legislative session.”
Beyer told the Blade that the new group plans to work closely with Equality Maryland, which led efforts to push for the gender identity bill this year and in past years.
But she noted that the staff shake-up at Equality Maryland in April, when the board fired Meneses-Sheets and its chief fundraiser resigned in protest, has raised questions about whether it has the capability to begin lobbying effectively on the gender identity bill between now and January, when the legislature begins its 2012 session.
Beyer said one of the group’s first objectives will be to raise funds needed to hire a professional lobbyist to coordinate a campaign on behalf of the gender identity bill.