Equality Maryland has selected veteran activist Carrie Evans, a former Human Rights Campaign staffer, as its new executive director after conducting a national search.
In an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade, Evans expressed confidence that Maryland will become the next state to enact same-sex marriage rights.
“The stars are aligned this year,” Evans said. “We have the votes in the Senate … and in the House the governor, along with a coalition of supporters, will work the House like it wasn’t worked last year.”
Evans previously worked for Equality Maryland as director of policy and planning from 2007-2009. She left the organization shortly after its then-executive director, Dan Furmansky, resigned in late 2008.
Prior to that experience, Evans spent time at both HRC and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. She served as state legislative lawyer for the Task Force in the early 2000s and later in a similar role at HRC, where she worked from 2003-2007.
Since leaving Equality Maryland in 2009, Evans has worked for the City of Baltimore in the housing department.
“It feels like coming home,” Evans said. “This is an organization that is like a dear friend to me … and the stakes are high, marriage is on the table, as well as the gender identity bill. We have a whole new board of tremendously accomplished people and I can hit the ground running — it’s full speed ahead.”
The board expressed confidence in its new executive director.
“The executive director search committee, led by board treasurer Rosemary Nicolosi and comprised of local and national leaders in the LGBT movement, spent hundreds of hours sifting through resumes and conducting interviews,” said Equality Maryland board chair Lisa Polyak. “We were charged with finding a leader who possessed courage, intelligence, strategic thinking and passion for achieving justice for the LGBT community of Maryland — and we believe we have found that leader in Carrie Evans.”
As for the marriage bill, Evans said the House of Delegates will become her focus.
“It’s a freshman class in the House that I’ll have to get acquainted with,” she said. “The House is where we need to pick up some votes.”
Reflecting on the 2011 effort to pass a same-sex marriage bill, which died in the House after passing the Senate, Evans said there was a lack of familiarity with the freshman class.
“The House changed more than folks had realized,” she said. “So we were used to the old House, but we had more Republicans and untested Democrats, like Tiffany Alston, so … it was a crap shoot with the vote count.”
One key difference looking ahead to the 2012 session, which begins in January, is the overt support of Gov. Martin O’Malley.
“It’s a totally different ballgame this year with the governor behind it,” Evans said. “The governor’s office is going to be more hands on.”
The marriage bill isn’t Equality Maryland’s only priority. It’s also pushing a measure to bar discrimination based on gender identity and expression.
“They took out public accommodations this year because of the misinformation about bathrooms and locker rooms … so we just have to give voice to our transgender supporters,” Evans said. “We have work to do in forging those relationships so it’s a lot of heavy lifting; hopefully the governor will put his support behind the trans bill like he has for the marriage bill. We want to move him to that place, that’s essential.”
If the marriage bill passes, many are concerned about a likely referendum to repeal the measure in 2012. Evans acknowledged the uphill fight in taking on a referendum fight.
“In referendums, wins are few and far between,” she said. “ It takes an infusion of resources that may not transpire. It’s refreshing that the coalition is together now, so that come April when the session ends we can move into executing a plan to keep this off the ballot or win at the ballot box. It’s winnable but will take a large effort and the community will have to step up like never before.”
It’s been a tough year for Equality Maryland, which saw both a transgender rights bill and a same-sex marriage measure fail in the 2011 legislative session. And the announcement of the new executive director comes less than a year after Equality Maryland struggled with financial problems and disagreements among board members that led to the firing of its executive director and the layoff of most of its staff due to a lack of funds to pay salaries. Its former board chair, Charles Butler, stepped down in May just one week after he publicly blamed the group’s former executive director, Morgan Meneses-Sheets, for the organization’s financial problems.
Meneses-Sheets, whom the board fired in April, rejected Butler’s claim that she entered into expensive contracts on behalf of Equality Maryland and hired staff without the board’s approval or knowledge. In a messy public fight, Butler and Meneses-Sheets each told the Blade that the other shared the blame for a funding shortage that threatened to force the group to close its doors.
In the wake of the group’s troubles, a new organization called Gender Rights Maryland was launched to lead efforts for a comprehensive gender identity non-discrimination bill and a new coalition of groups including HRC came together to advocate for a same-sex marriage bill in 2012.
But several recent developments suggest that Equality Maryland is getting back on its feet. The group held a fundraiser headlined by Gov. Martin O’Malley in September that brought in about $70,000. Another fundraiser is planned for December in Baltimore. Last month, Equality Maryland announced the appointment of 16 new members to its board of directors and its tax-exempt educational arm, the Equality Maryland Foundation.
Equality Maryland is a full partner in the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition and part of its steering committee, according to Polyak. She added that the organization is debt-free and operating in the black.
In addition to Evans, the organization employs two full-time staff members — an office manager and a field organizer.
Evans lauded the efforts of the marriage coalition.
“I think this is where we’re going as a movement,” she said. “We saw it in New York. All the players get to the same table and work as partners. I think it’s a good thing.”
Evans, 41, starts her new position the first week of December. She lives in Baltimore with her spouse, Pam Bennett, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. The two married in 2009 on their 10th anniversary.
Lou Chibbaro Jr. contributed to this report.