May 24, 2012 | by Chris Johnson
Obama campaign launches initiative to reach out to LGBT voters

The Obama campaign on Wednesday officially kicked off a new initiative aimed at building LGBT support for the president as Pride season begins and the general election campaign heats up.

During a conference call, supporters of the president called on LGBT people to help Obama win re-election. On the call with reporters Wednesday detailing the project — dubbed “Obama Pride: LGBT Americans for Obama” — was Jamie Citron, LGBT vote director for the campaign, and Joe Solmonese, the outgoing president of the Human Rights Campaign and one of the 35 national co-chairs of the Obama campaign. Clo Ewing, director of constituency media for the campaign, moderated the call.

Each of them emphasized the work Obama has done on LGBT issues — in particular his endorsement of same-sex marriage two weeks ago — and the importance of Obama winning re-election.

Citron said the 2012 election was too important for the LGBT community to “sit on the sidelines” and emphasized the need for voter registration efforts to help Obama win re-election. On the day prior to the launch of Obama Pride, Citron said the campaign held LGBT-focused voter registration drives across the country.

“The president knows the importance of making sure our voices are heard in November and to that end, will continue to make voter registration and volunteer recruitment a top priority through Pride month and into the fall,” Citron said.

According to a statement, the initiative launches with trainings, phone banks and house parties in a number of states including Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada and Michigan — which are seen as battleground states in the general election. Citron announced the launch of a new website on the Obama campaign page devoted to the LGBT community.

Outgoing Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Solmonese discussed the president’s LGBT achievements during his first term — including mandating hospital visitation rights for gay couples, hosting a bullying summit at the White House and repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — as he drew a distinction between Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on their views of same-sex marriage.

“With a president’s historic statement on same-sex marriage, the choice we’re facing as a country and a community could not be clearer,” Solmonese said. “We can re-elect the leader who’s working with our community toward full equality under the law, or we can sit back and watch Mitt Romney take us back to where we started.”

Solmonese, who’s set to leave HRC when incoming President Chad Griffin takes over on June 11, said Romney’s position on marriage is “also historic” because the candidate is to the right of former President George W. Bush on the issue. While Bush said he supports civil unions, Romney has said he opposes them in addition to backing a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage throughout the country.

A partial transcript of the Q&A between reporters and the Obama campaign members at the end of the call follows:

Q: Joe, question for you. What is the plan for the campaign to sort of address what issues specifically the president would advance in his second term? You went through a lot of these accomplishments, but what sort of effort will there be to lay out a plan for the second term?

Solmonese: One of things I’ve been inspired by president and the administration — and this goes back to the days that we met with them in the transition offices before we were in the White House. Quite frankly, it goes back to during the campaign in the general election.

One of the things that always came to me — and it came from the president — was that the agenda was really a collective conversation between the president and the administration, us as a community, and our allies on Capitol Hill in the House and the Senate. That collective agreement and that collective sense of where we were had everything to do with why we moved hate crimes first, we moved “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” second, and so that collective understanding of where we’re going is how we’re going to shape the agenda for the next administration.

We have landmark issues that we need to continue to address, continue to move on, like the repeal of [the Defense of Marriage Act], like the passage of a fully inclusive ENDA. And so, that’s the kind of ongoing conversation we’ll have.

I think one of the things that we all recognize — and I know that the president recognizes because we saw this during the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — is that the makeup of Congress is going to have a lot to do with that. That is why those fights and the fights to make sure to do everyone we can to take back an LGBT-friendly House of Representatives are going to have a lot to do with how that agenda gets shaped — and hold what we have in the Senate and hopefully add to those numbers.

Q: The conventional wisdom is that the president’s endorsement of same-sex marriage is going to be met with some sort of political attack in states like Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia. Will this new LGBT Americans for Obama unit have a role to play in trying to combat those of attacks? If so, what specifically is in the works to ensure that the president’s support for same-sex marriage ends up not being [against him]?

Ewing: The goal of the Pride program is to organize LGBT members of the community across the country, organize about issues that they care about and organize as far as coming into the campaign, and also mobilizing folks for November.

As far as the attacks that you talked about. One of things that we’ll continue to do is talk about the president’s record, talk about his record of accomplishments, and stand on that. If you’re talking about marriage specifically, one of things that I can do is point you to a lot of recent polls that really show that the support for gay marriage and marriage equality is growing across the country.

That being said, what polls also show is that same-sex marriage is not the most important issue that will affect people’s votes come November. It’s not the first issue, it’s not the second issue and it’s not the third issue. That being said, what the LGBT program is going to do is make sure that they’re mobilizing voters.

Citron: I just want to jump in as well. I just want to point back to the president’s own words on the subject. I think what he said is incredibly powerful and it talks about what brings us together, not what pulls us apart. I think that’s the message that we’re going to be putting with this program. That doesn’t just mean the LGBT community, but broader, and I think that that’s something we’re very excited about.

Q: The President mandated in December that all agencies working abroad must report on what they’re doing to protect and advance LGBT rights in other countries within 180 days. That falls in June. Will this be part of Pride month messaging? …

Ewing: I’m going to have to send you to the White House on that one. I can tell you right now that it’s not a plan of ours to include in the next couple of weeks of outreach to the community, but not for any specific reason.

Q: Some poll numbers now showing particularly in Florida, the same-sex marriage announcement might be problematic for the president. What’s your take? Should he have waited? …

Solmonese: The president did that because it’s the right thing to do. He understood that, as anything he does, that there’s going to be a reaction to it in various part of the country. You have to look at how people feel about the issue, but also that intensity question of polling, where it falls on the spectrum of things that people care about.

While that may be true in Florida, I have been heartened to see polling numbers in various states around African-American voters. And quite frankly, the way in which, I think, other things have unfolded on the heels of the president’s announcement — particularly the NAACP, for instance — coming out in support of marriage equality, and what that has meant to folks around the country. This election, like all elections, from this point to November is going to be a roller-coaster. On given day, in some of these battleground states, we’re going to see a lot of movement, but the president did what he thought the right thing to do was and we’ll move forward from there.

Q: There is a small but vocal group of black Christians who are very vocal about their dismay with the president’s decision. What would you to say to them? …

Ewing: I would say a couple different things. No. 1, I would say, as the president said, this is his personal view that it’s wrong to prevent couples are who in loving committed relationships and want to marry from doing so. The president said, too, that he did a lot of soul-searching on this issue, and he talked to his wife about it, he talked to his children about it. He heard from a lot of people, friends who were in long-term relationships, service men and women who had he gotten to know during the fight for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” [repeal]. This is a decision that he thought about and really had to evolve on. It’s a personal decision of his, and that’s where he’s at on it.

Also, as for the community that you mentioned, there are also a lot of clergy who are in support of that and who have talked about their support of it. … I know that Joe mentioned organization like the NAACP who have come out in support of same-sex marriage and marriage equality. I would say more than anything that as the president said, it’s his personal view here, and he felt it was important for him to share it.

Solmonese: I would add one thing to that. There are two similar but distinctly different conversations going on here, particularly in states like Maryland. They’re building support and mobilizing African-American voters to support this president in the fall. I have to believe that regardless of the president’s position on marriage equality, they will support this president in an incredibly strong way. And then there is the work that we have to do as a community, and as advocates, to win and build support for marriage equality — a fight that we find ourselves in in the State of Maryland.

Those are two different orders of business, and I think we approach them that way. Again, what I’m heartened by is in states like Maryland, regardless of the fact that some have taken issue with the president’s position on marriage equality, they continue to support the president in strong numbers and — I think this has to do with the president’s statement as well as a series of things that have happened in the aftermath — we see continued growth among African-American voters in support of marriage equality.

I think the difference we took on in the fight in Proposition 8 back in 2008 and the work we did in the District of Columbia more recently is that as a community we have done the front end work of building relationships, of finding common humanity around these issues, respecting differences, particularly religious differences. Again, trying to find that common ground.

Ewing: The last thing I want to point out. … This is about civil marriage and civil laws. We are respectful of religious liberties. We are respectful that churches and other faith institutions are going to be able to make determinations about what their sacraments are and what they recognize. As a civil law, the president does support marriage equality.

Q: This sounds like it’s an effort to turn out the gay vote. I’m wondering is there going to be any element of this to try and convince that segment of the gay vote that tends to vote Republican to try to get them to cross over and vote for Obama this time?

Citron: Certainly, an element of this will be about turning out the LGBT vote, but even more so than that, it’s about engaging the LGBT community to get our effort off the ground. One of the most powerful tools that this campaign has is our ground time, and our core volunteer teams that we’re building across the country. What we want to do is make sure that the LGBT community, where they live is a core part of that program, and a core part of the team that’s going to move us forward toward victory in November.

So, this is not just about turnout but about really making sure that the LGBT community — this is a part of our effort on the ground, as they are a part of the effort. We want our effort to look like the country itself.

You bring up a good point and we will talk a lot about the president’s record and the work he’s done for the LGBT community, and I think we’ll talk a lot too about Mitt Romney, what he’s promised to do as president, and also his record as governor. I think that will make a very stark contrast between the two. And I think that will be something that will resonate with LGBT people across the board regardless of their political affiliation.

Solmonese: I say this from the HRC point of view. That will be a big focus because I think that if you remember back in 2008, Sen. McCain did not support the Federal Marriage Amendment, there was some kind of contusion about a whole range of issues … But Gov. Romney has very clearly committed to do the work of passing the Federal Marriage Amendment, and to me, if he were ever elected president — I’m never really completely clear on his convictions, but I know that he is very much open to what people around him and would be obligate to the people whom he felt put him there.

The core of all that is his commitment to work to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment. This is very much a part of HRC rating these candidates. The Federal Marriage Amendment is the ultimately deal breaking for us; it is enshrining discrimination into the United States Constitution. It is absolutely sort of the last line in terms of really discrimination against this community. And, I think, for that reason, it’s incredibly important that we make sure that every member of this community, Republicans in particular, understand that distinction and understand just what that would mean because I feel like out there with our opponents, the fear  and the progress that we are making with regard to our success in marriage equality is genuine and it is palpable. So the fight to get that done, I think, is absolutely real if he were to become the president.

On the same day that the new LGBT initiative was launched, the campaign made public a video narrated by actress Jane Lynch about Obama’s support for the LGBT community.

Watch the video here:

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

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