After seven years leading the Human Rights Campaign, Joe Solmonese steps down next week, bringing change to the nation’s largest LGBT rights organization just five months before a critical presidential election.
On Monday, Chad Griffin will officially take over as president of HRC, which, with an annual budget of $40 million and about 150 full-time employees, is often seen as the political and cultural lead for the LGBT community. Griffin was named HRC’s new leader in March and replaces Solmonese, who has headed the organization since March 2005.
Solmonese saw many historic and positive changes for the LGBT community in his seven years at the helm. Among them are the defeat of the Federal Marriage Amendment during the Bush years, the fight to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and, most recently, the first sitting U.S. president coming out in support of same-sex marriage.
Major challenges await Griffin, including the effort to re-elect President Obama, who has already won HRC’s endorsement. Also ahead, fights over marriage on the ballot in Minnesota, Maine, Maryland and Washington State as well as pursuing long-awaited federal employment non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.
Will Griffin take HRC in a new direction or bring a different style of leadership? The organization has often been criticized in the blogosphere for being too timid in taking on the Democratic establishment and not representing the “queer” faction of the LGBT community. Will the new leadership foster a new perception of the organization?
Griffin is best known for his work as board chair of the American Foundation for Equal Rights and its federal lawsuit challenging California’s Proposition 8, but he’s also had an extensive career fighting for progressive causes. According to his bio on AFER’s website, Griffin is founding partner of political and communications strategy firm Griffin-Schake, and taken on the tobacco and oil industries while advocating for issues such as clean energy, universal health care, stem cell research and early childhood education.
Another open question sparking plenty of speculation concerns HRC’s staffing. Will Griffin bring in his own people as he takes the helm? Some staffers — including David Smith, HRC’s vice president of programs — have been working in the LGBT rights movement since the early 1990s. It’s possible other HRC staffers may take Solmonese’s exit as a cue to make their own departure.
Both Solmonese and Griffin were unavailable for interviews for this article. LGBT rights advocates had different takes on their predictions for the leadership style of Griffin compared to Solmonese.
Winnie Stachelberg, vice president of external affairs at the Center for American Progress, called Griffin a “stupendous choice” and a “passionate advocate … for the range of issues that confront our community,” but characterized the new leadership as a continuation of the work seen under Solmonese.
“We’re not pivoting,” Stachelberg said. “It’s not as if we’ve moved from a leadership style of Joe Solmonese and we’re moving to the leadership style of Chad Griffin. What I think is encouraging about the shift from Joe to Chad is just the leadership that both of them have, the respect that both of them have — not only in the LGBT community, but in the progressive community more broadly.”
Michael Petrelis, a gay San Francisco-based blogger who has criticized HRC, was skeptical of any change and remained critical of HRC, calling the organization “an elitist social network known more for opening LGBT checkbooks for Democrats” than being interested in engaging with the larger LGBT community.
Among the goals that Petrelis called on Griffin to pursue at HRC were his plan for regional town halls, transparency over board of directors meetings and decisions, greater engagement with grassroots activists and ordinary LGBT people as well as a “commitment to members of the community who don’t want to get married or join the military.”
“The DNA of HRC is not wired to allow one man to change the institutional culture and I’ve heard nothing from Chad indicating that he wants to reform the organization,” Petrelis said. “All I expect of HRC regardless of who the executive leadership team comprises, is fealty to the Democratic Party and a commitment to keep the community from getting too pushy and uppity in demanding fierce advocacy and lasting change from our friends.”
But Stachelberg, formerly HRC’s political director, disputed the notion that HRC had been reluctant to criticize the Obama administration or Democratic leadership when the need arose.
“They’ve criticized the administration when they’ve seemed the most strategic, and they’ve worked with the administration and the Democratic establishment, as you call it, in lots of key ways,” Stachelberg said. “They don’t always agree with the Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate, and they make that clear. They don’t always agree with how a Democrat in a state operates, and I think they’ve made that clear.”
Steve Elmendorf, a gay Democratic lobbyist, said he hopes HRC will focus on the presidential election and making sure President Obama stays in the White House.
“We have a presidential campaign, with, I think, the clearest difference we’ve ever seen between two candidates,” Elmendorf said. “I think there are obviously other priorities in the House and the Senate and the ballot initiatives, but I think that the community — and I don’t speak for HRC — but I hope that its No. 1 goal between now and Election Day is to make sure that Barack Obama wins.”
In the long term, Elmendorf said the LGBT rights movement must reach out to public officials who’ve been on the fence about LGBT support — especially Republicans.
“I think that a lot of politicians, particularly on the Republican side, are behind where the voters are,” Elmendorf said. “I think Barack Obama and gay marriage was hugely important and symbolic. We have to grow that on the other side, though. We have to get some Republicans to step out and show that it’s OK to be on the correct side on our issues, and you can do that and get re-elected.”
Elmendorf said he’s been a fan of HRC under the leadership of Solmonese and doesn’t think anything is wrong with the organization, but acknowledged that “all organizations need to periodically change leadership and look internally at themselves and see how they can do a better job.”
“The world is changing on our issues and I think every year or two years organizations need to look at how the world is changing and figure out how we can do a better job,” he said.
Griffin has already taken a more aggressive stance in pushing public officials to support marriage equality even before he’s officially assumed his duties. Last month, after Vice President Joe Biden said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he’s “absolutely comfortable” with married gay couples having the “same exact rights” as straight couples — which many media outlets reported as support for marriage equality — Solmonese issued a statement saying he’s “encouraged” by Biden’s comments without explicitly calling it an endorsement.
But Griffin went a step further, telling media outlets that without a doubt Biden’s remarks were an endorsement of marriage equality. In an interview with the Washington Post, Griffin said “only in Washington and only in politics could someone parse the words of what the vice president said” and Biden was “very clear and very direct when asked if he was comfortable with gay marriage.”
Obama came out for same-sex marriage days later and Biden’s remarks have since been interpreted as an endorsement of marriage rights for gay couples (prompting Biden reportedly to apologize to the president for stepping out ahead of the president). Following Obama’s endorsement of marriage, Griffin issued another statement through HRC calling on members of Congress to follow the president’s lead.
“The American public has expressed interest in where their elected officials stand on the issue of marriage for gay and lesbian couples,” Griffin said. “The president has had the courage and integrity to speak out for marriage equality. Now is the time for members of Congress to do so too.”
Shortly thereafter, some public officials followed suit, including House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D).
John Aravosis, editor of AMERICAblog, said Griffin has already demonstrated considerable skill as an activist, but said keeping up his effectiveness will be challenging after he officially assumes his new duties.
“Chad has proven himself an effective activist with proven political smarts,” Aravosis said. “The challenge for Chad will be maintaining his scrappy effectiveness while at the helm of a large organization not always known for being nimble and edgy. I think it can be done, but he’ll have his work cut out for him.”