October 8, 2012 | by Chris Johnson
Rising Democratic star delivers fiery speech at HRC dinner
Cory Booker, Washington Blade, gay news, HRC National Dinner, Human Rights Campaign

Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Newark Mayor Cory Booker suggested he’d pursue a gubernatorial run in New Jersey and — if elected — sign marriage equality legislation into law during a fiery keynote speech Saturday evening at the 16th annual Human Rights Campaign National Dinner.

“I’m going to declare right now that the state of New Jersey — with all of the fiber of my being, with my allies left and right — that we will ensure that marriage equality is signed into law in the state of New Jersey,” Booker said. “And when that bill is signed, I may have a very good seat for it.”

It’s not the first time Booker has hinted at a possible gubernatorial run and that he’d lead the way for marriage equality as governor. During the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Booker made almost identical comments while addressing a caucus meeting of LGBT delegates.

Earlier this year, the New Jersey legislature approved legislation that would legalize marriage for gay couples, but that bill was vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. LGBT advocates are seeking to override his veto in the legislature.

Booker also told more than 3,000 attendees in attendance at the dinner — held at the Washington Convention Center — that their “spirit” is the same as the spirit that filled others creating social change in the United States, including those that founded the country, led the Underground Railroad that guided slaves to freedom and organized bus boycotts in the South.

“It is the unconquerable spirit that when some of us in our nation were told you aren’t good enough, this spirit stood and said, ‘Yes I am,’” Booker said.

Booker, who gained renown for reducing crime in his city and for personally rescuing a woman in April from a house fire, is considered a rising star in the Democratic Party. The Newark mayor was co-chair of the 2012 Democratic platform committee, which approved for the first time a marriage equality inclusive platform.

Sue Fulton, a lesbian West Point graduate who’s a founding board member of the LGBT military group known as OutServe, attended the dinner and expressed confidence that Booker has a bright future in the party.

“As a New Jerseyan married to a native New Jerseyan, I think Cory Booker is the real deal,” Fulton said. “And what he said tonight — he brought people to their feet, he brought people to tears because he believes down in his bones in real equality in this country and that is so inspiring to me, I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do next.”

Also on stage and providing the introduction to Booker was Chad Griffin, who spoke at the national dinner for the first time in his capacity as president of the nation’s largest LGBT organization.

“We can choose to step back, look at our recent successes, place our trust in the whims of public opinion and simply wait until the institutions of power finally open their doors to our community — or we can choose to be bold, we can choose to fight, fight for the laws we know we need and the welcoming country our families deserve,” Griffin said.

Prior to coming to HRC, Griffin served as board president of the California-based American Foundation for Equal Rights, the organization behind the federal lawsuit against Proposition 8. Others were on the stage from the organization, including the plaintiffs challenging the same-sex marriage ban — a lesbian couple, Kristin Perry and Sandra Steir, and a gay male couple, Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo — as well as Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, an AFER board member.

Black delivered a highly personal speech at the dinner in which told the story of his coming out to a Mormon, military family as well as the coming out story of his gay elder brother, who died just weeks before the lawsuit spearheaded by AFER led the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to rule that Prop 8 was unconstitutional.

“I just wanted to race to the phone and call my big brother and say, ‘My God, we are one step away, we are one step away from the U.S. Supreme Court where my freedom will be your freedom, where my hope is your hope, my liberation is yours, but I couldn’t,” Black said. “I couldn’t because two weeks earlier my brother lost his battle to cancer and he died, and he will never know that feeling of liberation.”

Chad Griffin, Dustin Lance Black, Washington Blade, gay news, HRC National Dinner, Human Rights Campaign, Proposition 8, AFER, American Foundation for Equal Rights

Human Rights Campaign President and CEO Chad Griffin and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Following Black’s speech, HRC raised at least $390,000 in under 20 minutes by calling on attendees to donate to a campaign for the pro-gay side in the four states where marriage will be on the ballot in November: Maine, Minnesota, Maryland and Washington State. The final numbers were still being tabulated before the article was posted.

HRC gave two awards to special guests at the dinner. The National Equality Award was given to Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for his work that led to 103-year-old organization’s board to endorse marriage equality. The Ally for Equality Award was given to Oscar-winning actress Sally Field.

Sam Greisman, who’s gay and Field’s son from her second marriage, introduced his mother prior to her accepting the award on stage. During her speech, Field discussed how her son found success even though “nature” made him different from his two brothers.

“Sam was given colors and innate perceptions that his big brothers simply don’t have,” Field said. “He’s a gentler nature, and it is a gift. Nature made Sam.”

Among the guests at the dinner who weren’t on stage were gay members of the administration — John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and Fred Hochberg, director of the Export-Import Bank — as well as Brian Bond, DNC national constituency outreach director, and Jamie Citron, Obama for America LGBT National Vote Director.

The 2012 HRC National Dinner is the first one to take place under President Obama in which no one from the administration addressed the audience from the stage. In 2009 and 2011, Obama addressed attendees, while in 2010, Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to Obama, was the keynote speaker.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, an HRC spokesperson, said no one from the administration spoke on stage because high-level officials were involved with the campaign one month before Election Day, although he said his organization had hoped the president or the first lady would have addressed the crowd.

“We certainly appreciate that the president has joined us for two of the last three national dinners,” Cole-Schwartz said. “While we had hoped he or Mrs. Obama would have been available again this year, between campaigning and their own family responsibilities, it was not possible. We were thrilled to have Obama campaign surrogate Mayor Booker speak and talk about the administration’s many accomplishments for our community.”

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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