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Gay staffers take key roles in Obama campaign

From finance to digital initiatives, supporters working to win second term

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[Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series.]

Engaging in tasks from fundraising to digital initiatives to public outreach, President Obama’s re-election campaign staff is already hard at work helping to secure a second term in the White House โ€” and many members of the LGBT community have high-profile roles in that effort.

The Washington Blade interviewed four gay and lesbian staffers who are working to re-elect Obama from the campaign headquarters in Chicago. This article is the first in a two-part series and features interviews with two of the campaign workers: Rufus Gifford, the finance director, and Teddy Goff, the digital director.

Barack Obama

President Obamaโ€™s campaign staff includes several high-profile gay members. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

For Gifford, who’s gay, seeing Obama serve another two years in office is important because he believes the administration so far has been “two of the most productive years in American history.”

“I’ve been on board with the campaign in one way shape or form since January 2007 โ€” nearly from the moment I met Sen. Obama,” Gifford said. “I was certainly a believer in him and his message and his politics, etc. So, I do believe that the last two years have been two of the very most productive years in American history. In my mind, truly, if we can get four more, think of how much more we can accomplish.”

Gifford said Obama’s accomplishments for the LGBT community โ€” most notably “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal โ€” are “obviously very, very personally important” to him. Still, Gifford also counts among the president’s victories passage of the economic stimulus plan and health care reform as well as ratification of the START Treaty, a nuclear-arms reduction agreement.

As finance director, Gifford overseas the funds raised for both the Obama campaign as well as a joint committee that raises funds between the campaign and the Democratic National Committee. It’s similar to his role as finance director of the DNC, which he occupied immediately before joining the Obama campaign, and his role in raising money for Obama in California during the 2008 campaign.

“Every morning I start the day with a 9 a.m. senior staff meeting with the campaign leadership,” Gifford said. “I am a huge believer that finance should never be siloed within a campaign.”

Gifford said he believes the campaign will be stronger and raise more money if he’s talking to the directors of the field department, the digital department, the tech department and the communications department.

In the second quarter, fundraising for the Obama campaign beat expectations. Obama raised more than $86 million for his re-election campaign and the Democratic National Committee, which far outpaced Republican candidates seeking to oust him from the White House.

The third quarter numbers are yet to be made public. Media reports state that the campaign is expecting to rake in less cash because the president had to cancel fundraisers to attend debt ceiling negotiations with congressional leaders.

One difference that Gifford faces working with the Obama campaign in 2012 as opposed to his work in 2008 is the fact that he’s now separated from his partner, Jeremy Bernard, who serves as the White House social secretary.

In 2008, Gifford and Bernard were featured in numerous media outlets as a gay power couple and were named in Out magazine’s listing of the Top 50 power gays.

Gifford declined to comment on his separation from Bernard, but confirmed the couple split in 2009. Gifford’s current partner resides in D.C.

While Gifford manages fundraising for the Obama campaign, another gay member of the president’s re-election team, Goff, handles digital outreach efforts.

As digital director, Goff runs Internet communications for the campaign, which includes outreach via e-mail or social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

“Our job in the digital department is to talk to millions of Twitter followers, millions of e-mail subscribers, millions of Facebook fans everyday, and that’s a viewpoint that I think is helpful even in helping shape and inform broader discussions about how we talk to people and how we build,” Goff said.

Goff, who’s 26 and gay, comes to the Obama campaign after his most immediate position working withย Blue State Digital, a digital agency in New York. In 2008, Goff ran digital programs at the state level for the Obama campaign.

Goff’s commitment to see Obama re-elected stems from the president’s record over the course of two-and-a-half years in office, which Goff said is “without parallel in my lifetime or even my parents’ lifetime.”

“So for me, he’s every bit as inspiring and compelling a figure as I ever thought he was.”

The main priority for 2011, Goff said, is making sureย existing Obama supporters have avenues to make their voices heard.

What’s the best online platform for the Obama campaign to connect with its supporters? Goff said “everybody’s different” in the way they want to interact.

“There may be one person who wants to hear from us via e-mail, and another person who wants to hear from us on Twitter, but our point of view is that isn’t so much what matters,” Goff said. “Most things come and go. This time, four years ago, Myspace was a really big deal. Now people aren’t talking about that so much anymore. The perspective that we try to bring to it is what’s the basic content that’s going to engage people, how can we shape a relationship that’s going to make them feel engaged and feel like a part of the family.”

But the fight to re-elect Obama in 2012 could be more of a challenge than it was making sure he won the White House in 2008. Recent polls have placed Obama’s approval rating at its lowest point during the course of his term. A few weeks ago, Gallup found that Obama’s approval rating was at 39 percent, marking the first time his approval rating had dipped below 40 percent.

Gifford said he’s not in a position to say whether a win for Obama will be more challenging than it was in 2008, but asserted supporters will push on in the effort to claim victory.

Similarly, Goff said he doesn’t know if winning the White House will be more challenging for Obama in 2012, but said he expects the commitment of campaign workers would lead the president to victory.

The support that Obama will receive from the LGBT community in his re-election efforts remains to be seen. Significant milestones in LGBT rights occurred under his watch โ€” most notably the passage of hate crimes legislation and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Obama also received praise earlier this year for dropping the administration’s legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

But other actions sought by the LGBT community remain outstanding โ€” such as the enactment of employment protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The president’s lack of support for same-sex marriage riles some in the LGBT community as the fight to win marriage equality continues throughout the states.

Gifford said he’d tell anyone who says Obama hasn’t done enough on LGBT issues during his first term in office that “you cannot make the argument that this is not the most pro-gay administration in history.”

How can other LGBT people help who want to see Obama re-elected in 2012? Goff said those who are interested should check out the campaign website or participate in an on-the-ground field program that is being built in communities across the country.

“There are things for people who want to be involved only or primarily in LGBT issues,” Goff said. “We should have LGBT people do that, but also hope that LGBT people will get involved in the broad program and organize their community just like anybody else.”

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Over 100 LGBTQ-themed books in a Florida school district labeled with advisory warning

They warn: โ€œthis book has been identified by some community members as unsuitable for students.โ€

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Advisory Notice (via Twitter)

A southwest Florida district put parental โ€œadvisory noticeโ€ on over 100 books, many of which are race or LGBTQ-themed.ย 

A great number of books in Collier County Public Schools, either digital or physical, now have warning labels writing โ€œAdvisory notice to parents,โ€ according to an NBC report,

The label, tweeted by nonprofit free-speech-promoting group PEN American, states, โ€œThis Advisory Notice shall serve to inform you that this book has been identified by some community members as unsuitable for students. This book will also be identified in the Destiny system with the same notation. The decision as to whether this book is suitable or unsuitable shall be the decision of the parent(s) who has the right to oversee his/her childโ€™s education consistent with state law.โ€ย 

Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which means to fight book banning, told NBC that she had a call from Elizabeth Alves, the associate superintendent of teaching and learning for Collier County Public Schools. In the call, Alves told her that the district added the labels starting in February.ย 

These measures, which Alves described as a โ€œcompromise,โ€ happened after the districtโ€™s legal representative talked with the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative group which initiated a โ€œPorn in Schools Reportโ€ project last year. The report included a list of books that โ€œpromote gender self-identification and same-sex marriageโ€ as well as titles that include โ€œindecent and offensive material,โ€ as the group explained. 

Chad Oliver, the Collier County Public Schools spokesperson, on the other hand offered a different story. 

Oliver sent an email to NBC News and said, “Based upon advice from the General Counsel, we placed advisory notices on books about which parents and community members had expressed concern and in accordance with the recently passed Parents’ Bill of Rights Law (HB 241).” 

The law referred by Oliver is also known as the โ€œDonโ€™t Say Gayโ€ law.

According to PEN America, there are 110 labeled books in total, and the list greatly overlaps with the one Florida Citizens Alliance inquired about with Collier County Public Schools.ย 

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Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney introduces bill to make monkeypox testing free

Health insurers would be required to cover costs

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Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney has introduced legislation to make monkeypox testing free to the public. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), amid the ongoing monkeypox affecting gay and bisexual men, has introduced legislation in the U.S. House seeking to make testing for disease free to the public.

Maloney, one of seven openly gay members of Congress and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement the measure, called the No Cost for Monkeypox Testing Act, would testing amid the monkeypox outbreak would be accessible to all.

โ€œIt is critical that we eliminate cost as a barrier to testing for monkeypox to ensure we can identify cases and prevent further spread,โ€ Maloney said. โ€œThis legislation takes the lessons we learned from past public health emergencies and protects those at risk of contracting monkeypox by making tests accessible to everyone.โ€

The legislation would require private health insurers as well as Medicare and Medicaid to cover the costs of monkeypox testing at no expense to the patients, either through deductibles, co-payments, and co-insurance.

The bill introduction comes the week after the Biden administration declared the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency and the same it has issued new guidance to enhance to the accessing of existing vaccines doses amid criticism federal officials were too slow in distributing shots.

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with the Centers for Disease Control seeking comment on the legislation. Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra said Tuesday the federal government has the capacity to conduct an estimated 80,000 tests each week.

Maloney has been representing New York’s 18th congressional district, but after redistricting is now seeking re-election in the 17th district. Amid controversy over a potential showdown between Maloney and Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), who’s Black, another openly gay member of Congress and the current representative of that district, Jones has since opted to run for re-election in the New York’s 10th congressional district. Maloney is now running unopposed in the 17th.

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Biden administration shifts monkeypox vaccine approach amid shortage

Health experts sees new guidance as mixed bag

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The Biden administration has changed its guidance on monkeypox vaccines to enhance availability amid the shortage.

The Biden administration, amid criticism it was slow to act on the monkeypox outbreak and still not meeting the demand for vaccines as the number of cases continues to grow, has announced a shift in guidance for implementation of the shot in an effort to enhance availability.

As the estimated number of monkeypox cases in the United States reaches 8,900, top health officials announced the new move on Tuesday as part of a decision by Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra to issue a determination under Section 564 of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to justify emergency use authorization of vaccines. The announcement follows up on the Biden administration’s announcement last week declaring the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency.

Becerra said in a conference call with reporters the 564 determination and change in approach to vaccines would “boost and strengthen” the Biden administration’s response to monkeypox, which has overwhelmingly affected gay and bisexual men, and “safely accelerates and multiplies our supply of effective vaccines by up to fivefold.”

“Today’s action also reaffirms HHS and this administration’s commitment to using all available resources and capabilities to end the monkeypox outbreak and provide the best possible care to those suffering from the virus,” Becerra added.

The new vaccine approach, which may may be considered minor to non-medical observers, would change injections of the JYNNEOS vaccine from the subcutaneous route (delivery of the vaccine under the fat layer underneath the skin) to the intradermal route (delivery of the vaccine into the layer of skin just underneath the top layer). In theory, that would allow for greater accessibility of monkeypox vaccines as it increases the number of doses from each vial of vaccine.

The change was made amid criticism the Biden administration failed to meet the demand for vaccines during the outbreak and geographic inequity as certain metropolitan areas of the country have more access to vaccines than other places.

As The New York Times reported last week, the Biden administration has faced criticism for not moving quickly enough in acquiring and distributing vaccines, including bulk stocks already owned by the U.S. government manufactured in Denmark by Bavaria Nordic now being given to other clients.

“The government is now distributing about 1.1 million doses, less than a third of the 3.5 million that health officials now estimate are needed to fight the outbreak,” the Times reported. “It does not expect the next delivery, of half a million doses, until October. Most of the other 5.5 million doses the United States has ordered are not scheduled to be delivered until next year, according to the federal health agency.”

Biden officials, nonetheless, touted the numbers of vaccines and tests in response to monkeypox as a positive, acknowledging the 1.1 million vaccines being made available as well as delivery of more than 620,000 of those doses, deployment more than 15,000 courses of the monkeypox treatment and increasing the country’s capacity to administer tests on a weekly basis to around 80,000. Meanwhile, officials also promoted the change in approach in vaccines as means to allow greater accessibility to the shots.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, promoted during the conference call the use of intradermal injections and said they’re “often used for TB skin tests and have been used for other types of vaccines.”

Although Walensky conceded some health care providers “may not be as familiar with intradermal administration” as they are with subcutaneous injection, she said CDC would make additional guidance materials available, including a clinician alert message to the Association of State & Territorial Health Officials, outreach to key clinician partners and an education resource video. The change in guidance, Walensky said, is for vaccine implementation in adults, but children โ€” where single digit monkeypox cases have been reported โ€” would continue to receive vaccination in the traditional subcutaneous approach.

But health experts aren’t responding with overwhelming praise to the decision to change the guidance on vaccine implementation from subcutaneous injections to intradermal injections, expressing concerns the new approach may be insufficient.

Jennifer Kates, director of global health & HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, was among those saying the change in guidance on vaccine approach was a mixed bag and told the Blade more data is needed to evaluate the effectiveness.

“As we saw with COVID, using these authorities in the context of public health emergencies is an important strategy,” Kates said. “In this case, this step will significantly expand access to vaccines for those most at risk. However, there remain questions about the effectiveness of this approach โ€” real world studies are needed โ€” and challenges to translating vaccines into vaccinations.”

Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation & Research (CBER) at the Food & Drug Administration, was asked during the conference call with reporters to respond to concerns the change in guidance was insufficient and downplayed the novelty of implementing the vaccines through the intradermal route as “not at all new.”

“In fact, the reason why the Bavaria part of this equation comes from the fact that in Germany, this vaccine was given intradermally originally, in an effort to replicate the original version of the smallpox vaccine,” Marks said. “It’s been given to thousands of people intradermally, so this isn’t the first time it’s been done.”

Walkensky said the intradermal vaccine approach has been implemented amid policies among localities to implement a one-dose approach to the JYNNEOS vaccine through the subcutaneous route. (The D.C. government is one of the jurisdictions that had enacted a one-dose approach amid a vaccine shortage.) There is not data, Walkensky said, to support that approach and “in fact, if anything, there are data saying that that is not protective enough.”

“So by using this alternative strategy of intradermal dosing, not only do we have more doses, but we actually allow people to get two doses in a way that shows immunologic response that’s superimposable from the subcutaneous dosing,” Walkensky said. “So we have more doses, and in fact, we have the ability to doubly vaccinate people so that they get the protection that they need.”

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