Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part interview with Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin. The second installment will be posted to washingtonblade.com in the coming days.
For Chad Griffin, 2016 represents a pivotal time when the LGBT community’s successes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage could continue — or face significant setbacks.
“We’ve never had so much at stake in any election than we have in 2016 as it relates to LGBT rights — both in terms of protecting our gains as well as having advocates both in the House and Senate as well as in the White House that will not only protect our progress and our gains, but also be champions and leaders in order for us to achieve success in the future as it relates to the Equality Act and a host of other priorities,” Griffin said.
The president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT group, laid out his vision for the year ahead in a wide-ranging, 45-minute interview with the Washington Blade in his office in Washington, D.C.
At the top of his list of concerns is the expectation that state legislatures would advance bills aimed at rolling back progress on LGBT rights. Touting his organization’s new report on the danger of such bills, Griffin said when asked if he thinks we might see movement on them, “I think not may, I think we will.”
“We’ve been working in coalition, depending on the state, with state groups, with business coalitions around the states to ensure that we’re all in front of us and that no one is caught off guard and that no one is surprised, and I think the experience of what we saw this last legislative cycle has really — not just our organization, but the movement as a whole — is more ready than we really were last round,” Griffin said.
Griffin divided the bills into categories: “Religious freedom” bills that would allow businesses to refuse services to LGBT people; legislation prohibiting municipalities from enacting pro-LGBT non-discrimination ordinances; and anti-trans bills aimed at keeping transgender people from using the public restroom consistent with their gender identity.
Asked to name the states in which he thinks such legislation could advance, Griffin said the pre-emption bills could come in four or five states while the anti-trans and religious freedom measures could emerge in more than 20.
Griffin said the strategy to defeat the bills would differ from state to state, but that the business community would be key in derailing those efforts — not just behind the scenes, but vocally in opposition to the bills.
“In many of these states, it’s business leaders and the state chambers — it’s the largest employers in the state that often have the grandest impact among elected officials at the local and state level, and so we’ve been working across the country in order to ensure that businesses are organized in ways that we can see defeat, and you have some businesses that are willing to be more public and some businesses that are willing to do things more privately,” Griffin said.
But Griffin also emphasized the importance of grassroots organizing, saying the work of activists in Arkansas last year was important in mitigating a religious freedom bill before lawmakers at the statehouse.
“There’s only one route in,” Griffin said. “They either have to walk up the grand stairs to the Senate or up the stairs into the House of Representatives. And in doing that they have to walk through hundreds and hundreds of grassroots folks from that state, and I maintain that that had amongst the greatest impact of everyday folks who were showing up to demand equality and to ask their legislators to oppose that legislation and ultimately ask the governor to step back.”
Griffin acknowledged he also sees opportunities to advance LGBT rights this year, but was reluctant to specify where because he doesn’t want to tip off opponents of LGBT rights. Among the places that he said are no secret are Charlotte, N.C, and Jacksonville, Fla., where efforts are underway at the municipal level to enact prohibitions on anti-LGBT discrimination.
“It’s important not to write off municipalities,” Griffin said. “Before there were any statewide protections in Utah, there were 18 cities or municipalities that had protections. So that meant more than half the state was already covered by the time the state legislature finally voted and some protections were afforded.”
In terms of advancing LGBT rights in the states, Griffin identified Pennsylvania as one place where that could happen, but said the focus at the state level would be on derailing anti-LGBT efforts.
“I do believe in the 2016 cycle when we’re in the midst of primaries we’ll be on the defensive more than we’re on the offense,” Griffin said.
Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, said he agrees with Griffin that his state could see pro-LGBT legislation advance this year.
“We do share this assessment,” Martin said. “Non-discrimination is our top legislative priority and we intend to do everything we can in 2016 to see it passed.”
More third-party voices needed after Houston defeat
In the aftermath of the defeat of the LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance in Houston last year, Griffin had told the Blade weeks ago on Capitol Hill the result was under review. During the interview in his office, Griffin offered additional ideas on the strategy going forward to counter the anti-trans attacks at the ballot, but maintained that the absence of business community support was harmful in the Houston fight.
“Many in the business community hid behind the local chamber,” Griffin said. “That is not without a lot of attempts and organizational appeals by us, by our partner organizations and others. And that was a noticeable difference in Houston. Business is key to our formula for success, and we’ve got to have them in our battles in the future.”
Griffin also said there was “no question” the response to opponents’ ads was insufficient, not strong enough and not well enough resourced.
“The folks who were on the ground and the campaign manager, there was funding for a single track of ads and a decision was made to stay on a positive message as opposed to switching,” Griffin said. “Often times on a campaign, when I used to be a campaign manager in a previous life, your dream was to be able to afford two tracks, right? One track of ads that was your positive, one track of ads that was your response. We didn’t have that level of funding in that campaign to run two tracks the entire time.”
On the nature of the response to the anti-trans attacks, Griffin said views differ and the issue will require more testing, but he believes personally third-party voices are key.
“My own experience tells me specifically what we were missing in the response were third-party validators that could look into the camera and say why those ads are wrong and why they’re lies,” Griffin said. “A good example of someone like that would be a law enforcement officer, a police chief, someone with credibility that’s not seen as political or partisan or having any interest.”
Also key for Griffin is generally raising visibility of transgender people, which he said is relevant to Houston, but also the transgender movement as a whole. Espousing the widely held view that knowing someone who is LGBT makes a person more supportive of LGBT rights, Griffin said in 2008, 5 or 6 percent of people knew someone who is transgender, but that number now is 22 percent.
“And the extent to which we can increase that number and increase the pace with which that number goes up, it will be to our benefit in all of these campaigns around the country,” Griffin said.
Griffin also raised the possibility of a “Bradley Effect” in Houston to account for early poll results indicating a victory for the ordinance before the loss on Election Day. Under this political theory, voters are telling pollsters they will vote a way that’s different from the way they actually cast their ballots.
“I think we don’t have evidence to know exactly how to interpret the difference in polls and the Election Day results, but I do think it’s something that we as a movement are going to have to be really conscious of going forward in the future,” Griffin said.
As the 2016 presidential race continues, Griffin couldn’t say when the Human Rights Campaign would make an endorsement. He noted the board and staff continue to discuss the issue as the organization’s questionnaires are returned by candidates.
“Those who are willing to send them back, who filled them out, we get them back,” Griffin said. “As you might suspect, some choose not to fill them out.”
Asked if HRC could realistically endorse anyone other than Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, Griffin said that’s a decision for the board and drew a contrast more generally between Democrats and Republicans running for president.
“There’s no contested presidential primary where the differences have been grander between the candidates on the Democratic side and the candidates on the Republican side,” Griffin said. “You just look at three Democrats, all of whom are champions for equality, all of whom have endorsed the Equality Act, all of whom have talked about their ideas to move equality were they to be elected, and then you look at the other side. And you look at the other side’s positions. Not only are they not saying they won’t move things forward, they’re doubling down to say they’ll roll things back, that they will undo our progress.”
Griffin said the positions Republican presidential candidates are taking on LGBT issues are “unfortunate” not only because they’re “harmful to real-live people,” but also because they’re out of line with the majority of individuals in the Republican Party, who as recent polls show support LGBT non-discrimination protections.
“I am confident in the general election that it is going to be difficult for a Republican nominee to have such hateful discriminatory positions against LGBT people because they’re out of touch with the electorate, they’re out of touch with Democrats, they’re out of touch with independents, and they’re out of touch with Republicans to hold these views,” Griffin said.
Griffin said before he joined HRC, he predicted 2016 would be the election in which the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees would hold the same views on LGBT issues, but admits he “was badly wrong.”
“I do think that day will come because the Republican Party can’t survive as long as they are espousing such hateful and discriminatory views,” Griffin said.
Gregory Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans, said Griffin was making “incredible generalizations” about the GOP candidates for president and that some have said they want to move on after the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage.
“There’s more common ground here than Democrats want people to think,” Angelo said. “I have tremendous respect for Chad as he heads a supposedly non-partisan organization, I hope he more carefully chooses how he describes GOP candidates as we forge ahead toward Election Day.”
No chance of Equality Act becoming law this year
At the federal level, one high-profile LGBT initiative is the Equality Act, federal legislation that would amend the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act to include a prohibition on anti-LGBT discrimination.
Although Griffin said he is optimistic the bill would become law sooner than many think, when asked if he saw a path for the Equality Act to become law in this Congress, he said, “No.”
“This Congress can’t agree on how to keep the lights on much less the Equality Act,” Griffin added. “What I do think is that the momentum is going to continue, we will continue to add co-sponsors, we will continue to add business endorsers, we will educate constituents in districts across the country when the elections come up as to one’s position on the Equality Act. Anyone who opposes it, I don’t think deserves to be in Congress, and those who haven’t yet taken positions, our job is to work hard to continue to convince them of why they should publicly support it.”
Griffin said he bases his optimism on the dramatic growth in support for same-sex marriage among lawmakers as well as business support, co-sponsorship and strong polling in support for the Equality Act.
When the Blade pointed out the Equality Act doesn’t have a single Republican co-sponsor, Griffin said the situation was the same for pro-LGBT legislation like the Respect for Marriage Act and legislation to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“But at the end of the day, with a lot of work, with our allies on the Hill, ultimately enough Republicans join Democrats to get deals done,” Griffin said.
Asked whether the lack of endorsement for the Equality Act from major civil rights groups like the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights is a problem, Griffin said these groups “all have their own processes for endorsement, which is not unlike what we went through on marriage.”
“Congressman John Lewis has been incredible in bringing on members and new co-sponsors and has been an early leader in this process along with…Cory Booker and others,” Griffin said. “So this is one of the broadest-based coalitions that we’ve ever had for a piece of legislation, particularly this early on, and we will continue to grow it and continue to expand it.”
Stacey Long Simmons, director of public policy and government affairs for the National LGBTQ Task Force, expressed a similar doubtfulness about the Equality Act’s prospects when asked about Griffin’s prediction the bill wouldn’t pass this Congress.
“Without at least one Republican co-sponsor, it is difficult to see a path forward in this Congress,” Long Simmons said. That said, we will continue to build support for the bill with a broad, diverse coalition of those who are committed to achieving full legal equality and justice for all LGBTQ people.”