Sen. Bernard Sanders retracted his comments about the Human Rights Campaign days after he made them, but labeling the nation’s leading LGBT advocacy group as part of the “establishment” last week struck a chord with some LGBT critics.
Some said Sanders was correct in labeling as “establishment” the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT group known for black-tie fundraising dinners, lauding corporations with pro-LGBT records in its Corporate Equality Index, close ties to Democratic Party leaders and support for Republicans who back LGBT rights (even when their Democratic opponents are stronger on LGBT issues).
The day after Sanders made the comments, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, was in Davos, Switzerland, to attend the World Economic Forum where Vice President Joseph Biden spoke in support of international LGBT rights.
Andrew Miller, a member of the New York-based grassroots group Queer Nation, said Sanders’ comments were accurate.
“I’m surprised Chad Griffin wasn’t flattered that Bernie Sanders labeled HRC ‘part of the political establishment,'” Miller said. “Griffin, who has just returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, certainly runs the organization as if that’s what they aspire to. It’s gratifying that at least one American politician understood — at least for a moment — that HRC represents the 1 percent, not the majority of the LGBT community nor the values of LGBT Americans.”
On Monday during an interview on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” Sanders called the Human Rights Campaign — as well as the women’s health group Planned Parenthood — part of the “establishment” in response to a question about those groups endorsing Hillary Clinton during the increasingly competitive Democratic primary.
“What we are doing in this campaign, and it just blows my mind every day, because I see it clearly, we’re taking on, not only Wall Street, and the economic establishment, we’re taking on the political establishment,” Sanders said. “So, I have friends and supporters in the Human Rights Fund, in Planned Parenthood. But, you know what, Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time, and some of these groups are, in fact, part of the establishment.”
Sanders’ comments echoed remarks his campaign spokesperson Michael Briggs made to the Washington Blade immediately after the Human Rights Campaign announced it had endorsed Clinton. Dismissing the endorsement as consistent with establishment organizations, Briggs said the decision “cannot possibly be based on the facts and the record” of Sanders’ support for LGBT rights.
One of the chief criticisms of the Human Rights Campaign is the view that it has been historically reluctant to insist on the inclusion of transgender people in the LGBT movement. In 2007, HRC ignited a firestorm by declining to oppose a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that prohibited discrimination only on the basis of sexual orientation and omitted gender identity.
In 2014, Griffin apologized to the transgender community at the Southern Comfort Conference, which serves as an annual gathering for transgender advocates. The Human Rights Campaign has since emerged as a stronger voice for transgender people and has promoted transgender advocates likes Blossom Brown and Jazz Jennings.
Rebecca Juro, a New Jersey-based transgender advocate and Sanders supporter, said she thinks Sanders calling the Human Rights Campaign “establishment” is a “net-gain” for the progressive movement and the transgender community.
“Especially those who are a little older, my age, believe the HRC is exactly that, they are the establishment,” Juro said. “They’ve constantly resisted change, they’ve consistently resisted going beyond the rich, white gay level of support. They had to basically be forced into it, embarrassed into it by journalists, columnists and protests. So, I think especially within the trans community, I think calling HRC ‘establishment’ will help [Sanders] a lot because that’s exactly the way transgender people see HRC.”
But Sanders’ characterization of HRC and Planned Parenthood as “establishment” was short-lived. At an event in Burlington, Iowa, Clinton said she was “somewhat confused” by Sanders calling those groups “establishment,” adding “I wish it were.” Both the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood said on Twitter they were “disappointed” in Sanders for his remarks.
On Thursday, Sanders walked back his comments, denying he ever said the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood were establishment groups. According to Sanders, he intended to convey the confusion of grassroots supporters who were wondering why those groups were backing Clinton when Sanders has a 100 percent supportive voting record on LGBT and abortion rights issues.
“They are standing up and fighting the important fights that have to be fought,” Sanders said of both groups.
Michael Petrelis, a gay San Francisco-based blogger who has been critical of HRC, said “much truth was spoken” by Sanders in his initial comments.
“As a longtime observer and critic of the HRC for its too-close ties and reluctance to criticize Democratic politicians, I wish the senator had not rescinded his remarks,” Petrelis said. “With HRC boss Chad Griffin again in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, and the group’s sucking up to Goldman Sachs and hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer among too many examples of HRC maintaining good establishment ties, it’s clear they like hobnobbing with the 1 percent. Despite the controversy of Bernie’s comments, I’d still vote for him in a primary election.”
JoDee Winterhof, the Human Rights Campaign’s senior vice president for policy and political affairs, responded to assertions that Sanders was right in calling her organization “establishment” by defending its endorsement of Clinton.
“While we’ve heard from passionate supporters of other pro-equality candidates in this race, HRC’s board of directors voted unanimously to endorse Hillary Clinton because of her strong record on LGBT equality as a senator and Secretary of State, her robust LGBT policy platform, and her ability to win in November,” Winterhof said. “The leading candidates on the Republican side have threatened to not only block progress — but to revoke, repeal, and overturn the gains made during President Obama’s two terms in office. The stakes couldn’t be higher in this election, we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines, and we believe that Hillary Clinton is the champion we need to fight for us as president.”
There’s evidence Sanders’ initial “establishment” remarks may have hurt him politically in the Democratic primary as the race tightens.
Gabriel Debenedetti, a reporter for Politico, on Twitter said the day after Sanders called the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood “establishment” was one of the Clinton campaign’s top 10 online fundraising days, which was confirmed to the Washington Blade by a Clinton campaign source.
The day after he called these groups "establishment" was one of Team Clinton's top 10 online fundraising days so far https://t.co/NRjeDykJaG
— Gabriel Debenedetti (@gdebenedetti) January 22, 2016
But Briggs said “donations went up” for the Sanders campaign immediately after the “establishment” remarks and criticism of the candidate.
“It’s hard to pinpoint a particular cause because there’s so much enthusiasm and energy out there for lots of reasons, but generally speaking our supporters don’t like it when they think Bernie’s being unfairly attacked,” Briggs said.
Richard Socarides, a gay New York-based Democratic activist who supports Clinton, was critical of Sanders’ initial “establishment” remarks as well as the candidate’s clarification.
“I think his view is anyone who doesn’t support him is the establishment,” Socarides said. “I’m not sure he really took it back as much as amended it to apply to the leaders of those groups.”
Others LGBT advocates who spoke out in opposition to Sanders’ remarks on Twitter were Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule for marriage equality nationwide, and Roberta Kaplan, the lesbian who successfully argued against the Defense of Marriage Act before the court.
— Robbie Kaplan (@kaplanrobbie) January 20, 2016
Both Obergefell and Kaplan have ties to the Human Rights Campaign and have spoken at the organization’s fundraisers. The Human Rights Campaign handled Obergefell’s public relations as his lawsuit seeking marriage recognition reached the Supreme Court and Kaplan participated with the Human Rights Campaign in “The People’s Brief” that encouraged the court to rule for same-sex marriage nationwide.
Despite the controversy over Sanders’ comments, polls this week showed he has the lead in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. In New Hampshore, a CNN/WMUR poll found Sanders leading Clinton by 27 points, 60 percent to 33 percent. In Iowa, A CNN/ORC poll found Sanders has an eight-point lead over Clinton among likely Democratic presidential caucus-goers, 51 percent to 43 percent.
Logan Casey, who’s transgender and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, nonetheless said Sanders’ initial remarks were “definitely unwise,” especially in the case of Planned Parenthood.
“HRC clearly represents establishment politics – something that has been well documented and critiqued by many in the LGBTQ community and beyond,” Casey said. “However, Sanders’ original comment doesn’t articulate any of those specific critiques of HRC, and falls even flatter in the context of Planned Parenthood. His more recent comments point out the differences between HRC’s leadership and the grass-roots movement (which is more in line with these queer critiques), but I think the general public isn’t understanding or listening to that depth, and so instead it just makes Sanders seem unsympathetic to LGBT and women’s issues, or even seemingly petty over lost endorsements.”