January 24, 2016 at 8:10 am EST | by Chris Johnson
‘Establishment’ criticism of HRC strikes a chord
Chad Griffin, Bernie Sanders, HRC, Human Rights Campaign, gay news, Washington Blade

HRC President Chad Griffin and Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) (Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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.

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.

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.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • HRC previously would defend anti-gay democrats saying that the community should still support them and that they were still our friends, they just couldn’t say so publicly. The executives there bought into the idea that being LGBT was something it was ok to be ashamed of so nobody should mind politicians voting against the community. Remember the head of HRC told LGBTS to sit down and shut up and not pressure democrats about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and DOMA, but another group pressured Pelosi and the white house and supported the lawsuits and both are gine, HRC also was opposed to the marriage lawsuitsand they were wrong there too. They have been wrong on every major civil rights issue in the last 10 years.
    Now, you have TWO candidates right now that support LGBT rights in a primary. If HRC was NOT and establishment shill they would have endorsed neither, or both in the primary with the goal of bringing the loses voters into the fold for the general. The fact that they endorsed this early showed that there was never any other plan. They are doing exactly what they have been told.

    • A parable on point

      Hillary Clinton goes to a gifted-student primary school in New York to talk about the world. After her talk she offers question time. One little boy puts up his hand. Hillary asks him what his name is. “Kenny.” “And what is your question, Kenny?”

      “I have three questions:

      First – whatever happened in Benghazi? Second – why would you run for President after your husband shamed the office? Third – whatever happened to the missing 6 billion dollars while you were Secretary of State?”

      Just then the bell rings for recess.

      Hillary Clinton informs the kiddies that they will continue after recess. When they resume Hillary says, “Okay where were we? Oh, that’s right, question time. Who has a question?” A girl—Sally—puts her hand up; Hillary points to her and asks what her name is. “Sally.” “And what is your question, Sally?”

      “Where’s Kenny?”

      ht Bee Fohe

  • The HRC’s new slogan…”Be on the wrong side of history”

  • In many people’s personal dictionaries, the word “establishment” can be replaced in text with the phrase “bad thing” without a change in meaning, but aside from any connotations that word may have, the degree to which it is even possible for a presidential candidate to say that HRC is part of the establishment is the degree to which HRC has succeeded.

  • Facts are facts. Grassroots advocacy organizations don’t have a fancy standalone headquarters buildings in Washington. So yes, HRC has become “establishment,” but not sure that requires some sort of apology or act of contrition on their part. What they need to atone for is their decades long track record of unsuccessful advocacy and lack strategic sense. As lobbyists go, they are pretty ineffective by any standard, gay or straight, conservative or liberal. Who knows, maybe Chad Griffin found the answer to what went wrong in Houston while schmoozing in Davos.

    However for any lobbyist, their currency is access. So in an election, you go with the person you think is going to win so they take your calls after they get elected. If Sanders wins, then HRC sits on the sidelines for the next four years as Bernie pays them back for the slight. HRC knows that they just made a calculated move, not some highly principled stance. Early endorsements get the biggest return because they come with the biggest risk.

    Also, all the whining about HRC not representing their “constituency” is laughable. HRC’s constituency as this article so aptly indicates are gays and lesbians who don fancy duds and drop big bucks to sit in a crowded ballroom, be entertained by minor celebs, buy auction items they don’t need and dine on bad food once a year. HRC’s money people are for the most part elated with the endorsement of Hillary Clinton otherwise it wouldn’t have happened.

  • Establishment all the way. Would cover the *sses of anti-gay Dems; didn’t support marriage equality for a long time, and on and on. Have never supported this corporate partner.

  • Why no mention of the CHAOS breaking out on Human Rights Campaign’s Facebook page? Why no mention of their 4.6 star rating plummeting to 1.7 within days?

  • I think it’s important to note (and I should have said this to Chris) that progressive orgs which went to their greater memberships to vote on endorsements, such as MoveOn and Democracy For America, went for Sanders in huge numbers, while those which reserved the right to vote on endorsements exclusively to their own board members and leaders, such as HRC, went for Clinton.

    I think that says something in terms of which orgs should be justifiably labelled “establishment” as well as where the progressive grassroots is politically versus movement elites.

    Call it a hunch of you like, but I suspect that if HRC had actually polled its own membership, rather than just 32 board members, the results would have been very different.

  • “In 2014, Griffin apologized to the transgender community at the Southern Comfort Conference”

    Apologized, yes – but for what specific acts?

    “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.”

    But how many trans people does HRC hire for positions of gainful employment?

  • The HRC has been a hostile place for trans employees, at least up until very recently. Of course they are part of the establishment. They suck unless you are white, gay and cis male. Screw that org.

  • I think Sanders’ remark came from his being hurt, having such a strong record on both issues, long before they became mainstream, and consistently since the 80s. It’s all in the game, and he sought to mend fences when the remark hurt those constituencies – and perhaps himself as well. This race isn’t going to be decided by endorsements – it’s going to be the people! Let the voting begin!

  • I wouldn’t give HRC onesinglepenny and i am a gay male

  • I just have one question: Did HRC poll its members before endorsing? Move On did. Democracy for America did. My impression was that the endorsement came from management and only management. I’ll vote for whatever Democrat is running against the GOP psychos, but I don’t think the endorsement necessarily represents the membership. HRC is far more establishment than it may want to think.

  • A 74 year old straight white man from the whitest state in the country, who has been in congress for 40 years has the nerve to call ANY lgbt organization establishment and you self righteous queens eat it up. Unbelievable.i’m a 45 year old who marched on Washington, worked for multiple AIDS service agencies, and fought for marriage for 20 years. HRC may not be perfect, but I remember hearing about them as part of the struggle. Bernie Sanders? Not so much.

    • you arent looking very hard, then.

      • I looked and here is what I saw: When given the chance to endorse marriage equality in Vermont, Sanders deemed it “too divisive” and had no issue with relegating his LGBT constituents to the lesser status of civil unions. When faced with tough gun control legislation, he found the precepts “too divisive” and worked to dilute the law. When called on recently to address persistent black inequality and reparations, the so-called democratic socialist deemed the topic “too divisive” and retreated to the political safe zone of providing “more opportunities.” Yet when it comes to pushing the most divisive of all healthcare reform ideas, a single payer system, Sanders is all in. The difference? Bernie actually believes in a single payer healthcare and is willing to expend his political capital to make it happen. The others not so much.

        • “When given the chance to endorse marriage equality in Vermont, Sanders deemed it “too divisive” and had no issue with relegating his LGBT constituents to the lesser status of civil unions.”

          That’s more than what HRC has consistently demonstrated it is willing to relegate trans people to.

          • Your disappointment in HRC regarding their support for trans people is understandable. Far be it from me to defend their ineptitude, but I do understand why they supported a “T-less” ENDA, and why they risked enraging the transgender community over it.

            HRC had been championing ENDA legislation for years and with Democratic majorities in both Houses in 2007 they were on the brink of getting it passed. Maybe they were wrong in not pushing a fully inclusive bill, but politics is more often about what’s possible than what’s principled. The history of the civil rights movement was one of protections that evolved and expanded over time, adding age discrimination in 1967 and paving the way for groundbreaking disability protections in 1990. So an incremental approach to ENDA was a legitimate strategy, not some sinister plot against the trans-community by HRC.

            However HRC has now proclaimed their mea culpa so there is little chance that they will take a backseat on trans issues ever again guaranteeing that there will be no ENDA without trans protections. House republicans are happy to make sure that a broadbased ENDA bill will never see the light of day regardless of which Democrat HRC endorses or possibly wins the presidency. So, L’s, G’s and B’s can once again join hands with T’s, sing Kumbaya, and suffer discrimination equally for years to come. Happy now?

          • However, let’s not forget that HRC and everyone paying attention at the time already knew that Bush intended to veto ENDA if it ever made it to his desk, so the effort was a guaranteed exercise in futility from Day One yet they did it anyway.

            Let’s also not forget that HRC Prez Joe Solmonese had sworn up and down in front of an audience of 900 trans people that HRC would no longer endorse non-inclusive legislation, a promise that didn’t even last 2 full weeks before they reneged on it.

            Part of why trans folks are angry and distrust HRC is because we didn’t like their promotion of non-inclusive legislation, but the other part, the part that really enraged us at the time, was that they lied their tails off about it and didn’t even bother to try to honor the public promises they’d made to the trans community.

            If Solmonese had at least been honest, people would have still been angry, but the way that went down made, the way they made promises to a poor and harshly discriminated against community and then casually broke them just days later made the situation 100 times worse.

          • A position of “if it won’t fly then lot’s not try” is too simplistic for the political arena. The threat of a veto should not stop an advocacy organization from putting ideological legislation on the President’s desk if they have the votes to make it happen. They are making a statement, demonstrating the depths of their influence, forcing lawmakers on the record and setting the scene for future battles. So strategically HRC pushing ahead made total sense. Losing in the Senate was the bungle in this case.

            For example, Democrats argue that argue that putting ACA repeal legislation on the President’s desk was a waste of time. Again a simplistic view if you think the intent was in fact repeal. However, what that legislation really telegraphs is that Paul Ryan is not John Boehner, that Ryan has control of his members and that Obama is going to have to go through Ryan not around him if he wants to get anything done in his final year.

            HRC lying about supporting an all-inclusive ENDA was clumsy and amateurish and in many ways characterized the way HRC operated during Solmonese’s tenure. We were all underserved and poorly represented during his “leadership,” not just trans-people.

          • “The threat of a veto should not stop an advocacy organization from putting ideological legislation on the President’s desk ”

            And yet you do believe that the threat – still unproven – of ‘not enough votes’ to pass a legitimate ENDA is sufficient to not move forward with a legitimate ENDA.

            Please refer back to my comment about diseased hypocrisy.

          • “HRC had been championing ENDA legislation for years and with Democratic majorities in both Houses in 2007 they were on the brink of getting it passed”


            Dubya would not have signed it under any circumstances. End of story. End of revisionist political history.

            Now, for the diseased hypocrisy of HRC, all of Gay, Inc. and their defenders: Trans people were told how selfish we were, that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Right? Right.

            Well, there are many more trans people than there are LGBs who have the specific want of a career in the military – and there damn sure are more LGBs over all than there are LGBs who have the specific want a career in the military. But in 2009-10, the specific wants of that specific few were ramrodded into falsely outweighing the needs of the many LGBs and Ts who needed – and, contrary to people who should know better, still need – ENDA.

          • Not sure if you’re just zealous or simply angry Katrina Rose but it’s doubtful that either will translate into an effective strategy for advancing equality for trans people. It must be difficult holding HRC and “Gay Inc.” in such disdain knowing that an inclusive ENDA isn’t possible without their support. My advice is to figure out how to deal with your disappointment in a way that doesn’t involve poking them in the eye with a stick.

  • bernie was right, he should have just clarified his statement by saying the ultimate truth the heads of these organizations are the establishment. rather than paint the whole organization call out the ones at the top who are the problem

  • HRC = tool of the 1% 2 party system charade.

  • Some gays seem to think that the HRC is all about gays. IT IS NOT. It is called the Human Rights Campaign for a reason. These three things (listed below) alone should disqualify her from even working with the HRC let alone an endorsement for her.

    acquiring hefty sums from Wall Street and the private prison industry: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/hillary-clinton-private-prisons_us_562a3e3ee4b0ec0a389418ec


    exporting commercial weapons to foreign countries, who’ve donated to the Clinton Foundation: http://www.ibtimes.com/clinton-foundation-donors-got-weapons-deals-hillary-clintons-state-department-1934187

    and using Iraq as a “business opportunity” http://www.ibtimes.com/campaign-2016-hillary-clinton-pitched-iraq-business-opportunity-us-corporations-2121999

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