January 8, 2019 at 4:46 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Time for a woman or person of color to lead the Human Rights Campaign?
The search is underway for a new president of the Human Rights Campaign. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Weeks after Chad Griffin announced he will step down as president of the Human Rights Campaign, names are circulating in LGBTQ circles as possible replacements, including women and people of color, as the search for the next person to lead the nation’s largest LGBTQ group continues.

The Human Rights Campaign — which has annual revenue of about $45.6 million — continues to be the flagship organization in the fight for LGBTQ rights. As such, whomever is selected to lead it will play a crucial role in defending the LGBTQ community against the Trump administration’s attacks, pushing for the Equality Act in Congress and promoting a pro-LGBTQ presidential candidate in the 2020 election.

Individuals in the movement who spoke to the Washington Blade said a woman or a person or color would be a good choice to lead the Human Rights Campaign to ensure the next pick doesn’t amount to a succession of white men. The last two presidents, both Griffin and Joe Solmonese, oversaw huge advances in LGBT rights, but a general perception among observers is that picking another gay white man for that role may miss an opportunity to reflect the diversity of the LGBTQ community.

Lane Hudson, a gay D.C.-based Democratic activist, said the Human Rights Campaign “hit a home run” with Griffin, but selecting as the next president a woman or person of color “would be a welcome addition of diversity” and could take the organization to the next level.

“The next president of HRC should recognize that an aggressive approach on all levels is what our movement needs,” Hudson said. “Over the next two years, we need to support an LGBT agenda in the House and also in state legislatures where we can win progress. This will show LGBT voters the importance of voting up and down the ballot and will lay the groundwork for further success in the 2020 campaign.”

Among the individuals identified as possible contenders for the job is Kate Kendell, who recently stepped down as head of the National Center for Lesbian Rights after leading the San Francisco-based organization for 22 years. Also commonly mentioned is Nadine Smith, who has served as executive director of Equality Florida since its inception in 1997.

Kendell, however, expressed no desire to lead the Human Rights Campaign in response to an inquiry from the Blade.

“I’m very flattered but will not be pursuing this as my next role,” Kendell said.

Smith said she’s aware her “name has come up from different quarters,” calling it a recognition of her work and “the critical role of state-level organizing.”

“Whenever I’m approached about other roles in this movement, the question I always ask myself is this: What is the highest and best use of my time, experience, and talent?” Smith said. “My answer has consistently kept me at Equality Florida where we have been doing groundbreaking work and have developed game-changing strategies that have been replicated in other states. I continue to believe that investing deeply in state-level work remains essential and that Florida has an outsized influence on the state and national battle for LGBT equality.”

Smith led Equality Florida at the time of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, which left 49 dead and 53 wounded, using her position to press her state to enact LGBT non-discrimination protections and stronger gun control regulations. Although the state continues to have no explicit statewide LGBTQ protections, the state in the aftermath of the Parkland High School shooting did exact additional gun control measures.

The next Human Rights Campaign president, Smith said, will have to rise to the challenge of an “ominous” political landscape, but also take advantage of “huge possibilities for changing, demanding and building the world we all had a right to be born into.”

“I don’t know the timeline for HRC’s process but this is an unprecedented and dangerous moment in our country and we need our national organizations thinking about deep grassroots mobilization and leadership development, stronger progressive partnerships, and greater support and engagement of emerging leaders and overlooked voices,” Smith said.

Griffin is set to leave the organization this year on a high note after the success of the “blue” Democratic wave in the 2018 congressional mid-term elections. Under his leadership, the Human Rights Campaign contributed to this effort with a $26 million #TurnOut campaign to vote that sought to motivate the estimated 10 million Americans who identify as LGBTQ and 52 million Americans who support pro-LGBTQ policies to vote in the election.

Chris Sgro, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said the executive search committee seeking Griffin’s replacement will continue its work “over the next several months.”

“Today, HRC is the strongest it’s ever been, thanks to our organizational leadership, incredible staff and three million dedicated members working to accelerate the pace of progress toward full LGBTQ equality,” Sgro said. “To ensure that we continue to build on our momentum, the HRC Boards of Directors have formed an executive search committee — comprised of diverse members of our boards — to lead a comprehensive and thorough search that will take place over the next several months. “

Winnie Stachelberg, executive vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress, said she hasn’t heard speculation about who might replace Griffin, but said continuity is a key priority for the organization as well as choosing a leader who’ll “build on the progress that Chad and the staff and the board have driven on a range of LGBTQ-related issues.”

“I think they will have incredibly talented and diverse applicants,” she said. “I think they will have, I’m sure a difficult choice choosing from the pool that they get.”

Stachelberg, who worked as a political adviser for the Human Rights Campaign for 11 years before moving to the Center for American Progress, said the Equality Act would be “something that a next president will focus on” as well as the 2020 election.

“I think that the HRC president will focus on electing a pro-LGBT president in 2020, defeating this current president and vice president and this administration that have made very clear its LGBT animus through executive orders and policies, through the people in positions and the legislative policies that it supports and those that it blocks,” Stachelberg said. “So they’ve made their case, and I think the next president of the Human Rights Campaign will work tirelessly in 2020 to elect a pro-LGBT president in many ways, just the way that Chad and the staff and board did in the 2018 election.”

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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