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For Buttigieg, being gay a boost on the campaign trail

Gay candidate electrifies crowds in Iowa as new polls show him in the lead

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Gay presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg in Iowa (Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

CHARLES CITY, Iowa — He’d been going for days, fielding endless queries from voters at campaign stops on everything from health care and gun control to whether he plays Dungeons & Dragons. (He doesn’t, but plays board games like Risk.) But asked pointedly whether evangelicals would ever back a gay candidate, Pete Buttigieg didn’t miss a beat.

“I’m from Indiana, right?” he said to laughter in the crowd. “I know a little bit about what you’re talking about.”

Over the course of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s three-day campaign bus tour across Iowa, there was no escaping the realization the 2020 presidential hopeful is gay.

But it wasn’t because Buttigieg was wearing his sexual orientation on his sleeve, or waving a rainbow Pride flag on stage at his rallies. It wasn’t because he hectored his audience to back his candidacy based on the unprecedented nature of an openly gay presidential contender in the race for the Democratic nomination.

It was because the audience kept bringing it up and cheered him on for it. Coming off his success at the Liberty & Justice Celebration for Democratic presidential candidates on Nov. 1, Buttigieg lit up crowds over the course of his campaign tour — and being an openly gay candidate was a big part of that welcome reception.

After long bus rides with views of cornfields and big Iowa skies, LGBTQ issues and the prospect of having a gay man in the White House were brought up by the audience, not by the 37-year-old presidential hopeful, in four of the five public events on Buttigieg’s tour.

At Charles City, Buttigieg recounted his story of coming out. In June 2015, as Buttigieg was running for re-election as mayor, he disclosed his sexual orientation for the first time publicly in an essay for the South Bend Tribune.

“As hard as it was for me deciding what to do when I came out — and it was an election year by the way, we didn’t know what the effect was going to be — I just knew in my life, it was time,” Buttigieg said. “And what happened was I got re-elected with 80 percent of the vote, even in Indiana when Mike Pence was governor of our state.”

The audience ate it up, responding with applause and cheers that lasted several seconds. Building off that response, Buttigieg made a joke involving Chasten Buttigieg, his now husband whom he married last year.

“He couldn’t get through the milk aisle at the grocery without hearing about potholes and all these things,” Buttigieg continued, in a seeming attempt to make his family life more relatable. “We invited people to treat us like any other couple, and 99 times out of 100, they did.”

That’s where Buttigieg made his shift. Run-of-the-mill issues like potholes, he said, are what Americans are concerned about, not the prospects of a gay couple in the White House.

“What I’m finding is the real question on voters’ minds is how their lives are going to be different when I’m president versus the one we’ve got, or one of the competitors,” he said.

Buttigieg conceded he’s “happy to tell my story and I’m proud of who I am,” but wants to focus on the bread-and-butter issues Americans are facing.

“This is part of how we break the spell of the current president: It’s not all about me, it’s not all about him, though there are many things we might point out about his deficiencies,” Buttigieg said. “But the more we’re talking about him or me the less we’re talking about you. And when we’re talking about you, we’re winning, because we’ve got the right answers for our lives.”

That answer struck a chord with attendees, who responded with cheers and applause. It also exemplifies the way Buttigieg approached the issue of being gay on his campaign tour: Wait for the audience to bring it up, acknowledge it, stand for applause then shift back to bread-and-butter issues or the main campaign message.

It would be a historic first having an openly gay president, and that’s inspiring supporters in the same way the idea of electing the first black president helped Barack Obama and the idea of sending a woman to the White House helped Hillary Clinton.

William Reinicke, a 19-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who came to hear Buttigieg speak at a fish fry event in Cedar Rapids, said the South Bend mayor is his No. 1 choice for president because he “represents generational change,” and being openly gay is one aspect of that. 

“I think that’s a plus in the sense that it shows that no matter what your background is, no matter what your orientation is, that you can make it to whatever level possible that there is in this country,” Reinicke said.

The most powerful example of this phenomenon — and perhaps the most highly publicized in the media — was the last question Buttigieg took at a rally Saturday evening in Decorah, where an audience member — through a note passed to a campaign staffer — asked how he’d deal with international leaders from countries “like Saudi Arabia and Russia, where it’s illegal to be gay.”

“So, they’re going to have to get used to it,” Buttigieg said succinctly.

A full 27 seconds of applause followed. It was the loudest and longest applause for any response that night. Other responses from the crowd of 1,000 to Buttigieg’s lines about action on guns and removing President Trump from the White House were loud, but didn’t come close.

Although Buttigieg cautioned, “we can’t intervene in every country and make them be good to their people,” he said his election as president would have an impact on LGBTQ people overseas.

“I do believe that one big step forward would be for a country like the United States to be led by somebody that people in those other countries can look to and know that they’re not alone,” Buttigieg concluded.

Pete Buttigieg responds to question on anti-gay countries like Saudi Arabia (Video from Twitter via ABC News)

Buttigieg, asked by the Blade on the campaign trail whether he’s surprised being gay has energized his crowds, said he’s seen a lot of older individuals “who have a kid or maybe a niece or nephew who comes out and is gay and trans” seeking to have a better understanding of LGBTQ people.

“This campaign has helped that,” Buttigieg said. “So, it’s not only that it, I think, sends a message in particular a lot of youth that they belong and they have a place, but also for a lot of adults with relationships with LGBTQ youth, and then of course a lot of people from an older generation who are LGBTQ just never thought they’d live to see this day.” 

Buttigieg added, “It has been striking to me how many people it touches in different ways.” 

He’s certainly connecting with Iowans. A Quinnipiac poll published on Nov. 7 found he’s essentially tied in the state with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) among likely Iowa caucus-goers. Warren has support from 20 percent, followed by Buttigieg at 19 percent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at 17 percent and former Vice President Joseph Biden at 15 percent. And a Monmouth University poll released Tuesday shows Buttigieg atop the field in Iowa with 22 percent support, followed by Biden at 19, Warren with 18 and Sanders with 13 percent.

Faith and passion

Of course, being gay isn’t the only personal attribute inspiring Buttigieg’s supporters, many of whom are also impressed with his credentials at just 37 years old. After all, Buttigieg is a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar who’s also an Afghanistan war veteran and a former McKinsey management consultant.

For Linda Langston, a 66-year-old former member of the Lake County Board of Supervisors who attended a Cedar Rapids fish fry wearing a “Pete 2020” campaign sticker, Buttigieg’s sexual orientation is no big deal.

“It’s fine,” Langston said. “I mean, my oldest son is gay, so I get it, but that is not what to me is the defining factor, the defining factor is that he’s a really bright, articulate person who has served his country in war, and can come back and speak with hard faith and passion.”

Cindy Schubert, a 73-year-old Iowa voter who showed up on a Monday afternoon for a meet-and-greet with Buttigieg in Algona, Iowa, brought up the candidate’s youth when asked by the Blade if he’s championing any issues she supports.

“I guess I like the fact that he’s very energetic and young, you know, but at the same time, I’m leaning towards Joe because of his experience,” Schubert said. “So I’m really torn.”

Although the meet-and-greet event in Algona, hosted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, attracted an older crowd than Buttigieg’s usual audiences, Schubert said he’s “got a lot of support in this community.”

“I think he’s got more support than anybody else,” Schubert said.

But Buttigieg’s youth cuts both ways in the Democratic primary, as evidenced by a recent New York Times article on Buttigieg indicating his gushing press and expansive donor base are riling his Democratic rivals, who say he’s inexperienced.

At a subsequent rally in Spencer, Buttigieg sought to allay concerns about his youth and inexperience in response to a question from an attendee.

“It’s true that I have not been marinating around Capitol Hill,” Buttigieg said. “I’d argue that might be a virtue at a time like this.”

Following applause, Buttigieg said he does have experience “on the ground, dealing with problems as a mayor.”

“And one of the things about being a mayor is you are on the ground getting stuff done, we deal with some of the biggest and toughest issues in the country from infrastructure, economic development, from disasters, to getting the 3 a.m. phone call, to planning for the long run racial issues all the way through to infrastructure underground,” Buttigieg said.

To laughter, Buttigieg continued, “You don’t get to call fake news if somebody says that the snow didn’t get plowed, either it did or it didn’t. People are going to know.”

Pete Buttigieg addresses a crowd in Iowa (Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

At times, the connection between Buttigieg’s supporters and the gay presidential candidate was poignant, such as when the campaign tour came to Mason City. 

On one hand, the city has the distinction of being the town on which “River City” in the classic musical “Music Man” is based and the site where the rock ‘n roll pioneers Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly met their end in a plane crash in 1959. 

On the other hand, Mason City was also the first stop on the Buttigieg tour within the congressional district of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), whose notoriously anti-LGBTQ views have animated his career and whom Congress recently censured for comments in favor of white nationalism. 

LGBTQ people knew about King long before he expressed white nationalism sympathies. Among other things, King in 2010 successfully led the effort to oust by referendum three judges from the Iowa Supreme Court who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

Nonetheless, in his stop in King’s district, an audience member presented Buttigieg with an LGBTQ question: What would he do for LGBTQ youth? 

‘I was alone’

In response, Buttigieg said winning marriage equality nationwide four years ago “doesn’t mean the job is done,” pointing to the importance of passing federal LGBTQ comprehensive non-discrimination legislation known as the Equality Act.

“It’s a basic matter of fairness, it’s the right thing to do, and I will sign it when it gets to my desk,” Buttigieg added to loud hoots and applause.

Buttigieg pointed out an estimated 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ and said LGBTQ kids are more likely to have mental health problems and commit suicide.

“We got to make sure that we wrap around young people with compassion,” Buttigieg said to applause.

His response included a personal touch.

“There were exactly zero out students at my high school,” Buttigieg said. “I was starting to realize I was different, I was alone, and you need to know you’re not alone, you’re not the only one and everybody in the name of compassion ought to support that.”

As he wrapped up in Mason City, Buttigieg said he could embrace policies to advance LGBTQ rights all day long, but emphasized the importance of belonging — a core general message of his campaign.

“It’s not just policy,” Buttigieg said. “It’s about the example we send, and the message we send. The message we send is you belong and we love you, and we want to belong.”

Buttigieg once again followed the pattern of embracing support for LGBTQ identity before moving to a more general theme, this time with an emotional, almost biblical, appeal that seemed well suited for the audience. And again, Buttigieg won resounding applause.

Among the attendees at the Mason City event was Adam Lewis, a 41-year-old social worker who’s gay and volunteers for the Buttigieg campaign.

“He just magnetic,” Lewis said, “and I wanted to make sure that as many people as I know could also hear him because I know as soon as you hear him and hear his values and what he stands for, and how he’s going to make sure that everyone belongs in this campaign, that’s all they need to hear.”

Lewis, who said the results of the 2016 election “didn’t make sense” to him, said living in King’s district makes Buttigieg a breath of fresh air simply because he’s “someone reasonable, and not racist or homophobic.”

“I think people fear change,” Lewis said. “I’m hoping that a lot has changed since the last election, and people are opening their eyes and realizing that we have to have change. It’s not something to fear, it’s something we need.” 

Asked if having gay presidential candidate is important to him as a gay man, Lewis said, “it’s not that it’s not important, because who we are and who we love is a central to who we are as human beings,” but added there’s more to it.

“It’s about bringing reason and responsibility back to Washington and letting a new generation of people fix the mess that was created over the last several decades,” Lewis said.

Pete Buttigieg addresses the crowd in Charles City, Iowa. (Washington Blade photo by Chris Johnson)

After the Mason City event, Buttigieg told the Blade that finding a warm reception in conservative areas like King’s district is “really encouraging” and demonstrates the appeal of the Democratic Party’s views in unlikely places.

“Part of what I think is really important is to let a lot of people who maybe think they’re the only one in their community or office of family or church pew who sympathizes with Democrats to realize they’re not the only ones, to kind of build a community around these values,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg also said holding events in conservative areas builds off his theme of unity — a major message he’s articulated in his campaign.

“It’s not that we’re going to get everyone to agree,” Buttigieg said. “It’s that there’s a lot more room for us to grow than you would think, but you got to show up, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s important for me to campaign in an area like this.”

Trouble in the South

The idea of a gay presidential candidate might not play as well in other early states in the Democratic primary. In fact, there’s good evidence being gay could hurt him in the South, which is essential territory for any candidate to secure the Democratic nomination.

Late last month, The State, a South Carolina-based newspaper, published a memo on internal Buttigieg campaign focus groups indicating black voters in South Carolina find the candidate’s sexual orientation a barrier to supporting him. Additional stories were published in Politico and the New York Times to the same effect. 

Buttigieg told the Blade he doesn’t think his sexual orientation “has to be an obstacle” for black voters, but understands “there’s clearly a life journey within a lot of church communities, and a lot of generational dynamics.”

Even though the issue isn’t going away, Buttigieg said he thinks he can deliver for black voters based on his policy positions, which include a “Douglass Plan” to rectify racial injustice.

“I think voters, and in particular black voters who have felt both abused by the Republican Party, but also taken for granted by the Democratic Party, they just want to know if there are going to be results,” Buttigieg said. “And if I can demonstrate that, then a lot of the other stuff falls away.”

Asked by the Blade whether the internal focus group published by the State was an authorized leak, Buttigieg denied it was the case. In response to another reporter’s question about whether similar focus groups were commissioned in other states, Buttigieg said he’ll “let others talk to focus group stuff.” 

Alvin McEwen, a South Carolina-based blogger who’s gay and black, said black voters are more concerned about Trump than Buttigieg and would support the candidate if he were the Democratic nominee.

“This speculation about homosexuality and the black community is nothing more than a generalization about the black voter and our community in general,” McEwen added. There are nuances that people always miss. Not all black church folk oppose homosexuality. Some actually support the LGBTQ community. They are either LGBTQ or have LGBTQ relatives. They tend to be silent because the prevailing belief is that the black community is homophobic and they aren’t going to rock that boat.”

Even on the Iowa trip, there was one instance where Buttigieg’s sexual orientation — as well as his youth — ended up being the elephant in the room as opposed to energizing his candidacy. 

At the Abby Finkenauer Fish Fry in Cedar Rapids, amid the pungent aroma in the air of fried food, an awkward moment ensued when the three union leaders who were moderating — three older men with a “no nonsense” vibe — asked him about infrastructure.

Confessing he’s actually surprised Trump didn’t fulfill his pledge, Buttigieg said infrastructure is important, even the “less sexy” aspects like wastewater management. Coincidentally, one of the moderators for the discussion was representing the plumbers union and said wastewater was “pretty sexy.”

Buttigieg shrugged it off with a laugh and said, “Oh yeah?” But the awkwardness continued when another moderator said he wanted to discuss the topic of bridge construction, which he said iron workers find “real sexy.”

(Washington Blade photo by Chris Johnson)

Touring an ethanol plant

Being a gay presidential candidate straight-up wasn’t a factor in Iowa when the focus on the campaign trip was business, such as Buttigieg’s trip to an ethanol plant in Mason City.

Donned with a blue hard hat and goggles, Buttigieg inspected the facility, including the laboratory and a room with computer screens monitoring the fermenters, asking questions about best practices and economic policies that would benefit the business. 

Promoting the facility, which mixes ethanol into petrol to extend its use, Golden Grain Commodity Manager Curt Strong touted exports and the plant’s enhanced environmental practices. 

Asked by the Blade during the tour how Trump’s trade wars were affecting business, Strong said the important thing is for Congress to pass the United States-Mexico-Canada trade deal, or USMCA, which he said would be a “great first step.” Otherwise, Strong said tariffs in China and Brazil were problematic.

“So some of our bigger customers were penalizing us for shipping product to their countries where we could tell they wanted the product,” Strong said. “So the trade wars, it would be great to get them solved. It would be great for us to have a level playing field. But I think there’s a lot of negotiation that needs to go on there.”

Concluding the presentation, Buttigieg said biofuels like those produced at Golden Grain could be part of American’s future, but “you got to have policy that supports that” as well as policy consistency.

“And the added uncertainty that’s coming from this administration has just created more problems that really haven’t gotten folks here,” Buttigieg said. “Now you’re working around the uncertainty, you’re working through the regulation, but I got to think that it would be extraordinary to think of what could be unlocked if you had another 15 years ahead of you to innovate the way you did last 15 years without some of these things being thrown at you from Washington, D.C.” 

On one occasion, Buttigieg broke his own pattern by bringing up his sexual orientation himself — during a forum on disabilities in Cedar Rapids.

Touting his newly unveiled comprehensive plan for the disabled, which includes doubling employment among disabled people by 2030, Buttigieg brought up being gay no fewer than three times. 

Addressing the crowd of advocates for people with disabilities, Buttigieg said many Americans “have been put on the wrong fence of belonging” and he “felt this in one very particular way in my own life,” making an allusion to his sexual orientation without explicitly bringing it up.

Asked about the high suicide rate, Buttigieg said he was glad the question came up because he belongs to “actually a couple communities — as a gay veteran — that remind me that there are some communities in America that are disproportionately liable to die by suicide.”

Buttigieg also drew a comparison between LGBTQ people and people with disabilities, saying members of both communities cut across all demographics.

“I reflected once as a member of the LGBT community, I thought, you know, one thing that’s really special about our community is it’s a minority that is kind of evenly distributed — as far as I can guess — across every geography and race and income group and family background and profession. And then, and then it was pointed out to me that that’s not just true of that community, that’s also true of the disability community.” 

As a result, Buttigieg said “at a moment when we are frighteningly fractured as a country,” the disabled community — like the LGBTQ community — is “an exceptionally diverse, internally diverse community” that can use its political forces to hold public officials accountable to its needs.

“And I hope you find that the opportunity to provide some of that crucial, knitting back together the social fabric of this country, that I, as I hopefully become president will be relying on the American people to do as we pick up the pieces that first day after the Trump presidency has come to an end,” Buttigieg said.

Another exception was during a rally in Waverly, Iowa, when Buttigieg brought up his coming out story in response to a question from a young girl who asked him to name a time in his life he did something that was the right thing to do, but unexpected.

It was also a time when Buttigieg most poignantly described his feelings behind his decision to come out in 2015. Initially, Buttigieg responded to the question by saying it was consistent with his expectation for candidates pursuing office, offering an idealistic vision for the values they should uphold. 

“That’s a really important quality for somebody running for office because that’s part of how you earn your paycheck when you’re in office,” Buttigieg said. “It’s to know — look, when you run for office, you want to win, but if you don’t know what matters more to you than winning, then you should not be in office.”

After talking about signing on in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2015 to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Buttigieg shifted to coming out as he was pursuing re-election as South Bend mayor.

“The decision to come out, I guess was not expected, it wasn’t you know a battle of right versus wrong, but it felt like a battle inside me because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said.

There was extended applause and cheers of approval.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Mayor Ryan Arndorfer (Washington Blade photo by Chris Johnson)

Back on the bus, Buttigieg was asked by the Blade how and when he makes the decision to bring up being gay as opposed to letting his audience do it. The South Bend mayor said the planning is “not always super-intentional, right?”

“It comes out just over the course of me talking about my life, and certain things remind me of it,” Buttigieg said. “So with the disability community, it reminds me of it because you have this really interesting phenomenon both with the disability and with the LGBTQ world of this minority, if you will, that cuts through every other group.”

Buttigieg concluded by acknowledging that being gay will likely come up one way or the other on the campaign trail.

“As you know, no two of my stumps are kind of alike because I just kind of go with it, but if I don’t raise it, somebody usually will, so one way or the other, I know it’s part of what we will talk about,” Buttigieg said. “It doesn’t define those appearances, but it’s also something I’m happy to talk about.”

Although being a gay presidential candidate was a major component of the Iowa trip, Buttigieg’s spouse, Chasten Buttigieg, was only present for half of it and no part of the official bus tour. According to the Buttigieg campaign, Chasten was at the pre-event rally and attended the Liberty & Justice Dinner with Buttigieg, then went to Nevada as a campaign surrogate.

On trans healthcare

At his final rally in Spencer, Iowa, Buttigieg again was asked about LGBTQ issues: What would he do as president for LGBTQ youth, especially those who are transgender in medical care?

The question was the last one at the rally, and the last one for his bus tour. It was a fitting end to a bus tour where having an openly gay presidential candidate was a major theme.

“This is obviously an issue of personal importance to me, having grown up, not knowing if I would ever fit in because I was different,” Buttigieg said. “I didn’t know if my own community would have a place for me, and some great things have happened, some great steps forward with that in this country.” 

Embracing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 in favor of same-sex marriage, Buttigieg continued, “I don’t think I would have guessed at the beginning of the same decade that we’re living in that it would be possible for me to stand in front of you a married man running for president of the United States.”

He name-checked the Equality Act, then pointed out the questioner asked specifically about transition-related care for transgender youth. Transgender Americans, Buttigieg said, are “facing a lot of obstacles.”

“We got to make sure that health care is equitable, that everybody can get the care that they need, including gender-affirming care,” Buttigieg said. “That’s part of what it means to be healthy.”

With respect to kids in schools, Buttigieg said, “High school is hard enough if you’re not transgender to navigate. If you are we need to make sure that we’re tearing down the obstacles to belong and be able to get through your day.”

Finally, recognizing Iowa was in 2009 among the first states in the country to legalize same-sex marriage, Buttigieg concluded by thanking Iowans to another round of applause. It was the last line of his remarks before he announced his departure.

“I know the progress that is possible, again, because of things that have become possible in this country that I never would have guessed,” Buttigieg said. “And by the way, thank you Iowa for what you did to help blaze the trail for marriage equality.”

That line may be key to understanding the excitement behind his candidacy. Iowans believe their state has led the way for civil rights, paving the way for LGBTQ rights in 2009, when the Iowa Supreme Court legalized marriage equality, and the election of the first black president the year before, when Barack Obama emerged as the victor in the Iowa caucuses. 

For Iowans, Buttigieg’s candidacy represents the opportunity to marry the two. Time will tell if that happens when the Iowa primary caucuses take place on Feb. 3.

Courtney Reyes, executive director of the LGBT group One Iowa, affirmed Buttigieg’s potential to make history as a gay presidential candidate fits in well with the state’s progressive past.

“For many LGBTQ Iowans and allies, even those who plan to caucus for a different candidate, Buttigieg’s candidacy and positive reception is a sign that our state’s progressive history on LGBTQ rights can’t be erased entirely by recent setbacks,” Reyes said. “We Iowans take our ‘first in the nation’ status very seriously, and the caucuses represent a galvanizing opportunity to advance equality for all. No matter what specific candidate they support, LGBTQ Iowans and allies are mobilizing to defend our community during the caucuses and beyond.”

Buttigieg ended his three-day tour by interacting with the crowd in Spencer along the rope line before the stage, shaking hands and taking selfies. After shaking hands with two children in the crowd, before posing with them and their parents for a picture, Buttigieg made his last act for his tour waving to the crowd as he made his exit. 

The campaign tour in Iowa had come to an end, and just as Buttigieg credited the state with blazing a trail for LGBTQ rights, Buttigieg’s ability to blaze a trail as a gay presidential hopeful was all the more evident.

Pete Buttigieg in Iowa on his campaign bus. (Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
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Eastern Europe

Former Ambassador Daniel Baer explains it all on Ukraine crisis

Expert downplays strategic thinking behind Putin’s move

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Daniel Baer, United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, gay news, Washington Blade
Daniel Baer served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Daniel Baer, who worked on LGBTQ human rights and transatlantic issues as one of several openly gay U.S. ambassadors during the Obama administration, answered questions from the Washington Blade on Ukraine as the international crisis continues to unfold.

Topics during the interview, which took place weeks ago on Jan. 27, included Putin’s motivation for Russian incursions, the risk of outright war, predictions for Russia after Putin and how the crisis would affect LGBTQ people in Ukraine.

Baer was deputy assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and U.S. ambassador to the Organization of Security & Cooperation in Europe.

The full interview follows:

Washington Blade: What’s your level of engagement with this affair? Are you doing any consulting work? Is the administration reaching out to you at all?

Daniel Baer: I actually think the White House is doing a pretty good job of recognizing that they need to not only have press conferences, but also talk to other people who are trying to figure out how to be constructive critics, idea generators from the outside.

Blade: OK, so you’re being solicited and engaging on this issue. My next question for you is why do you think Putin is doing this at this time?

Baer: So, I guess taking a step back from the whole thing, one of the things about a problem like this is that everybody is searching for the right answer assuming that there is a like comfortable or compelling or intellectually accurate answer, and I actually think we’re just in a really hard moment.

I don’t know why he’s doing it now. And in fact, I think that one of the puzzles that we haven’t solved yet is that all the things that he says are the reasons that he’s doing it — that he feels encirclement by NATO, … or that the situation in Ukraine is untenable — none of those things have changed. Setting aside the fact that they’re spurious, it’s not like there’s been some new move in the last 12 months that has precipitated [a reaction] on any of those fronts that you can say, “Oh, well, he’s responding to the recent meeting where Ukraine was offered membership in NATO, or he’s responding to a change in government in Ukraine that it’s clearly anti-Russia, or any other move that we’ve done.” The explanation just doesn’t hold water, and so I think we need to look for alternative ones.

The best I can come up with is actually just a broad — it doesn’t actually explain this particular moment, but I think you could look at the timing of his life. He has, I don’t know, 10 years left. And during those 10 years, it’s unlikely that Russia is going to grow more powerful; it’s much more likely that it’s going to become at least relatively and probably nominally less powerful. And so, if you’re unhappy with the status quo, and you feel like you’re a declining power, and you don’t have endless time, there’s no time like the present. And you’ll make up whatever reasons you need to in order to justify it.

I also think there’s a tendency on our part to attribute far more “strategery” to Putin than there necessarily is. I mean, he’s a bully and a thug. I think the whole Putin’s playing chess and we’re playing checkers is actually completely inverted. We’re in our own heads that there’s some kind of nuanced position that would mollify him. He’s just a gangster and he’s taking a punch because he has one. And I don’t think it gets much more complicated than that. And so, I guess the answer to why he’s doing this now, because the international conditions are such that he feels like the United States is focused domestically, the Ukrainians are not moving forward with succeeding to build — they’re kind of in stasis on building a European state— and he has, you know, he has the space to take a punch, so he’s contemplating doing it, or he’s already decided to do it. And he’s just extracting as much as possible before he takes it.

Blade: That leads me to my next question: What is your judgement of the risk of out and out war?

Baer: I don’t know because I have two hypotheses that cut both ways. One is that I think Putin is vastly underestimating the degree of resistance. On the other hand, I think that nothing short of domination is satisfactory. And so, I don’t know. I guess I think there’s a 90 percent chance that he does something, and I think there’s a 75 percent chance that what he does is not an all out invasion or ground invasion, at least not at first, but rather something that is aimed at confusing us. So some sort of hybrid or staged or false flag kind of attack in tandem with a political coup in Kiev, where he works to install a more Russia-loyal leader.

The thing with the ground invasion is that Russian soldiers’ moms are one of the only, like, powerful political forces in civil society in Russia. I just don’t see any way that a ground invasion doesn’t involve massive Russian casualties, even if they will be dominant. The people who are going to impose the consequences on him will be the Ukrainians, not the rest of us, and he should not invade, and if he does, we should, frankly, work hard to make it as painful and difficult for him as possible.

Blade: What will that look like?

Baer: I think we should at that point continue — we shouldn’t pause, we should continue to send the defensive equipment and backfill as much as possible their ability from an equipment basis to resist.

Blade: So if we were to look at a model for past U.S. engagements. I’m thinking Greece under President Truman, which was so successful that nobody really knows about it, I don’t think. Is there any model we should be looking toward, or not looking toward?

Baer: No, I guess. I’m not sure there’s any good historical model because obviously, any of them you can pick apart. I do think that one thing that has gotten lost in a lot of the analysis — and this goes back to Putin being a gangster thug, and not being such a genius — is there’s a moral difference between us. The reason why Putin gets to control the dialogue is because he’s willing to do things that we aren’t willing to do — as gangsters are, as hostage-takers are — and so yes, they get to set the terms of what we discussed, because we’re not holding hostages. We’re trying to get hostages released. And the hostage-taker has an upper hand and asymmetry because they are willing to do something that is wrong.

We shouldn’t lose the kind of moral difference there. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that Ukraine is being menaced. And I’m not saying it’s our obligation [to intervene militarily], certainly not our obligation. They aren’t a treaty ally. We have neither a political obligation nor a moral one to necessarily risk our own lives, our own soldiers in defense of Ukraine. But if Ukraine wants to defend themselves, there’s a strong moral case to be made that anything, short of risking our own lives, is something that is morally good. We generally believe that self-defense from lethal threat is a reasonable moral cause and assisting others in defending themselves is too — I think there’s a lot of back and forth that get glossed over whether that’s a provocation or whatever, and I want to say to people stand back, look at this: we’ve got one party that is attacking another. And the question is, does the other have a right to defend itself? Yes. And if they have a right to defend themselves, and they also have a right to have whatever assistance people will offer them in defending themselves.

That doesn’t mean that they get to demand that we show up and fight in the trenches with them, of course, and I don’t think there’s any serious people who are recommending that but it’s a good thing to help them. It’s not like a technical thing. It’s a good thing to help

Blade: Getting into that moral background, one thing I want to ask you was about the significance of what would happen in this concept of democracy versus autocracy. First of all, how much is Ukraine a functional democracy, in the sense that if we’re defending Ukraine, we are defending a democracy, and what signal do you think it would send if that Ukrainian government fell to Russian autocracy?

Baer: I think the institutions of government that the Ukrainian people have are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment …

They are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment to the idea of democratic institutions. So the answer is today’s Ukrainian government is a mixed bag and it’s very hard to build, on the rot of a Russian fiefdom, a functioning democracy, so I think it’s a mixed bag. I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing [the changes], or that they’ve completely bungled an easy project. It was always going to be a hard project, and it was never going to be linear.

But I think that what we’ve seen from the Ukrainian people — by which I mean not Ukrainian people, but people of Ukraine — is that there is a broad part of society that a) does not want to live under a Russian thumb and b) sees its future in kind of European style democracy. And so I think that if there was, there’s no question that the Russian attack would be in part about subjugating the people of Ukraine and forcing them to live under some sort of new Russian satellite. And I think that there’s little space for serious argument that that’s something that the people of the country wish to have.

Blade: But I’m just kind of getting at — you’re kind of minimizing that this is a strategic move by Putin, but if he were to successfully dominant Ukraine it becomes a Russian satellite isn’t that saying like, “Well, ha ha West, you thought the Cold War was over and there’s going to be just be a unipolar world in the future but no, we’re gonna we have this we’re back and we’re gonna create a multipolar world for the future.”

Baer: Yeah, I mean, my answer to the Russians who always raise the multipolar world to me is, “Fine, it’s going to be a multipolar world. What makes you think that Russia is one of the poles?” Poles by definition draw people to them, they are compelling and a pole attracts, magnetically or otherwise, and there is nothing attractive about the model that Russia is pursuing. And if the only way that you can be a pole is by subjugating, to force your neighbors, you are proving that you are not one.

I think the benefits for Russia are far smaller than Putin thinks and I think the consequences for the rest of the world of allowing a violation of international order to go forward are much larger than many people recognize.

Blade: But that was their approach when they were the Soviet Union. They were subjugating the Eastern Bloc through Russian force. They did have, in theory, the concept of their worldview of you know, of socialism, or whatever you want to put it charitably, was going to be the right way to go. Is there really that much of a difference?

Baer: Yeah, however disingenuous it was, they did have an ideology . So you’re right, that was a key distinction. The other thing is that the Soviet Union in relative size — its economy and population etc. — was much larger than Russia is today. And Russia is shrinking, and its economy is less diverse than the Communist one was. I think it’s a delusion to think that they’re going to kind of rebuild an empire, even if yes, because of their willingness to do awful things, they could potentially for a time politically control through violence, their neighbors. I just don’t — in a multipolar world, I don’t see Russia being one of the poles, at least not on its current path.

Blade: How would you evaluate the U.S. diplomatic approach to this issue?

Baer: There’s been very clear over-the-top effort to include the Europeans at every step — meetings with them before each meeting and after each meeting, to force conversations into fora that are more inclusive and stuff like that. And I think that Secretary Blinken is rightly recognizing the need to kind of play a role of kind of keeping everybody on the side while we test whether diplomacy whether there’s anything to do, whether there’s any promise with diplomacy.

I think there’s kind of, sometimes kind of, two camps in U.S. foreign policy circles. One is like: We should give the Russians what they want because it just doesn’t matter that much. War is much worse than anything that we would give them. And another is that we can’t give them an inch and we have to punch them in the face whenever we can. And I think both of those are kind of knee-jerk positions that have become a bit religious for people and neither of them is paying attention to the practical challenge that’s in front of the administration, which is like this guy’s threatening to invade and we need to identify whether there’s any opportunity for a functional off ramp, and that doesn’t mean we do that in a vacuum and ignore the long-term consequences, but our problem is not a religious one, it’s a practical one. And I think they’re doing a pretty good job of threading the needle on that and being not too far forward and not too far back.

Blade: Do you see any significant daylight between the United States and Europe?

Baer: No, I mean, no more than the minimum that is possible. There’s a lot of talk about Germany these days. Look, I think some of the things they say are not particularly helpful, but I don’t actually think that in the long run, if Putin invaded, I don’t think that they would hold up sanctions or anything like that. So I think they’re on our side, even if they’re talking out of both sides, in some cases.

Blade: I am wise to the fact that this is a nuclear power. It might be a little old school, but could escalation get that far?

Baer: There can’t be war. There can’t be war between NATO and Russia. It should be avoided. Obviously, there can be, but it should be avoided.

Blade: How committed do you think President Biden is to protecting Ukraine?

Baer: Reasonably so. I think he’s enough of an old school trans-Atlantist that he understands that this isn’t just about Ukraine.

Blade: I was wondering because he had those comments from his press conference about “minor incursion” and I’m just wondering if you’re reading anything into that or not.

Baer: No, I think that was that was a — I think broadly speaking, everything he says is in line with the kind of view that you would expect. And of course, one sentence can catch [attention]. That wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was that he didn’t want to draw a “red line” that would prejudge policy in response to something short of the most extreme scenario.

I think it is a good caution to not obsess over a single sentence and to look at the broad considered policy statements.

Blade: What do you think if you were looking for developments, like what would you be looking out for is significant in terms of where we are going to be going in the near future? This is one thing to keep an eye out for but is there anything else that you are kind of looking out for in terms of the near future?

Baer: I guess I would look out for whether or not the United States joins meetings of the so-called Normandy Format, which is the France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia grouping, which has so far been unsuccessful, but I think can only be successful as the United States joins it, but the Russians, I think have misgivings with the idea of our joining it.

Blade: I’m not at all familiar with that. What makes this forum particularly so —

Baer: So it was started in the summer in like June of 2015, on the margins of some meeting between Merkel and Hollande. The French and the Germans are very committed to the idea that they might be able to mediate peace between Ukraine and Russia. It was supposed to implement the Minsk Agreement, and it just hasn’t been productive so far. I don’t think that the Russians will do anything — I don’t think the Ukrainians feel comfortable negotiating anything without the Americans at the table. And I don’t think the Russians feel like anything is guaranteed without the Americans at the table. So I just, I’m fine with France and Germany taking the lead, but I think the U.S. has to be there.

And there was a meeting of this group in Paris yesterday, and which the U.S. was supportive of, and so I’m watching to see whether or not the United States gets added in some ad hoc way, whether there are future meetings. I guess the reason I would watch it, if the U.S. were to join future meetings that would signal to me that it’s actually there’s some diplomacy happening there.

That’s meant to be focusing mainly on the existing Russian invasion, the occupation of the Donbas, so that’s not about the threat of the new invasion, but it would be interesting to me if there was forward movement on other parts of Ukraine. The announcement of the American ambassador is one. I think that last week movement of troops into Belarus was a game changer for the U.S., because there are all kinds of new implications if you’re using a third country as your launchpad for war, and so it complicates things and it also looks more serious if you’re starting to deploy to third countries and stuff like that. So I think that was that last week, you noticed a difference in the U.S. tone and tenor in response to that.

So things like that. But in general, like what I would do and I don’t think people always catch this is because there’s a boiling frog aspect to it. There are statements coming out from the White House or State Department. Almost every day on stuff related to this and like last week, there was a noticeable change in the tenor as the U.S. became less, I think more pessimistic about the prospects of diplomacy and those I don’t have anything better to look for in those statements as tea leaves, in terms of what the U.S. assessment is of the prospects of the escalation are, so it’s bad.

Blade: Right. That’s very sobering.

There’s a lot of talk, and I’ve just been seeing some like about in terms of, there’s like comparisons to Afghanistan and making sure that all Americans are able to get out of Ukraine. Is that comparing apples to oranges?

Baer: Yes.

Blade: And could you unpack that a little bit? I mean, I can kind of guess the reasons why. How is that apples to oranges?

Blade: Well, the level of development in Ukraine in terms of infrastructure and transport and stuff like that is not comparable to Afghanistan. I think it would be– if there were a Russian invasion–you would definitely want to, obviously, for safety reasons, it’s not safe to be in a war zone, so you would want people to be able to evacuate and you’d have to plan for that.

A major concern [in Afghanistan] was also that there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of locals who had worked for the Americans. The Americans that are in Ukraine are not a departing occupying power. There’s just not the same footprint there — the Americans are in Ukraine or there as business people or young [people working on] democracy assistance or whatever. And it’s just it’s a different context.

Blade: Why do you think the Russians put up with Putin? I mean, this is a country that was a world power and I would think has some economic potential just given its sheer size, first of all, and they do have oil to offer people. So why aren’t the Russians like angry at him for obstructing their participation in the global order as opposed to just putting up with him for years and years and years.

Baer: Successful instrumentalisation of cynicism. The lack of a belief in an alternative will keep you from fighting for it.

Blade: That’s pretty succinct.

Baer: I mean, I don’t think there’s any question that the people of Russia could be better off or different in terms of kitchen table issues, and ease of navigating the world, prospects for their future for their children’s future. The amount of money that Putin has invested into military modernization that Russia can ill afford, while he’s cut pensions and social services and health care. It’s just it’s objectively true that the average Russian person would be better served by a different leader. But he’s done a very good job of effectively selling off the country for profit and persuading people through repression and propaganda that there is no alternative.

Blade: And Putin won’t be around forever. Once he finally goes, is an alternative going to emerge, or will it be the next guy in Putin’s mold?

Baer: I think it’s far from clear that what comes after Putin isn’t worse and bloody. Regimes like this don’t reliably have stable transitions.

Blade: Wow, okay.

Baer: Yeah, we shouldn’t… we should be careful about wishing… wishing for his demise.

Blade: That’s good to know. It’s kind of a frightful note for me to end my questions. But actually before I sign off, there’s one more thing too because I do kind of want to talk about the intersection about your old job in democracy and human rights and then a Venn diagram of that with your experience in Eastern Europe in particular. Do you have a sense of what’s at stake for LGBTQ people in Ukraine or if they’re in more danger right now than they would be otherwise?

Baer: That’s a good question. I mean, my knee jerk reaction is yes. That — as mixed of a picture as Ukraine has been in the last seven years, or eight years — there have been meaningful steps forward, and certainly, in terms of visibility.

I guess, in the sense that Ukraine is better than Russia today, if you’re gay, if Russia is going to occupy or control Ukraine we can expect that it will get worse because it will become more like Russia.

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Trump ribbed Pence for thinking ‘it’s a crime to be gay,’ new book says

Former president openly wanted gay Fox News analyst for Supreme Court

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Donald Trump (left) ribbed former Vice President Mike Pence (center) in a meeting with Andrew Napolitano for thinking "it's a crime to be gay." (Blade photos of Donald Trump and Mike Pence by Michael Key; screen capture of Andrew Napolitano via Fox News YouTube)

Donald Trump, in the days before he took office after the 2016 election, openly contemplated naming an openly gay Fox News contributor to the U.S. Supreme Court amid concerns from social conservatives about his potential choices and ribbed former Vice President Mike Pence for thinking “it’s a crime to be gay,” according to the new book “Insurgency” detailing the former president’s path to the White House.

The key moment between Trump, Judge Andrew Napolitano and Pence took place during the transition period after the 2016 election when Trump invited the other two for a meeting at Trump Tower.  That’s when Trump reportedly took the jab at Pence.

“During their meeting, for part of which Mike Pence was present, Trump ribbed Pence for his anti-gay rights views,” the book says. “Addressing Napolitano, Trump gestured toward the archconservative vice-president-elect and said, ‘You’d better be careful because this guy thinks it’s a crime to be gay. Right, Mike?’ When Pence didn’t answer, Trump repeated himself, ‘Right, Mike?’ Pence remained silent.”

The potential choice of Andrew Napolitano, who was fired last year from Fox News amid recently dropped allegations of sexual harassment from male co-workers, as well as other TV personalities Trump floated for the Supreme Court, as detailed in the book, were among the many reasons conservatives feared he wouldn’t be reliable upon taking the presidency. Ironically, Trump would have been responsible for making a historic choice for diversity if he chose a gay man like Napolitano for the Supreme Court, beating President Biden to the punch as the nation awaits his selection of the first-ever Black woman for the bench.

The new book — fully titled “Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted” and written by New York Times political reporter Jeremy Peters, who is also gay — identifies Trump’s potential picks for the judiciary as a source of significant concern for conservatives as the “Never Trump” movement was beginning to form and expectations were the next president would be able to name as many as four choices for the Supreme Court. Among the wide ranges of possible choices he floated during the campaign were often “not lawyers or judges he admired for their legal philosophies or interpretations of the Constitution,” but personalities he saw on TV.

Among this group of TV personalities, the books says, were people like Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, whom Trump “regularly watched and occasionally planned his flight schedule around, directing his personal pilot to adjust the route accordingly so the satellite signal wouldn’t fade.” Trump told friends Pirro “would make a fine justice,” the books says.

Trump potentially making good of his talk about naming Napolitano as one of his choices for the Supreme Court “would have been doubly unacceptable to many on the religious right,” the book says. Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge, was friendly with Maryanne Trump Barry, Trump’s sister and a federal judge with a reputation for liberal views, such as a ruling in favor of partial-birth abortion, and is also gay, both of which are identified in the book as potential concerns by the religious right.

Napolitano and Trump were close, the book claims. Napolitano, as the book describes, had a habit of telling a story to friends about Trump confiding to him the future president’s knowledge of the law was based on Napolitano’s TV appearances. Trump told Napolitano: “Everything I know about the Constitution I learned from you on Fox & Friends,” the book says.

The book says the meeting with Trump, Pence and Napolitano when the former president took a jab at Pence in and of itself suggested Trump “was indeed serious about giving the judge some kind of position in the government.” Napolitano, known for making outlandish claims as a Fox News contributor —such as the British government wiretapped Trump Tower — never took a post in the Trump administration.

The new book isn’t the only record of Trump ribbing Pence for his anti-LGBTQ reputation. A New Yorker profile in 2017 depicted a similar infamous meeting with Trump and Pence in which the former president joked about his No. 2’s conservative views. Per the New Yorker article: “When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, ‘Don’t ask that guy— he wants to hang them all!'”The incident described in “Insurgency” was similar to the meeting detailed in the New Yorker profile.

Trump ended up making a list of names he pledged he’d limit himself to in the event he was in the position to make a selection to the Supreme Court and made good on that promise based on his selection. By the end of his presidency, Trump made three picks to the bench who were each confirmed by the U.S. Senate: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. 

But Trump limiting his options to the list of potential plans was not a fool proof plan for conservatives. To the surprise of many, Gorsuch ended up in 2020 writing the majority opinion in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County, a major LGBTQ rights decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which determined anti-LGBTQ discrimination is a form of sex discrimination and illegal under federal civil rights law.

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with Trump’s office seeking comment on the meeting with Pence and Napolitano as described in “Insurgency.” Napolitano couldn’t be reached for comment.

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Human Rights Campaign’s ex-president sues over termination, alleges racial discrimination

Alphonso David alleges he was terminated unfitly

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Alphonso David, the former president of the Human Rights Campaign terminated by the board after he was ensnared in the Gov. Andrew Cuomo scandal, sued the nation’s leading LGBTQ group on Thursday, arguing he was fired as a result of racial discrimination “amid a deserved reputation for unequal treatment of its non-white employees” and was explicitly told he was paid less because he’s Black.

David, speaking with the Washington Blade on Thursday during a phone interview, said he came to the decision to file the lawsuit after practicing civil rights law for 20 years and “never thought that I would be a plaintiff.”

“But I’m in this chair, I was put in this position,” David said. “And as a civil rights lawyer, I couldn’t look the other way. It would be anathema to who I am and it would undermine my integrity and purpose for the work that I do. And so I have to go through and make a very, very difficult personal decision to file this lawsuit.”

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, accuses the Human Rights Campaign of violating new state and federal laws for terminating David, who was the organization’s first person of color and Black person to helm the LGBTQ group in its 40-year history. The lawsuit also contends the Human Rights Campaign contravened equal pay law in New York by paying David less than his predecessor, Chad Griffin.

After a public dispute with the board in September amid an independent investigation of his role in the Cuomo affair, the Human Rights Campaign boards unceremoniously fired David and shortly afterward announced a still ongoing search for a new president. David was named nearly a dozen times in the damning report by New York Attorney General Letitia James, suggesting David assisted in efforts by Cuomo’s staff to discredit a woman alleging sexual misconduct in Cuomo’s office. David has consistently denied wrongdoing.

But the lawsuit is broader than the termination and describes an environment at the Human Rights Campaign, which has faced criticism over the years for being geared toward white gay men, as a workplace where “non-white staffers were marginalized, tokenized, and denied advancement to high-level positions.” After a speech David gave on issues of race and indifference in the context of HRC’s mission, the lawsuit claims a board member complained about him referring too much to being Black, but faced no penalty from the organization.

Specifically named in the report is Chris Speron, Senior Vice President of Development, who expressed concern about “alienating” white donors and specifically “white gay men” after David issued a statement on the importance of Black Lives Matter after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. The lawsuit claims Speron pushed David to “stop mentioning in his public statements and remove from his bio the fact that he was HRC’s first Black President in its history.” Speron also was critical of hiring a Black-owned consulting firm and “criticized a Black staff member for attending a meeting with the consulting firm without a white person present,” the lawsuit claims. Speron couldn’t immediately be reached for comment to respond to the allegations.

In terms of equal pay, the lawsuit says HRC’s co-chairs informed David he was underpaid compared to his predecessor because he’s Black. But the lawsuit also acknowledges in 2021, just before news broke about the Cuomo report, the Human Rights Campaign in recognition of David’s work renewed his contract for five additional years and gave him a 30 percent raise.

David, speaking with the Blade, said he was in “shock” upon experiencing these alleged incidents of racism, maintaining he had kept quiet at the time out of concern for the greater good of the aims of the Human Rights Campaign.

Asked whether as president he considered implementing racial sensitivity trainings for his subordinates, David said “yes,” but added many trainings aren’t effective and said the power in organizations like the Human Rights Campaign is often spread out.

“There are people within the organization that have a fair amount of board support because they bring in the money because they are responsible for overseeing the money,” David added.

Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement after the lawsuit was filed the organization is “disappointed that Alphonso David has chosen to take retaliatory action against the Human Rights Campaign for his termination which resulted from his own actions.”

“Mr. David’s complaint is riddled with untruths,” Madison said. “We are confident through the legal process that it will be apparent that Mr. David’s termination was based on clear violations of his contract and HRC’s mission, and as president of HRC, he was treated fairly and equally.”

Madison adds the individuals accused of racism in the lawsuit “are people of color and champions of racial equity and inclusion who provided support and guidance as Mr. David led the organization,” without naming any specific individual. The boards for the Human Rights Campaign and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation who made the decision to terminate David, were comprised of seven independent directors, five of whom were Black.

The racist environment, the lawsuit says, culminated for David in September 2021 amid an independent investigation of his role in the Cuomo affair conducted by the law firm Sidley Austin LLP at the behest of the organization. According to the lawsuit, the board co-chairs contacted David late at night before Labor Day weekend to tell him to resign by 8 a.m. the next morning or be terminated for cause. When David asked whether the Sidley Austin investigation had made any findings against him, or if a report would be issued explaining what he was accused of doing wrong, the board co-chairs refused to say, the lawsuit says.

As is publicly known, David declined to resign and took to Twitter to complain about the board, which subsequently issued a statement disputing his claims. He was then fired “for cause” under his contract.

The termination, the lawsuit says, signified differential treatment of David because he is Black, taking note the Human Rights Campaign under his predecessor had “endured repeated, serious, scandals — many of which involved HRC’s mistreatment of Black and other marginalized individuals,” but Chad Griffin was never terminated “for cause.”

Both the Human Rights Campaign Foundation board and the Human Rights Campaign board voted to terminate David. A source familiar with the vote said no one voted “no” in either case. The campaign board vote was unanimous and there were two abstentions in the foundation board vote, the source said.

The source familiar with the vote said David never told the Human Rights Campaign he was helping Cuomo during his time as HRC president nor did he disclose he was talking to the New York attorney general. The first board members heard about it was when it hit the press, the source said.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit says David “performed extremely well as HRC president, by any measure,” navigating the organization through the coronavirus epidemic and boosting fundraising by 60 percent. (The Blade has not yet verified this claim.) It should be noted the Human Rights Campaign cited coronavirus as the reason it laid off 22 employees, as reported at the time by the Blade.

David, asked by the Blade how he sees the alleged racist culture at Human Rights Campaign infused in his termination, said “Black and Brown people are treated differently and have been for years in this organization,” citing a “Pipeline Report” leaked to the press in 2015 documenting an environment in which employees of color were unable to thrive.

“And so, the fact that I’m being treated differently now, in the fact that a different standard is being applied to me is just simply consistent with what they’ve always done,” David said. “You know, we go back to the Pipeline Report: Imagine if I was leading the organization at the time, and there was a report that was issued, that said that anti-Semitic remarks were being made within the organization, and that women were being discriminated against within the organization or some other marginalized group and that one of the senior vice presidents used a derogatory remark. Do you think I would still be at the organization or would they have fired me?”

David concluded: “There’s a different standard and a double standard that they’ve applied for decades, and I’ve just now been one casualty — another in a long series of casualties based on their systemic bias and discrimination.”

Among the requests in the prayer for relief in the complaint is a declaration the Human Rights Campaign’s actions violated the law; restoration of David to his position as president; an award of the compensation he would have received were he still on the job as well as punitive damages. Asked by the Blade whether any settlement talks have taken place, David said that wasn’t the case and pointed out the lawsuit was recently filed.

Legal experts who spoke to the Blade have doubted the validity of a review by Sidley Austin on the basis it was among the legal firms agreeing in 2019 to help with the Human Rights Campaign entering into litigation to advance LGBTQ rights, an agreement David spearheaded upon taking the helm of the organization.

David, in response to a question from the Blade, said the independent investigation into his role in the Cuomo affair “is a sham and I believe it was a sham,” citing the lack of transparency of findings.

“One of the first instances that caused me concern,” David said, “is I suggested to the organization that we conduct an independent review, and they came back to me and said, ‘Here’s our press release history,’ and the press release never mentioned that I actually suggested that they do this review. And when I challenged them on that, they told me that they thought it would be better for the press to review a complaint or receive a statement that showed that they were bringing this investigation as opposed to I’m recommending and push back even more. And then they said ‘Well, we will put in the statement that you are cooperating.’ So from the very beginning, they were not honest about what they were actually doing.”

Representing David in the lawsuit is the Chicago-based employment law firm Stowell & Friedman, Ltd. and and Chicago-based attorney Matt Singer. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Eric Vitaliano, a George W. Bush appointee, an informed source familiar with the case said.

The lawsuit was filed in New York as opposed to D.C. because David is a New York resident and much of the discriminatory behavior took place in New York, the source said. The pay disparity alleged in the lawsuit is expressed in percentages as oppose to hard numbers pursuant to rules for the judiciary in New York, the source added.

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