March 3, 2021 at 4:29 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
State groups seen as key to winning over undecided senators on Equality Act
From left, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) (Photos public domain)

In the week after the U.S. House voted to approve the Equality Act, state LGBTQ advocacy groups are expected to have a significant role as part of an upcoming campaign to convince senators to support the legislation to get it to President Biden’s desk.

State equality groups — some of which are unable to endorse at the federal level, so less hampered by political affiliations than national organizations and lobbyists — are seen as local organizations able to represent constituents and have more personal influence on lawmakers, which would be key in winning over senators like Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) in the effort to find 60 votes to end a Senate filibuster.

Fran Hutchins, executive director of Equality Federation, said Tuesday in an interview with the Washington Blade state groups would “have a huge role” in efforts to pass the bill, which would expand anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people under federal law.

“When we’re thinking about who is our audience, really, for getting this passed, it’s going to be conservatives who are going to care a lot about what their constituents think about this,” the leader said.

Hutchins added members of the Equality Federation, which facilitates coordination among state advocacy groups, have for the past two years undertaken lobbying and education efforts on LGBTQ non-discrimination protections. Those efforts, Hutchins said, are expected to expand and continue this year in partnership with the LGBTQ group Freedom for All Americans.

“Many of the conversations about the Equality Act will be happening in D.C,” Hutchins said. “But, when it comes down to it, what senators care about is what folks back home think, and so, that’s going to be the role of state groups.”

Leaders of statewide groups who spoke to the Blade said they’ve already engaged with lawmakers who would be crucial for the support necessary to end the filibuster in the Senate.

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said his organization has met with Romney, who has signaled in a statement to the Blade that he won’t support the Equality Act out of concerns for insufficient protections for religious liberty in the legislation.

“We have been impressed with Sen. Romney’s principled stand on the abuses of Donald Trump and his willingness to march with Black Lives Matter,” Williams said. “We have encouraged him to be a voice of reason to help bring people to the table from both sides. It would be ideal, and good for the country if the Equality Act could pass with bipartisan support. With the filibuster in place, it won’t move without it.”

Williams said Romney, similar to the position he’s made public, told Equality Utah he would require “some religious accommodations or clarifications” before supporting the Equality Act.

Another lawmaker Williams said Equality Utah has been in contact with is Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who has introduced a measure that would weaken protections under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 requiring schools to allow transgender kids to participate in sports.

“Sen. Lee’s staff only wanted to talk about transgender children in sports, and his position there is unfortunate,” Williams added. “Thankfully, here in Utah, we successfully defeated our transgender sports ban just last week.”

Matt Moonen, executive director of Equality Maine, said the last time his organization spoke with Collins on the Equality Act was in 2016, when all three of the senior staff met with her at her office in Washington, but the results weren’t positive.

“At that meeting she expressed a desire for changes to the language, but was unable to articulate what they were,” Moonen said. “Her LGBTQ policy staffer was also unable to articulate what those changes were in follow-up communications. When she signed on as a cosponsor to the bill in 2019, we assumed whatever language concerns she had previously had been resolved.”

Moonen pointed out Collins continues to fail to articulate the change she’s seeking, but “it does seem relatively clear that she isn’t planning to vote for the Equality Act in its current form.”

“All LGBTQ Americans should be free from discrimination, and LGBTQ Mainers shouldn’t lose their protections just by crossing state lines,” Moonen said. “It’s embarrassing that Sen. Collins is more than 15 years behind the people of Maine on something as simple as basic non-discrimination, and we urge her to catch up to the people she is supposed to represent.”

Moonen added Equality Maine is able to endorse candidates at the federal level. Although the Maine group stayed neutral in 2008 and 2014 when Collins was seeking reelection, the group in 2020 endorsed Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, who ended up failing to unseat Collins.

In terms of additional resources and programming, national groups and institutional funders are also expected to contribute additional resources to state groups as part of a forthcoming campaign on education and lobbying efforts for the Equality Act.

One insider said the LGBTQ donor community is working on building up Equality Utah, Equality Ohio and Equality Florida to “help lift up local voices and constituents to share lived experience.”

“The nexus of LGBTQ rights has always been at the state and local level,” the insider said. “Our first rights were won there. They are the first responders of our movement. And even after any federal legislation, the defense of those rights will start there.”

Hutchins said the good news about state groups is they don’t require a significant amount of resources to conduct outreach.

“Communications firms and lobbying firms cost a lot of money,” Hutchins said. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money for folks to make calls to their representatives. It doesn’t cost a lot of money…to build those relationships with folks to influence legislators, faith groups and parent groups and things like that.”

At the end of the day, finding 10 Republican votes for the Equality Act to overcome a filibuster would be a significant challenge even with a grassroots campaign with state advocacy groups at the forefront.

Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Equality Forum, said he’s “out of the loop” about anything at the state level when asked about efforts to convince Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to support the Equality Act.

“At best, it appears that there are no more than six Republican senators that would support the bill — insufficient to reach 60,” Lazin added. “My best guess is that passage will occur when Democrats eliminate or revise the filibuster. The latter seems more likely.”

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

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