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White House meeting with LGBTQ leaders renews hope for Equality Act

Despite meeting, legislation all but dead in Senate

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Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

A White House meeting with senior Biden administration officials has left leaders of LGBTQ advocacy groups with renewed hope in their efforts to pass the Equality Act, even though the legislation continues to languish in the U.S. Senate with no plans for an imminent vote.

The meeting with LGBTQ advocates, which took place Monday in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, marked the first time in the Biden administration an in-person meeting took place with LGBTQ advocates, who have previously held virtual meetings in the time of coronavirus.

News of the meeting was made public after the White House issued a formal readout of the discussion late Monday. The readout highlighted the Equality Act, legislation that would expand the prohibition on anti-LGBTQ discrimination under federal civil rights law, as a key component of the discussion.

“Advocates shared their perspectives on the urgency and importance of Congress extending long overdue civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ Americans by passing the Equality Act and shared the efforts their organizations are undertaking to get the bill to the president’s desk,” the readout says.

LGBTQ participants in the meeting who spoke with the Washington Blade kept their cards close to their vests on the details on the discussion. One participant, for example, said there were different assessments and intelligence on the path forward for the Equality Act, but declined to offer details.

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign and one of the participants in the meeting, said in a statement to the Blade it demonstrates “passing the Equality Act is a priority for this administration, and our discussion included ensuring we can work together to identify the votes to move the bill through the Senate and onto President Biden’s desk.”

“The administration has continued to be a proactive partner in advancing LGBTQ protections across the board and an outspoken champion for equality,” David said. “We look forward to more dialogue and progress in partnership with the White House.”

It doesn’t seem the meeting produced anything dramatic in terms of new direction for the Equality Act. One observer close to the meeting said it wasn’t geared toward making major decisions and was more a showing of White House support for the LGBTQ community.

One direct consequence of the meeting, however, is clarification on which senior administration officials are heading up efforts on the Equality Act. The White House identifies three members of the Biden team who participated in the meeting: Susan Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council; Cedric Richmond, director of the Office of Public Engagement; and Jen Klein, executive director of the Gender Policy Council.

The White House didn’t respond to additional inquiries from the Washington Blade following its readout on the meeting, such as who initiated it and the path forward on the Equality Act in the aftermath of the discussion.

Kasey Suffredini, CEO of the LGBTQ group Freedom for All Americans and another meeting participant, conveyed in a statement to the Blade the continued importance of the Equality Act.

“America is ready for the Equality Act, and after the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ attacks in the states this year, it’s clear our LGBTQ friends, family members and neighbors need protections from discrimination now as much as ever,” Suffredini said. “With public reports of bipartisan discussions happening in the Senate, we are grateful to have had the opportunity to discuss with the White House, as we are doing with all critical stakeholders, the ongoing and paramount importance of passing this legislation.”

Sufffedini is “encouraged” by Biden’s support for the Equality Act as well as declarations from senators they’re working with Republicans to get the legislation across the finish line.

Despite the optimism expressed by meeting participants, the Equality Act has been all but dead in the Senate for some time and nowhere near attracting the support of 60 senators, including 10 Republicans, that would be needed to end a filibuster on the legislation. At this time, the Senate Democratic caucus isn’t even united in support of the Equality Act, as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) remains a holdout on the bill.

In the middle of Pride month — an opportune time to express support for the LGBTQ community — no plans are set for a Senate vote. The office of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who once promised a floor vote on the Equality Act, didn’t respond to the Blade’s request this week for a new update.

LGBTQ advocacy leaders working on the Equality Act, nonetheless, say there’s a way forward on the legislation, pointing out the support from the public and the business community.

Mara Keising, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality and another White House meeting participant, said the Equality Act is gaining momentum.

“With the Equality Act starting to gain traction in the Senate, it’s extremely important right now that all parties continue talking to ensure further progress, and President Biden is a total supporter of the Equality Act and clearly an important player in the process,” Keisling said.

The White House meeting took place days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which was a limited win for the religious-affiliated foster care agency seeking to reject same-sex couples that stopped short of the sweeping First Amendment right to discriminate it was seeking. One participant said the decision came up in passing during the meeting, but wasn’t a major topic of discussion.

The White House readout of the meeting enumerates other LGBTQ topics that came up, stating advocacy leaders briefed officials on anti-transgender legislation in state legislatures and the “detrimental impacts these bills are having on the health, safety, and well-being of children and families across the United States.”

“Senior White House officials expressed their gratitude for the participants’ leadership and impactful advocacy,” the readout says. “They reiterated the President’s strong commitment to achieving full equality for every LGBTQ+ American and his calls for the Senate to quickly pass the Equality Act. Finally, they underscored that the President has the backs of LGBTQ+ Americans, especially transgender youth.”

The meeting on Monday is but one for LGBTQ advocacy leaders at the White House in Pride month. Vice President Kamala Harris was set on Wednesday to hold her own follow-up roundtable with LGBTQ leaders in the White House Ceremonial Office.

Fran Hutchins, another White House meeting participant and executive director of the Equality Federation, said in a statement to the Blade the Equality Act enjoys widespread support.

“Currently, 29 states do not have laws that explicitly protect LGBTQ people from discrimination,” Hutchins said. “Without the Equality Act, LGBTQ Americans remain vulnerable to being evicted from their homes, kicked out of a business that’s open to the public, denied health care, or denied government services in a majority of states simply because of who they are. We need Congress to act now to pass the Equality Act.”

Another organization backing the Equality Act named in the White House readout is the National Women’s Law Center, which didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.

Other leaders of LGBTQ advocacy groups who are pushing for the Equality Act aren’t enumerated on the readout of the White House meeting as being present, such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Ian Thompson, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union, downplayed not being able to be present for the meeting when asked about the ACLU’s omission from the readout.

“Since there are many groups of organizations working on passing the Equality Act, which is good news, we aren’t involved with every meeting,” Thompson said. “We’re continuing to call for passage of the Equality Act and talk to the executive branch — including the White House — about advancing policies that support LGBTQ people and ensure there is no license to discriminate against LGBTQ people.”

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Damning N.Y. AG report on Cuomo ensnares HRC president

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hate crimes, gay news, Washington Blade

The damning report finding New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo violated the law by sexually harassing as many as 11 women on his staff has ensnared the president of the nation’s leading LGBTQ advocacy group, Alphonso David of the Human Rights Campaign.

Although David insists the report does not indicate any wrongdoing on his behalf, the findings indicate after his tenure as counselor to Cuomo, that he kept the personnel file for an employee within the office accusing the governor of sexual misconduct, then assisted in efforts to leak that file to the media in an attempt to discredit her.

Further, the report finds David allegedly said he would help find individuals to sign their names to a draft op-ed that sought to discredit the survivor, but went unpublished, although he wouldn’t sign the document himself. Also, the report indicates David was involved in the discussions about another staffer secretly calling and recording a call between a former staffer and another survivor in a separate effort to smear her.

The explosive report from New York Attorney General Letitia James sent shockwaves when it came out Tuesday at a time when the country is still grappling with the treatment of women in the workplace after the “Me Too” movement, prompting fellow Democrats — including President Biden — to call on Cuomo to resign. Cuomo has denied the conclusions of the report and not given any indication he’ll step down from his position as governor.

Nearly a dozen references are made in the report to David, who prior to his tenure as president of the Human Rights Campaign served as counsel for Cuomo. In fact, the report came out on the two-year anniversary of David’s joining the Human Rights Campaign after his time in public service for the State of New York.

Following the issuing of the report on Tuesday, David joined the chorus of high-profile individuals calling on Cuomo to resign as governor. David tweeted, “After reading the AG’s devastating report that concluded Gov. Cuomo engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment, in violation of both federal and state law, he should resign.” The tweet, however, ignores his mentions in the findings or alleged participation in discrediting sexual harassment survivors.

Criticism of David emerged from both the right and left in the aftermath of the report at a time when morale among many in the LGBTQ movement is low amid states advancing and enacting anti-transgender legislation and inaction on the Equality Act in Congress.

The Human Rights Campaign itself has had significant turnover, including in the communications department. Last year, the organization laid off 22 employees, citing the coronavirus pandemic, at a time when the latest IRS 990 for the organization revealed former president Chad Griffin and David drew combined compensation of more than $825,000 in fiscal year 2019. (From January-August 2019, Griffin earned $570,446 plus $18,771 in other compensation; David earned $229,332 and $7,016 in other compensation for the balance of that year after taking over the job.)

David, responding to the report on Cuomo in an email to board members of the Human Rights Campaign and in a phone interview late Tuesday with the Washington Blade, is standing firm in denying any wrongdoing.

In the email to board members, David said the findings “are beyond comprehension to me and they break my heart as a former employee,” referencing the tweet he made calling for Cuomo to resign but also addressing the sections pertaining to himself. David confirmed the accuracy of the email to the Blade.

Maintaining he “had no knowledge of the allegations of harassment outlined in the report,” David said he informed the board of ignorance on the issue “earlier this year” and except for one person, he doesn’t know any survivors referenced in the report. Further, David said that one person “never disclosed” any allegations of sexual misconduct. David discloses his “substantive engagement” with this survivor “involved an investigation of her regarding allegations of racial discrimination by other employees.”

“A final conclusion was ultimately memorialized in a privileged and confidential memo drafted and retained by counsel’s office,” David writes. “After initially being unable to find the file, the Governor’s office requested a copy of the electronic memo from me which I provided (as I am required to do as a former counsel) but my copy was subsequently not relied on because the office found the full official file.”

Addressing the unpublished op-ed intended to discredit the survivor, David writes Cuomo’s office “had reached out to many former employees requesting that we sign a letter supporting the Governor and the office,” but he “declined to sign the letter and it was never released.”

Speaking with the Blade, David confirmed the survivor whom he knows is Lindsey Boylan, a former senior staffer for Cuomo, who was among the first to accuse him of sexual misconduct in the workplace last year.

Meanwhile, the board of the Human Rights Campaign has shown no sign of turning on David. In fact, HRC announced it renewed David’s contract on his two-year anniversary for five more years.

Morgan Cox, chair of the Human Rights Campaign board of directors, and Jodie Patterson, chair of the non-profit Human Rights Campaign Foundation board of directors in a joint statement to the Washington Blade affirmed both boards “have full confidence in Alphonso David as president of the organization.”

“In recognition of his extraordinary leadership during extremely challenging times, we were proud to extend his contract to stay on in his role for five more years,” Cox and Patterson said. “For the last two years he has been boldly leading the organization as it works to achieve its mission: full equality for all LGBTQ people, in the midst of a global pandemic, a nationwide reckoning on racial justice, and the most important presidential election of our lifetimes.”

Speaking with the Blade, David also said he has no intention of stepping down from his position as president of the Human Rights Campaign voluntarily.

“This is my life’s work,” David said. “I’ve been a civil rights lawyer for 20 years. This is what I’ve been doing, this is what I did in government. I wrote the marriage equality law. I drafted the Paid Family Leave Law, drafted the minimum wage law, drafted regulations to prohibit discrimination against trans people. This is my life’s work. So, I intend to continue the work that I’ve been doing because the work of marginalized communities, the work to actually represent marginalized communities is too important.”

David’s role in the report stems mostly from the situation with Boylan. According to the report, Cuomo commented on her attractiveness, including comparing her to a former girlfriend; physically touched her on various parts of her body, including her waist, legs, and back; made inappropriate comments, including saying to her once on a plane, words to the effect of, “let’s play strip poker”; and kissed her on the cheeks and, on one occasion, on the lips.

After Boylan went public, the report says Cuomo’s aides “actively engaged in an effort to discredit her” as a survivor. Among the efforts cited in the report are “disseminating to the press confidential internal documents that painted her in a negative light and circulating among a group of current and former Executive Chamber employees (although not ultimately publishing) a proposed op-ed or letter disparaging Ms. Boylan that the Governor personally participated in drafting.”

David is mentioned in the report both during his tenure as counsel to Cuomo and during his time as Human Rights Campaign president. As part of a workplace conflict in 2018 noted in the report as unrelated to the sexual harassment but otherwise not described, David in his capacity as counsel was charged with managing the situation, the report says. Boylan tendered her resignation from the governor’s office. David, in his capacity as counsel, asked to create a file on Boylan and added the incident to her personnel file, according to the report.

After Boylan tweeted Cuomo is “one of the biggest abusers of all time” a secretary of Cuomo’s, Melissa DeRosa, reached out to David, who was serving as Human Rights Campaign president, on Dec. 9 for a request to see the “full file” for Boylan. David said another staffer would have the information in her possession and be able to provide the file. Days later, David sent files relating to his investigation into Boylan shortly before her departure from the governor’s office, the report says.

David is quoted in the report as saying he kept a copy of Boylan’s files because it “may have been the only instance where [he] was actually involved in a counseling of an employee when [he] was in the Executive Chamber.”

It’s not immediately clear whether David keeping a confidential personnel file of an employee after leaving the workplace violates any laws. A New York State Bar Association spokesperson said the organization has “no ethics opinion on this issue.

The report, in a subsequent section, continues to address the personnel file from which Cuomo’s office distributed unflattering information about Boylan, saying it came from “counsel’s office,” suggesting the information, at the end of the day, didn’t come from David.

A connection between David and Boylan comes up again in the report in a discussion about a potential op-ed from Cuomo’s office that was intended to discredit Boylan, but was never published. The report says David signaled he wouldn’t be among the signatories of the letter, but would help gather signatures. According to a footnote in the report, DeRosa told other former staff members whom she had asked to sign the letter David said he would sign the letter “if we need him.”

David, commenting on the unpublished op-ed when speaking with the Blade, said there were multiple iterations of the document in a draft form. Although one version was focused on more positive aspects of the workplace under Cuomo, David said another was more focused on Boylan and he wouldn’t sign it.

“I wasn’t willing to sign it because it included facts I couldn’t verify,” David said. “I was not aware of it. I wasn’t personally involved and had no personal knowledge, so I refused to sign the letter and I think everybody else did.”

David comes up in the report in the description of another survivor’s account of Cuomo’s alleged sexual misconduct, identified in the report by her first name Kaitlin.

After coming forward with sexual misconduct allegations, Kaitlin says she suspected she would be smeared for going forward, the report says. True to her predictions, Cuomo allegedly attempted to call her and surreptitiously record her, but nothing came of the effort, the report says.

David and other Cuomo staffers were involved in the internal discussion of plans to call Kaitlin and secretly record her in an effort to defame her, according to the report.

David, speaking with the Blade, said he doesn’t deny that aspect of the report, but his role in the conversation about Kaitlin was limited and pertained to his duties as counsel to Cuomo.

“In that instance, it was simply asking me, in my role as a former counsel what the law was, not the context,” David said.

Charles Moran, managing director of Log Cabin Republicans, was among those seizing on the report as evidence corporate donors should reconsider their support for the Human Rights Campaign.

“It should disturb every corporate donor to the HRC that its president Alphonso David colluded with Gov. Cuomo to smear one of the women Cuomo sexually harassed,” Moran said. “Alphonso David’s behavior is disqualifying and he should resign immediately, but the fault doesn’t just lie with him. The Human Rights Campaign markets itself as champions for LGBT Americans. In reality, it champions left-wing Democrats – apparently even those guilty of sexual harassment – and bullies anyone who gets in their way.”

Max Micallef, a queer rights activist who serves on the Advisory Council of EqualityNY and as the Public Policy Coordinator with GLSEN Lower Hudson Valley, issued a statement on Tuesday calling for both Cuomo and David to resign.

“We all deserve so much better,” Micallef said. “The LGBTQ+ community does not stand for this level of complicity and cowardice. Along with Gov. Cuomo himself, Director McMorrow and President David must step down from their positions immediately as they have clearly failed to represent the interests of LGBTQ+ New Yorkers, and advocate against their systemic violence.”

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Meet 4 candidates vying for 2 Rehoboth commissioner seats

Clear Space Theatre permit flap roils race

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Four candidates are competing for two seats for City Commissioner in the Aug. 14 City of Rehoboth Beach election. The Blade interviewed each; below are their remarks and a preview of the key issues in the race.

Incumbent Richard Byrne 

Richard Byrne (Photo via Linkedin)

Byrne was elected a city commissioner in 2018, contributing to projects like the creation of Steve Elkins Way and adding city committees to improve Rehoboth.

“It’s been just an honor to serve these past three years, very inspiring, challenging and a very productive time,” Byrne said. “I feel that I have the energy, I have the know-how and I certainly have the experience to continue in this role working on behalf of the residents, and our voters all across the city.”

Byrne voted against reversing the approval for Clear Space Theatre’s site plan in June. The planning commission’s and inspectors’ effort toward its approval seemed neither arbitrary nor capricious, Byrne said.

“I’ve also been one of many who is advocating the need for our city to in the future, employ the services of a professional urban planner to help us and guide our work as we go forward,” Byrne said. “This is my community. It’s my only community. My only home. I just love this community, and I care deeply about it.”

Planning Commissioner Rachel Macha 

Rachel Macha (Photo via Linkedin)

Macha has been a member of the planning commission since 2019 and works through the comprehensive development plan alongside the other members and additionally reviews residential and commercial land use projects.

Macha is also involved in the plant, shade, and tree commission that approves the removal of trees in order to preserve the canopy. She has worked on projects such as Rehoboth’s Main Street and a campaign called Respect Rehoboth, a way to enforce social distancing and mask mandates. 

“Rehoboth is a hidden gem, I mean it has ‘the nation’s summer capital’ as its tagline. I think there are just a lot of people that have found this is kind of a slice of heaven,” Macha said. “I just have had a real love for Rehoboth all my life and my kids have now had that same love for it, and I just want that to continue for generations to come.”

The reversed approval of Clear Space Theatre’s construction plan was disappointing, according to Macha. 

“There were some commissioners and the mayor that were undermining the hours and effort that the planning commission not once, but twice worked through,” Macha said. “I just think it was unfair, and also just disrespectful, frankly, to really call out the planning commission on not doing a thorough job.”

Former Commissioner Toni Sharp

Toni Sharp (Photo via Facebook)

Sharp served as a city commissioner from 2013 to 2019 and, in her tenure, Sharp worked to budget a communications position within the commission and helped launch a platform to receive feedback from the community.

Sharp was involved in many other committees during her term and needed some time away, she said. 

“I am reinvigorated, I have much more perspective and I think, it may happen this way for a lot of people, that when you step away from something, you really get a clarity of exactly what you want to do,” Sharp said. “I know how to be a commissioner, I know how to get things done. And now it is just a matter of what are the most pressing things that I believe we need to get done here in Rehoboth.”

Like many residents in Rehoboth, Sharp wants to see Clear Space Theatre have a place in the city, despite Rehoboth’s restrictions for parking.

“Now, what’s the right process to get from point A, which is where we are now, to point B, to keep moving forward to get a mutually agreeable situation?” Sharp asked her then fellow commissioners at an April 2019 hearing. “Do we have to have a different discussion about parking in this particular area of town? It feels like a different discussion.”

Tim Bennett

Tim Bennett (Photo courtesy Bennett Campaign)

Bennett worked as the director of marketing and advertising programs at Subaru of America for 15 years, including his help to hire lesbian former tennis champion Martina Navratilova. He has worked to benefit the LGBTQ community through marketing. 

Bennett gained interest in working on city committees and offered his services wherever they were needed, he said.  

“I decided to come in as someone with no political history here, unencumbered,” Bennett told the Blade. “I’ve had no history here, I’m a new person, it’s time for getting some fresh ideas and new voices into the city.”

Bennett supports a full-time city planner position that would help in land redevelopment for the city, according to his website. Clear Space Theatre’s reversed approval was rushed and traffic, parking and the building size were the main problems, said Bennett.

“I think it’s such sloppy government, and I think it’s sad all around because if the plans exist, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” Bennett said. “I understand that there are going to be traffic problems, there are going to be parking problems. It needs to be mitigated, of course, and we just have to follow the rules and do the right thing.”

Bennett attributes much of his passion to his time at Marietta College, a small school in Ohio.

“There was always this thing of being taught when you graduated to find a way to be of use and try to make things a little better than you found them, or in the importance of showing up,” Bennett said. “I’ve always remembered that and I’ve tried to always strive to do that with work. When you’re involved in something or you take on a project it’s, ‘Can I be of use, can I contribute something, and can I be of help?’”

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Jenner’s campaign to replace Newsom in recall race in debt

A recent Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies/Los Angeles Times poll showed her tied for fifth place with 3 percent support

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Caitlyn Jenner (Blade file screenshot)

LOS ANGELES – According to campaign filings as reported by Politico Monday, the gubernatorial recall campaign of Trans reality-television personality Republican Caitlyn Jenner to replace Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom has amassed significant debt.

In required disclosure of campaign finances to the California Secretary of State, Jenner’s campaign has raised through to the end of July from its launch $747,000 and spent some $910,000, leaving her campaign with about $156,000 in unpaid bills and roughly $21,000 on hand for the race’s critical final stretch.

Politico noted that; “The campaign has sent about $67,000 to Parscale Strategy, LLC, the firm run by former Trump campaign strategist Brad Parscale. It spent $25,000 on former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer’s media strategy company Ari Fleischer Communications.

Among Parscale Strategy’s reported spending was a $1,800 “staff meeting” at Nobu, a fancy Malibu restaurant, and $1,300 for a limousine service that ferried Jenner to Los Angeles meetings.”

Jenner is temporarily residing in Australia filming a reality-television show, although her campaign told the online portal for the San Francisco Chronicle in a statement that “Caitlyn has not paused her campaign at all,” and will be back in California for a bus tour in August.

Jenner,71,  has barely gained momentum since her entrance to the race this past April. A recent Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies/Los Angeles Times poll  showed her tied for fifth place with 3 percent support. Politico pointed out that media buys statewide in California are several million dollars and with her campaign in debt it makes gaining traction with potential voters difficult.

The date set for the recall is September 14 and midway through this month the mail-in ballots will be sent out by elections officials statewide.

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