"I was just at the White House!" says Joe Solmonese, who hadn't seen the inside of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in more than eight years. The Bush administration extended no invitations to the executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay lobbying group. His reunion with the building was understandably a bit emotional.
"You could just wander around the first floor, anywhere you wanted to go," he adds later, and so he idled through the hushed, high-ceilinged rooms until it was time for President Barack Obama to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first major piece of legislation to pass Congress after Obama took office. Solmonese recalls that during the ceremony, "I turned around where I was sitting and I looked into the eyes of so many of the staff people, like David Axelrod and Rahm [Emanuel], and all of those people had tears in their eyes, and it filled me with a renewed sense of hope about changing things for GLBT Americans." Solmonese, who speaks in sleek, rapid-fire sentences, is wary of sentimentality -- "It sounds hokey," he says -- but still he goes on.
After the bill signing, Solmonese says, the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile asked him, " 'What are you thinking about?' And I said, 'I'm envisioning this moment for the GLBT community and watching the president sign a bill that will bring this measure of equality to our community.' As if on cue, a number of White House staff people came over and said to me, 'We look forward to working to make sure that this happens in pretty short order for the GLBT community.' "
Michael Strautmanis, who had served as Obama's chief counsel in the Senate (which has traditionally been slower to pass gay rights bills than the House), was one of those well-wishers. Ellen Moran, White House communications director, whom Solmonese calls "one of my closest friends in the world," was another. (They once shared an office at the pro-choice advocacy group EMILY's List, and Moran replaced him as executive director of that organization when Solmonese took his current job at HRC.) Solmonese has a long list of acquaintances in the new administration: "I've known Brian Bond [deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison] for years. Melody Barnes [Obama's domestic policy adviser] and I were on a board togetherâ€¦."
Solmonese sits in his corner office on the top floor of the glass and steel HRC building, which stands, as if metaphorically, opposite the hulking brick Dupont Circle YMCA. Slipping into second person, he says, "It's amazing, the number of people you know" -- not bragging, but with composed astonishment at the new world Washington, D.C., seems to have become, and how quickly the structure of power can change.