April 07 2010 4:00 AM ET
POLITICAL STRATEGIST 36 / LOS ANGELES
The Hunter Allen trail northwest of Los Angeles is the sort of low-impact hike suited for an elderly couple or a birder in search of house wrens and red-tailed hawks circling above—up to a point, that is. About a quarter of a mile in, the path veers up a barren ridge toward a series of high-ceilinged caves. It’s a steep ascent but one rewarded by a sweeping vista in a break at the summit. From here, decades’ worth of Southern California land-use battles are distilled into a singular view. To the west, 500-year-old oak trees, rolling hills rendered green by spring rains, birdsong; to the east, the San Fernando Valley, America’s prototype for suburban sprawl, now home to 1.8 million people.
Chad Griffin snaps a few shots of the landscape with the Leica D-Lux 3 camera he brought strapped over his shoulder in a brown leather case. It’s one of the few occasions I’ve seen him dressed in something other than a suit and tie. As a political strategist—one who cut his teeth barely out of high school as a member of the Clinton administration communications team—this view is one of his proudest achievements. Griffin was instrumental in saving 4.7 square miles of wilderness, a critical watershed leading to Malibu’s Surfrider Beach 15 miles due south, from development by its then-owner, Seattle-based Washington Mutual Inc. Before Griffin’s efforts, the campaign to preserve the land ran on an earnest, save-our-environment platform. Griffin flipped that messaging on its head and appealed to more base concerns for valley residents, namely increased traffic. Washington Mutual, battered by unprecedented bad press, capitulated and sold the land to the state in 2003.
“In politics it’s rare that you work on something so tangible,” Griffin says. “You can elect someone, they get into office, they may or may not vote the way you want them to, and they often go to Washington and sell out. But to have something like this, these 3,000 acres of preserved land that you can hike—it’s kind of the idea of once you have gay marriage, you will actually see couples come together, get married, have kids. I prefer tangibility.”
The trail’s namesake, Hunter Allen, was a friend and employee of Griffin’s during the fight to save this land, now known as Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve. “Hunter was insanely smart,” he recalls of the young man who ultimately committed suicide after struggling with a crystal methamphetamine addiction that began when he was a teenager. Griffin is polished and passionate when discussing marriage equality and other gay rights issues, but here his tone is exposed, unrehearsed. “He was out. I was closeted—far from out. His own story of coming out always inspired me. I didn’t know that he knew that I was gay, but he clearly did. I’m not even sure I really knew then.”