Elitist. bloated. Ineffectual. The Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBT organization, claiming more than 1 million members, is no stranger to criticism that it spends more time planning corporate-sponsored, rubber-chicken fund-raising galas than pushing Congress and the Obama administration for real change.
“The cause of LGBT equality has suffered because of a deficit of trust and a surplus of ill will between HRC and the rest of the movement,” Matt Foreman, a former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, wrote in a blogosphere-distributed op-ed late last year. HRC’s tendency to push self-perpetuation over teamwork is both legendary and manifold, Foreman argued.
“They would undertake new initiatives or announce unhelpful positions in policy areas where they had little or no expertise; they were unnecessarily vague and secretive about meetings they were holding; they would take credit for things in which they’d never even been involved,” he wrote, cuing the collective nods of movement leaders and activists in Washington, D.C., and beyond.
The critique may have been on the minds of HRC’s board of directors as it vetted candidates to replace its president, Joe Solmonese, who announced last summer that he would leave the organization’s top spot, which he has held since 2005. That’s because his successor, American Foundation for Equal Rights board president Chad Griffin, has been hailed as a game changer. Even HRC’s most steadfast detractors praised Griffin’s appointment, in what bordered on cult worship of the Los Angeles–based political consultant behind the federal lawsuit against Proposition 8. Even Log Cabin Republicans executive director R. Clarke Cooper, who pilloried HRC as a bootlicker for the White House for endorsing Obama 18 months prior to the November election, called Griffin a maverick “who knows achieving victory will require advocacy and champions on both sides of the aisle.” Private concerns that the board’s pick was yet another white gay man and thus not a remedy for the group’s reputation of lacking diversity were largely soft-pedaled.
Whether Griffin will live up to the external hype and turn the organization into a force to be reckoned with is yet to be seen (he starts the job in June). He’s already got a long list of to-dos: press the president for support on marriage rights and employment nondiscrimination, for starters, and push for bipartisanship on long-overdue pieces of legislation that have scant GOP support. It’s also unclear whether Griffin will be shaking up the institutional roster—his prerogative as president—in order to accomplish both goals.
What is clear, however, is that HRC has a new leader who’s aggressive, media-savvy, and preternaturally strategic. A native of Arkansas, the 38-year-old Griffin cut his teeth in politics during Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and took a job under White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers at age 19. He went on to build his career in California politics, fighting the tobacco and oil industries as well as the antigay forces that succeeded in passing Prop. 8 four years ago. The formative time spent in the West Wing, combined with years of trench warfare via California’s ludicrous voter initiative process, have inculcated a bicoastal love of politics and disgust for professional mediocrity. “If patience is a virtue,” Griffin said the day HRC announced he had been hired, “it’s a virtue that I don’t possess.”