By Kerry Eleveld
Originally published on Advocate.com January 06 2014 5:00 AM ET
The Senate’s recent 64–32 passage of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act was far and away the smoothest LGBT legislative effort in recent memory. Though its prospects remain uncertain in the GOP-controlled House, it’s worth reflecting on what’s changed, other than the times. Why did this campaign vary so drastically from the 2009–2010 effort, when the legislation withered on the vine in both Democratic chambers?
Here are my five biggest takeaways from the movement’s legislative victory:
1. Donors do matter. In January of 2013, Paul Yandura, the political adviser to mega-donor Jonathan Lewis, started researching ENDA’s prospects. Everyone he consulted said the Senate had at least 56 “yeas,” maybe more, in the offing. The problem was that the bill would need more Republican votes — about which Yandura admittedly knew nothing.
“You could give me $500 million and I don’t think I could move one single Republican,” he joked.
He reached out to operatives who work with Paul Singer, a major GOP donor and founder of American Unity Fund, a conservative group that advocates for LGBT freedom and equality. Singer’s people had been having their own discussions.
“Part of what we recognized — especially around all the marriage conversations and how quickly things were moving — was that there was a real opportunity,” says Jeff Cook-McCormac, senior adviser to the American Unity Fund. “We knew there were Republican legislators who didn’t feel comfortable getting there yet on marriage, but who wanted to find ways to signal that they were not inclined to exclude gay and lesbian Americans from citizenship and from the neighborhood.”
Lewis, a Democrat, and Singer, a Republican, each publicly pledged $250,000 to passing ENDA in the Senate. Ultimately, Lewis directed at least $375,000 divided between three different entities, including the American Unity Fund. Longtime LGBT donor Tim Gill chipped in another $100,000 to the cause, and the Human Rights Campaign added $2 million. Bottom line: The effort was flush.
2. Coalitions can matter. Coalition building is often higher on symbolism than actual returns. But the bipartisan ENDA coalition made up of about a dozen organizations, including the American Unity Fund, HRC, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, worked in this case.
The coalition, called Americans for Workplace Opportunity, was assembled by HRC and formalized in July. It was different from other collaborative efforts because it had centralized control over the whole campaign, with an entirely separate budget of $2.5 million. All AWO staff, even if they came from HRC or the Task Force, reported to an independent campaign manager, Matt McTighe, who ran Maine’s successful marriage campaign in 2012.
AWO honed in on seven target states, with 30 dedicated field organizers divided among those states. McTighe helped target every senator needed on ENDA with whatever would be most influential — constituent contacts, media pressure, or lobbying. But the campaign succeeded largely because the big groups gave up control to an external entity that enhanced coordination and prevented turf wars.
3. Single-issue groups still matter. One of the biggest distinctions between the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal effort in the 111th Congress and the effort to pass ENDA was single-issue organizations. At the outset of 2009, the employment protection bill was driven by HRC, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the Task Force — all of which were multitasking on a multitude of issues.
Alternatively, DADT repeal was spearheaded by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and Servicemembers United, two organizations that were solely focused on the deleterious effects of the gay ban and repealing it. While the movement had an informal understanding that ENDA would move first legislatively, DADT leapfrogged ahead. This happened at least partly because single-issue organizations like the Palm Center and OutServe were laser-focused on repeal. They protested, gave interviews, generated reports, and used every tool in their toolbox to achieve their ends. It wasn’t always pretty, but it worked.
ENDA now has its own single-issue organization, Freedom to Work, which pushed the envelope on the bill early on. At a post-election Williams Institute panel in November 2012, Freedom to Work’s Tico Almeida challenged HRC’s Chad Griffin — who has been visionary on marriage equality — to think bigger on ENDA after Griffin failed to include a Senate floor vote in his list of priorities for 2013.
“Why not push for that as well?” asked Almeida, according to BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner. “Wouldn’t we do important public education and build momentum by getting that vote, even if we get to 57, 58, 59 votes?”
Single-issue organizations matter precisely because they are judged by their success or failure on that one issue and are often willing to take risks that umbrella organizations might otherwise not.
4. Republicans matter more than ever. In the most critical ENDA vote — the procedural vote that required 60 votes to end debate — the Dems only accounted for 54 votes. Six Republicans were needed (we got seven, for a total of 61). But convincing Republicans to move on LGBT legislation is an entirely different proposition from convincing Democrats, which is where the movement’s effort has been for a decade.
Almost every organization that lobbied on the issue enlisted the help of Republicans who could speak the GOP lingo. The American Unity Fund hired former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman and former New York Rep. Tom Reynolds. HRC has two GOP operatives on retainer: Rob Epplin, former legislative director for GOP Sen. Susan Collins, and Carl Thorsen, who worked as general counsel for former Rep. Tom DeLay. Freedom to Work took on Christian Berle, a former Log Cabin Republican deputy and Log Cabin’s current executive director, Gregory T. Angelo, also knocked on doors.
While the movement has spent the last several years trying to convince congressional Democrats to make good on all the promises they’ve made to LGBT Americans, our dilemma is now almost uniquely focused on getting congressional Republicans to abandon all the promises they’ve made and see gay issues in a new light.
5. Marriage matters in more ways than one. Years of fighting state marriage battles are finally paying real dividends. First, the four successful fights at the ballot box in 2012 provided the momentum for taking up the ENDA vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recognized the opening and began championing ENDA early in 2013.
Second, the successful formulas that were applied to the ENDA campaign came directly from veterans of those marriage fights, particularly from Maine and New York. Cook-McCormac was instrumental in lobbying Republicans on New York’s marriage bill in 2011, and McTighe served as campaign manager for Maine’s successful ballot measure vote in 2012.
Cook-McCormac had three requirements for a win: a strong campaign leader who knew how to work with both Republicans and more traditional LGBT organizations; an authentically bipartisan effort with a thoughtful Republican strategy; and organizational collaboration.
McTighe, who led the AWO campaign, had experience coordinating multiple organizations after working with 15 different groups in the Maine campaign.
“They all came to the table, they all turned over their resources and control to this new entity, Mainers United for Marriage, with a campaign manager and a totally new staff, office, payroll system, and everything else,” McTighe says.
Americans for Workplace Opportunity was built on that model.