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Joe Solmonese to assume helm of HRC

Joe Solmonese to assume helm of HRC

Five months after its previous executive director stepped down after less than a year, the Human Rights Campaign on Wednesday hired longtime Washington insider Joe Solmonese as president of the group. He will start on April 11 and will be paid $225,000 per year. A Massachusetts native, Solmonese, 40, has been chief executive officer of Emily's List, a Washington group with a $40 million annual budget and 85 staffers that helps elect pro-choice female Democratic candidates to political office. He has worked at the organization since 1993 and been CEO since 2003. The HRC has an annual budget of $35 million and 125 staff members. Solmonese, who is gay and single, graduated from Boston University in 1987, and one of his first jobs was as a staffer to openly gay congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts. The announcement of Solmonese's hiring brought praise not only from Democrats on the Hill but also from some of the most moderate Republicans. "Ensuring that every American is treated fairly and equally has no partisan boundaries, and I'm pleased that Joe is committed to working with Republicans as the new head of HRC," said Republican senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Added Republican Rob Simmons of Connecticut: "Since I've been in Congress, HRC has always displayed a long-standing commitment to bipartisanship. I have very little doubt that Joe will aggressively maintain this tradition, and I look forward to working with him." In a telephone interview with Advocate.com, Solmonese said that he approached HRC officials a few months ago about taking the top job. He stressed that one of his first priorities will be to visit various states and reach out to religious leaders, community officials, and various straight allies. "I've spent very little time in the last 10 years in Washington," he said. "I was hired at Emily's List to go out across the country and recruit women to run and help women get elected--as often as not in red states as in blue states. And I hope that that is a big part of why I was seen to be the right fit for this." Since the election of 2004--an event many activists consider a disastrous turn in the fight for gay and lesbian equality--HRC and other national gay rights groups have come under increased scrutiny by state-level gay and lesbian activists, who see the key battles for equality being fought on a local level rather than in the U.S. Congress, where pro-gay legislation is stifled and antigay bills find wide support. In working in the states, Solmonese said that HRC--the wealthiest and perhaps most influential gay rights group in the U.S.--was not moving away from its lobbying duties on Capitol Hill or its call for full marriage equality for same-sex couples. He maintained that by reaching out across the country, HRC will only strengthen the case for gay marriage. Last year Solmonese came under sharp criticism from gay activists when Emily's List supported South Carolina candidate Inez Tenenbaum for Congress. Tenenbaum, who lost her bid for office, supported George W. Bush's pro-discrimination stance on marriage and was not supported by similar groups such as Planned Parenthood. Solmonese says that Emily's List was focusing on its core mission to support pro-choice candidates. "Well, let me just start by saying that while it is not Emily's List's mission, I think it would be hard to find an organization that has done more to elect pro-GLBT candidates to Congress than Emily's List," he said. "And I think if you were to ask someone like Tammy Baldwin, she would say that the progressive women that we have sent to her over the years have been invaluable to her, and she and others have worked on behalf of the community. Having said that, it's Emily's List's mission to elect pro-choice Democratic women. And I had been charged by the 100,000 members of Emily's List to uphold that mission. That is what I did, and [upholding HRC's mission] is what I would expect the members of HRC and the community would expect me to do, as I take on this job." In response to HRC's announcement, the Log Cabin Republicans issued a statement underlining Solmonese's partisan resume: "The selection of an experienced Democratic activist will allow HRC to solidify and strengthen Democratic support for equality," said Chris Barron, political director for the gay Republican group. "As the leading voice for moderate and conservative gay Americans, Log Cabin recognizes our unique responsibility to make new allies in the Republican Party." Solmonese fielded other questions from Advocate.com: What attracted you to this job? I think that in a way, I feel like I have been drawn to HRC for a very long time. HRC was one of the first real beacons for me as I was coming out as a young gay man, when I was 22 years old: going to my first HRC dinner with a group of friends, saving up our money, listening to Geraldine Ferraro not talk to me but make the case to me why I and my community were so important to her. I always remember that. It was such a formative and powerful experience for me. This was 18 years ago, almost 20 years ago--the world for a 22-year-old was a little bit different than it is now. And to be in that room and to feel that sense of community and sense of empowerment, to hear those people on that stage talk about why they needed us as opposed to why we needed them, was really the start of this. And I think in the course of the last year, just some of the experiences that I've had, that I know so many people had, whether it was watching George Bush interrupt regularly scheduled television programming to say that he intended to amend the Constitution to take my rights away or reading the Washington Post article about a young teenager in rural America and the hardship that he faced, to be reminded of some of the hardship and some of the pain and some of the challenges that I had as a teenager, it's just been a year of a lot of things happening that have really drawn me more to HRC, drawn me and caused me to really think more about what's happening in our community and what's happening in our country. I think the timing of this organization and the timing for me were such that here we are, and I couldn't be happier and I couldn't be more excited about the opportunity. Did the HRC approach you, or did you approach them? No, I approached them. I expressed an interest and put my name into what was obviously a well-thought-out long process back at the beginning of the year. I expressed an interest initially. In your opinion, why did you get chosen? I like to think, first and foremost, that I bring two things to this challenge right now: I think I bring a unique record of accomplishments in terms of having gotten things done both in Washington and across the country, and I think I bring a renewed sense of America, the social fabric of America, and what it's like out there across the country. I've spent very little time in the last 10 years in Washington. I was hired at Emily's List to go out across the country and recruit women to run and help women get elected--as often as not in red states as in blue states. And I hope that that is a big part of why I was seen to be the right fit for this, because I feel like I have a unique understanding of what it's like out there across America, whether it was fighting to get a pro-choice Democratic woman elected governor in Kansas or trying to understand if there are progressive opportunities in a place like Arizona because there's a demographic shift there. Those are the two things that I hope are what people will see as the strongest qualities that I bring. What is your general vision for where you want to take HRC? Well, I think first and foremost what I want us to do is really reintroduce ourselves to America. To talk to America and to engage America, whether it's through the religious community or through corporate boardrooms or roundtables or precincts or neighborhoods, to reengage America and reintroduce ourselves in a way that, I hope, helps them to understand not just why our fight for equality is important to us but why it ought to be important to them. Does this entail your traveling to various cities for events? One of the first things that I want to do in my first week on the job is go out across America, travel across the heartland of America, and begin this process--work with religious leaders, work with corporate leaders, work with community leaders to begin this process, to begin this dialogue by showing America the face and the stories of GLBT Americans, to help them understand that there are real people and real stories here. One of the things that I constantly hear when I go report in the heartland is that--for right or wrong--there's a real viewpoint of HRC and the other groups in Washington that they're way too insular, that they talk in too much bureaucratic-speak. Specifically, how do you change that, with activists in various states already turned off by HRC? Well, I think there are a few things there. I think we've got to go into these states and go into these communities with a healthy understanding and a healthy back-and-forth between our goals and objectives and the unique challenges that are taking place in specific states. And then with regard to the community in general, I think, we don't do this alone. We do this in conjunction with--as I said--religious leaders, corporate leaders, and community leaders. We've got to come together and make sure that state by state, neighborhood by neighborhood, we share a common vision and a common goal. How does the federal effort fit into this? It sounds like a lot of your agenda and your energy is going to be put into going out into the rest of America, but obviously, HRC's main actions in the past have been at the federal level lobbying. Is there time to do both? Well, you know what--it's interesting you put it that way. The way I see it is, it is how this fits into the federal effort, and the way this fits into the federal effort, I think we continue to work with members of Congress, work on the Hill, advance the various things that we're working on legislatively and at the federal level. We need to approach these challenges from a variety of different directions: We need to approach them from the bottom up, we need to approach from the grassroots level, and we need to impact what's going on in Congress in many more ways than we are. I think moving out across America, changing the mind-set of people state by state, is going to have in the long term a much more significant impact on what's happening with members of Congress here in Washington. Is that because you hope that down the road voters will contact their lawmakers in Washington if some type of legislation having to do with gay equality comes up? I hope that they'll contact their legislators, I hope that legislators will begin to see a shift, I hope that legislators see changes at home, and I hope that we can educate people about--as I said--why we seek the equality that we seek. How does HRC deal with a Republican-controlled House, Senate, and White House? Do you try to establish some type of ties? It seems to me that even Democrats on the Hill are reluctant to touch anything having to do with gay people at this moment. How do you reestablish ties with both sides, with both parties? I don't think that anything we are going to fight for has to be partisan in nature. Our struggle and the equality that we seek to achieve is certainly not to be limited or constrained by partisan boundaries. We need enthusiastic Republican support as well as Democratic support as we move forward. I think that a record of working with members and working in coalitions and getting things done is going to be key to draw whatever elements into this work that we currently don't have. What is your strategy for getting gays and lesbians a seat at the table as far as the Social Security debate, if it comes up? It's already going on, but it could be an even bigger topic. Well, I think what the Social Security debate really does for our community is give us another opportunity to talk about and raise awareness around the inequities that exist for GLBT Americans in this country. Right. But as far as concrete concessions written into the bill or whatever's being proposed, how do you do it? Well, I mean, that's a tough question because of the fluid nature of what's going on. There are times when I think that there are so many retreats under way right now with the Social Security debate--every day I read that there is another compromise with Social Security, that there's a sort of ongoing retreat that makes it hard to think about how we delve into that. For our purposes, it's much more about using it as an opportunity to talk about inequities. With you and the HRC going into the middle of the country and talking to people on what sounds like a more local level, how does marriage fit into this? This seems to be quite different from a fiery call for marriage--"George Bush, you're fired"--that was evident just six months ago. You know, in everything that we do, we're working toward marriage. We're working toward equality and marriage--the ultimate manifestation of that is in everything we do. It is a thread that runs through everything that we do. Just like the fight that we're taking for equality, generally, for our community--everything that we do, whether it is changing a mayor or whether it is changing a legislative party or whether it is beating back a ballot measure or whether it is making the corporate environment more hospitable to a whole range of issues that affect our community, it's all toward a longer-range and maybe not exactly straight road of equality for our community. Is there going to be a need, though, to rejigger your argument on marriage? You're going to be criticized for it--it'll seem to some groups that you're backing off of marriage when you may not be. Is it going to take some explaining toward different factions of the gay community? I think my challenge in speaking with our community is to make sure that people understand that everything that we do, we are doing as a way to work toward marriage. There may be a whole range of different ways to go about getting that done, but I tend to think that I bring with me a record of achieving tangible gains all across the country in ways that have then led to bigger gains. I don't always think that it's a straight line, and I don't always think that there are shortcuts to get there. I can tell you that everything that I do would be with that goal in mind. What is your opinion of what happened in the election of 2004? Was same-sex marriage pushed too hard and too fast? No. Absolutely not. What happened in 2004 is that an incredibly brave group of people in Massachusetts came forward and made a compelling case that they should be treated like the rest of America, and then history was made and they were. And I think the natural ebb and flow of social change is such that in a handful of other debates, there was a reaction to that. But that was not the deciding factor in this election--what decided this election was people's fear. People's fear of what was going on abroad and people's fear of a terrorist threat in this country. That, I know, is what decided this election. It seems that a lot of the national gay rights groups can't even agree what the weather is, let alone get along. What's it going to take to get all these groups to work together after years of being competitive? Well, I think it's something that I have a record of doing in the women's political community. I think that at this point in our community, the GLBT American community history, it's essential that we work together. I think we may have different ideas about how to get to our goal, but I think that we have to work in a unified way. As I said, that's something that I look forward to, and it's something that I think I do well. Any specific plans? Well, I think it's going to be interesting to begin to talk with other leaders in the community. All of us, I think, in the progressive world are thinking long and hard about a variety of different approaches in terms of how we move forward. I think for my part--as I said, I can only speak for myself--and for HRC's part, going out across America and reintroducing ourselves to Americans is going to be first and foremost. Tell our readers a little bit more about yourself. Do you have a partner? What do you like to do in your free time? I'm single; I'm 40 years old; I'm originally from Massachusetts. The first campaign I ever worked on was Barney Frank's campaign. He is my hero, and he is someone who has inspired me to do this work for all these years. I moved down to Washington 12 years ago to work for Emily's List. I was in a long-term relationship, but as I said, I'm now single. And these days I have been traveling most of the time--most of my time was taken up in the last year or so being on the road for Emily's List. So with the exception of a 6:15 a.m. daily spinning class [laughs], that's about what I'm about limited to in terms of extracurricular activities. Last year Emily's List came under fire from gay activists for supporting Inez Tenenbaum in South Carolina. When you hear this brought up, what explanation do you give? Well, let me just start by saying that while it is not Emily's List's mission, I think it would be hard to find an organization that has done more to elect pro-GLBT candidates to Congress than Emily's List. And I think if you were to ask someone like Tammy Baldwin, she would say that the progressive women that we have sent to her over the years have been invaluable to her, and she and others have worked on behalf of the community. Having said that, it's Emily's List's mission to elect pro-choice Democratic women. And I had been charged by the 100,000 members of Emily's List to uphold that mission. That is what I did, and that is what I would expect the members of HRC and the community would expect me to do, as I take on this job. (Chad Graham, Advocate.com)

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