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Leaders Lobby for Openly Gay Appointees

Leaders Lobby for Openly Gay Appointees


LGBT leaders are meeting with members of the Obama transition team to push for appointing an out cabinet secretary and brief them on LGBT policy. Though no promises have been made, activists are hopeful more gay appointees will be added to the list.

LGBT leaders in Washington are working to simultaneously keep gay issues top of mind for President-elect Obama's transition team and drill home the importance of appointing an openly gay cabinet member, which would be a historic first for the community.

During the bulk of a two-hour meeting last Wednesday with transition leaders such as John Podesta and Melody Barnes, gay representatives made the case for appointing John Berry as secretary of the Interior, Mary Beth Maxwell as secretary of Labor, and Fred Hochberg as head of the Small Business Administration, said Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.

"We were highlighting some people who would make good appointees just to drive home the point that not appointing a gay or lesbian person would require a lot of work," said Wolfe, whose organization has vetted hundreds of out candidates through their Presidential Appointments Project.

Wolfe said the transition team was impressed with both the presentations and the level of work that had gone into screening for qualified candidates. "They pointed out the project as a model that they had shared with other constituency groups," he said.

The meeting also included of LGBT policy briefings from various groups in attendance, including the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Human Rights Campaign, National Center for Transgender Equality, National Black Justice Coalition, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, among others. Though Wolfe had a good feeling about the exchange overall, he added, "Judgments can only be formed after the results are seen."

David Smith, vice president of policy and strategy at the Human Rights Campaign, was not present but said HRC representatives reported a "robust and productive" discussion. "There was an acknowledgment that things have not been moving as quickly as we would all like," he said of the relative dearth of LGBT appointees. (Out Los Angeles deputy mayor Nancy Sutley has since been named to the administration's environmental team.) While no promises were made, Smith added, "There were assurances given that the transition staff got it and they understood that we want an administration that reflects the diversity of the country and you cannot do that without LGBT people in very senior positions."

Last Thursday the Human Rights Campaign policy staff also met separately with several working groups that are overseeing the transition in the departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, Labor, Education, Defense, and Housing and Urban Development.

Over a five-hour stretch, Smith said, they laid out a number of LGBT advances that could be made at each particular agency, the legal rationale that grants the authority to make those changes, and a road map on how to execute each initiative. HRC has more meetings planned with departmental working groups this week.

Smith, a Beltway veteran who has worked for HRC during both the Clinton and Bush administrations, said he has been "thunderstruck" by the positive interaction between LGBT leaders and the transition team.

"I was around in 1993 for the Clinton transition, it was nothing like this," he said. "We've never had this opportunity before in the entire history of our movement."

Smith said HRC hopes to role out a broad agenda in early 2009 that goes well beyond passing initiatives like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Matthew Shepard Act (a hate-crimes law), which Smith described as "low-hanging fruit" because it was "so ripe and so ready to go."

"I think there's a lot of optimism that some really good things can move quickly," Smith said.

Several sources familiar with transition discussions said that one area up for consideration is how the White House Public Liaison Office will be structured to communicate with different constituency groups.

"My understanding is that they clearly want to have a function in the public liaison shop that works with our community, but what that function is, who does that job, and what exactly is within their portfolio, I don't think has been worked out," Smith said.

Though President Bill Clinton, for instance, appointed a specific White House liaison to LGBT people, the Obama team is said to be contemplating making the White House staff diverse and representative of the country but without necessarily tying people to serving individual constituencies. The approach mirrors the one President-elect Obama took during the campaign, in which he fielded a diverse staff but tried to downplay interest group politics by doing things like limiting the amount of specialty press interviews he gave.

If the Obama team does indeed take that approach, "our hope is that there will be LGBT people around and that they are encouraged to speak up," said Wolfe, who once served as the only openly gay official in Florida governor Lawton Chiles's administration at a time when the state's Defense of Marriage Act was being debated. The model, said Wolfe, can give people the opportunity to speak their minds freely without the pressure of doing so simply because it's part of their job description.

"If you represent a certain constituency group, everybody is going to think that's your job -- that's what you have to do," said Wolfe, who coordinated a presentation to educate Governor Chiles on the issue. Even though he did not win that battle and DOMA became law, he added, "It was a great example of what just being there meant. It wasn't a part of my normal responsibilities, but it made sense that I would speak up about it."

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