Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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Leaders Lobby for Openly Gay Appointees

            Leaders Lobby for Openly Gay Appointees

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

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

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.

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.”

Tags: World, World

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