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Democratic National Committee's Lesbian CEO Abruptly Quits

Dem National Committee CEO Jess O'Connell

Jess O’Connell, the first out lesbian to head a major party committee, resigned Monday as CEO of the Democratic National Committee — after less than a year on the job, and less than a week after giving an interview for a planned Advocate profile.

DNC officials said O’Connell is leaving for personal reasons and that she will stay long enough to oversee the transition to a new CEO. The committee, which is the governing body of the Democratic Party, is already searching for her replacement.

NBC News, which broke the story of O’Connell’s resignation, noted her role in a controversy during Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the 2008 presidential nomination. O’Connell, who was national director of operations for the campaign, wanted an adviser, Burns Strider, fired after an investigation of claims that he harassed a young woman who worked for him. But Clinton decided to keep him on, while docking his pay and ordering him to attend counseling — which sources said he did not end up attending, The New York Times reported Friday. The young woman was moved to a job where she did not report to Strider.

Asked by The Advocate if this had anything to do with O’Connell’s departure, DNC communications director Xochitl Hinojosa said, “That suggestion is not only ludicrous but completely false.” Regarding reports in various media outlets of disagreements between O’Connell and DNC chair Tom Perez, officials said these were no greater than what occurs in the normal course of business in a high-pressure job. The committee also released these statements from Perez and O’Connell.

From Perez: “Jess O'Connell joined the DNC at a time when our party needed it the most. Her leadership brought a laser-like focus on winning elections up and down the ballot. She helped build our Every Zip Code Counts strategy, oversaw unprecedented programming and support for state parties and campaigns, renewed our focus on data and technology, and helped lead us to 100+ victories in elections all across the country in 2017. Jess laid the groundwork for an infrastructure to win in 2018, 2020 and beyond. Her dedication to Democratic values and the party is like no other and I’m grateful for everything she has done and will continue to do for our party in the weeks, months, and years to come.”

From O’Connell: “Rebuilding the party will take time. While it isn’t an easy task, we developed a strategy, we implemented it, and we won races up and down the ballot in 2017. The DNC has recruited a talented team from all across America that works hard day and night to elect Democrats, and I have no doubt that they will lead our party to victory in 2018 and beyond. I am grateful to Chairman Perez for the opportunity to serve my party during such a pivotal time as we fight to protect and promote Democratic values and elect more Democrats nationwide. While I’ve made the decision to pass the baton, our work remains far from over and under Tom Perez’s leadership and direction, our party will continue to build on the progress we've made in 2017.”

In her Advocate interview, which took place last Thursday, O’Connell noted much of that progress. “We had a really big 2017,” said O’Connell, who had joined the DNC early that year as CEO, overseeing day-to-day operations and working closely with Perez.

The year’s events included not only big Democratic victories like Doug Jones’s defeat of homophobe Roy Moore in the special election for U.S. senator from Alabama and Ralph Northam’s triumph over Ed Gillespie for Virginia governor, but numerous wins for other offices and restaffing the DNC, often a necessity for political parties after a presidential election.

Among the various wins was that of Manka Dhingra over Jinyoung Lee Englund in a special election for the Washington State Senate, which flipped control of that body from Republican to Democratic. And there were several victories by LGBT Democrats, such as transgender candidate Danica Roem’s defeat of anti-LGBT incumbent Bob Marshall for the Virginia House of Delegates.

O’Connell also noted Every Zip Code Counts and the State Party Innovation Fund, programs that distribute funds to state parties to be used in grassroots organizing. A lesson gleaned from the 2016 presidential election was the importance of organizing everywhere, she said. She further touted the importance of early organizing, which took place in the Alabama Senate race and elsewhere — “We were on the ground in Alabama even before we knew Roy Moore would be the candidate” running against Jones — and improvements in technology.

O’Connell had brought a strong background to the job of CEO, having worked as executive director of EMILY’s List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office, and chief of staff and director of operations at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Earlier on, she worked for the Colorado AIDS Project, and her first political job was in the losing campaign of Democrat Stan Matsunaka against anti-LGBT Republican Marilyn Musgrave for an open congressional seat from Colorado in 2002. Musgrave is best known for seeking to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

Asked about criticism that the Democratic Party is focused excessively on “identity politics” — a category where some would put issues that particularly affect women, LGBT people, and people of color — she said appealing to a diverse electorate is consistent with American values.

“We are all focused on the same values — we want good jobs that pay good wages, health care, opportunities in education,” she said. It’s important to have a diverse group of people in the conversation, she added, so that everyone’s concerns are represented.

And it’s incumbent on the Democrats to fight the administration of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, she said. “They are the most anti-LGBT administration of my lifetime. … This is an all-out assault on our community, and it is worse than I expected.”

Now the DNC will seek a new CEO to aid in fighting back.

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