This week we continue our interview with Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the national Human Rights Campaign.
You can see the first part on our website, www.outlineschicago.com, or send for copies.
At Birch's side for the interview was Chicagoan Jeffrey Sachse, co-chair of HRC's national board of directors, and an attorney with Krasnow Sanberg Cornblath & Hobbs. Sachse emphasized several times that while Birch is often targeted because of the actions of HRC, the board of directors and board of governors stands firmly behind her. They are also responsible for many of the decisions and endorsements of the group, and Sachse said some actions, such as the controversial HRC decision to endorse incumbent Republican Sen. Al D'Amato in New York, are the responsibility of the board.
Outlines: Do you think there is still fallout for HRC for the D'Amato endorsement? There were certainly comments made after that were seen as racially loaded. The comment about "maggots in a barrel" fighting each other, in response to a Latina lesbian's criticism of HRC's endorsement. Where is the status of HRC in New York?
Birch: First of all, that quote, was never presented as a proper quote. I would never say that. The reason you heard about it here is because some took it out of context, and were able to rally around it around the country. But, having said that, I was very sorry that that perception was there and certainly did what I could to correct it immediately. I think they had nothing to do with each other ... well, that's not true, Carmen had written a very, very, sort of vitriolic piece, calling for our downfall. I thought it was over the line. I tried to write back in an intelligent way. That language was about ... you know that it's ironic, I read that Tom Swift piece in Outlines [about political activists eating their own], not that I endorse it, but it was the same about us ... that the allegory about us not eating each other, not hurting each other. When people become very pressured, there are two ways to go. One is to unite and try to figure out what is the opposition and how can we truly change things, and try to appeal to their minds and hearts. The other is to turn on each other. And although I think we have made tremendous progress, I think we're moving into sort of Ground Zero in a way we've never seen before.
I think the right has every reason to use us as one of the last tangible tools to sort of unite their following. And if the pressure feels more acute, it's for a reason, because it is. There are more resources being spent to organize against us. There's a lot more researching and polling and message developing to counter the hard work we've all fashioned together. I think there's a lot to be said for some unity.
I had been very, very concerned about the D'Amato decision. I have to say it's one that I'm proud of the process we employed, however difficult it was. Many of us are Democrats, and it did not feel like a natural thing for many of the people on the board, and frankly for me personally.
But as an institution, I think we acted in a very fair and even-handed and bipartisan way. And if what we're asking for is basic fundamental fairness from the country, I think we owe it to ourself to apply basic fairness to our rules and our review process for how candidates perform. It's interesting, because we're in the process of going to presidential candidates and they are filling out our questionnaires on how they stand. Some of the staff say, "wow, all these issues." And ironically, D'Amato was good on almost all of the issues. Sometimes people didn't want to let the facts get in the way.
But I came back in January, very concerned. You are absolutely right, it was a very, very ... a firestorm at HRC, and I was worried about a serious economic impact among the rank-and-file membership. I'm not saying anything justifies anything, I'm just telling you. Against a $13 million budget, we brought in $15 million. Thousands and thousands were individual memberships. And we maintain a pre-D'Amato level of membership in New York. So I thought there may be an exodus, the board thought so, we planned for it, but quite the contrary. Not that we don't have to continue to try to engage New Yorkers and empower our leadership in New York and continue to engage in good faith and have open discussions about decisions. We have gone in and done a Town Hall meeting, and need to communicate with our members.
Outlines: Did any board members leave because of the endorsement?
Birch: One. No staff left. The biggest untold secret about the Human Rights Campaign is that we have incredible collegiality, within the staff, within the boards.
Outlines: Is it just that you're an easy target? With the March on Washington?
Birch: I think big organizations make big targets.
Sachse: It's very interesting to me as the board co-chair that people automatically assume that whatever decision was made was Elizabeth's personal decision alone. That's not true. Our staff and our board work very much in partnership. Part of our role as board members is to support the executive director and the rest of the staff when the decision is finally made.
Birch: The D'Amato decision was absolutely a decision of the board of directors. It was long discussed and analyzed, and really carefully teased apart.
Sachse: And contrary to any rumors, it was not a pre-wired decision. It was something that was vigorously debated, up until the time that the actual vote was taken [by the board].
Outlines: From here, a Chicago perspective, is that the March on Washington issue is controversial in part because of Birch's role on the board and in creating the event. What were some of the reasons you stepped off the March board?
Birch: I felt that in a way that certain activists in their rage, legitimate or not, about HRC's role in the D'Amato decision, sort of continued to ... re-ignited stuff around the Millennium March. I felt it was an unfair formulation ... to take what was a stand-alone event, that it should have to be dragged through that filter. I also thought Donna Red Wing had a lot to bring to the table [Red Wing, a staffer at HRC, filled Birch's position on the March board; now that Red Wing is going to the Gill Foundation, another HRC person may be appointed to that March board position]. Frankly, it was a lot to be doing the March as a board member, and with running HRC.
Outlines: You mentioned Democratic politics, and the presidential elections coming up. There was a Marching on Washington Town Meeting here. One of the huge issues was that a lot of what's going to happen at the March is pre-determined, that there are favors owed to Al Gore, and it will turn into a Gore presidential rally in D.C. A lot of the liberal groups believe HRC and other national groups are going automatically for Gore. What is HRC doing to address this? Being a bi-partisan organization, and independent, confronting that issue that Gore is not going to get a free ride.
Birch: No. 1, the primaries will be over, so it will have nothing to do with the Millennium March. Everyone's going to know who the Republican and Democratic nominees are. At that point, and frankly well before that, as we all know, it's not rocket science. You take someone's record, you analyze it carefully, you make sure you're fair and even-handed in doing so. We'll move through that process and probably make our determination well in advance of the March on Washington. I'd be hard-pressed to understand who the people were making these comments, what candidate it is they want to back.
Outlines: Maybe not. A lot of them are people who say why give support to anyone ... with Gore's background on AIDS drug funding in Africa, or backing "don't ask, don't tell." Any electoral politics it not good enough for some individuals. But having the national groups support somebody who has different opinions than they do on gay rights ...
Sachse: I think it's very important for people to understand that HRC has not made an endorsement in the 2000 race. There will not be an endorsement made for quite some time. As Elizabeth said, we will apply the process fairly and even-handedly to all the candidates, Democrat and Republican. There are individual board members affiliated with our organization, who have made decisions about who they think is the best. Not on behalf of the organization, but personally.
Next week: Dealing with conflicts of interest, and lobbying efforts of HRC.
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