The Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) has hired Joe Solmonese as their next president. Rumors of the decision had been circulating for more than a week and were made official March 9. He starts on April 11.
Solmonese, 40, has worked for EMILY's List for a dozen years, the last two as the head of that group where he managed a budget of $40 million and a staff of 85. The organization describes itself as 'the nation's largest grassroots political network, dedicated to taking back our country from the radical right wing by electing pro-choice Democratic women to federal, state, and local office.'
He is a Massachusetts native who graduated from Boston University in 1987. He began his career as an aide in the office of Gov. Michael Dukakis and played a significant fundraising role in Rep. Barney Frank's 1990 congressional campaign. He came out in his early 20s and has been a volunteer with HRC.
Vic Basile cochaired the search committee that hired Solmonese. In an exclusive interview he said, 'Joe is quit a charismatic speaker … he is a tested political operative with a long track record, way outside the beltway. We're satisfied that he has the skills necessary to do a great job.'
Solmonese 'has traveled the country every other weekend' raising money for EMILY's List, Basile said. 'The organization has done very well and he has done all of the fundraising, and all of the management, and all of the politics in the top job there for the last two years. He has done enormously well over there, you can't argue with success.'
HRC and their last executive director, Cheryl Jacques, ostensibly parted ways over differences in management approaches, so it is understandable that the search committee focused on that area. Solmonese currently manages a staff almost as large as the one at HRC.
Basile said, 'We need somebody who can help people grow in their jobs and [who will ensure they will feel] nurtured by him.'
Chicago political consultant Michael Bauer has worked with Solmonese 'on a couple of races' and called the decision 'a great hire. Joe is very politically savvy, he has great interpersonal skills, and he is very smart.'
'The gay community is in desperate need of allies right now,' said Ken Sherrill, the doyen of gay political science who is a professor at Hunter University and has been active in Democratic politics in New York City.
'In general, the problems that we face are not unlike those faced by EMILY's List … except that women's rights are much more popular than ours are.' Sherrill says, many of those who attack gays use it as 'a veiled attack on women's rights.' He is hopeful that Solmonese might strengthen the ties between those two communities and open political doors in Washington.
But for the head of a powerful, highly visible political organization, Solmonese barely casts a public shadow. A Google search of his name turned up just over a hundred hits, most of which are listings as a cosponsor or participant in fundraising events. The next largest references concern the rumor of his appointment, and then saying nice things about his former boss when Mary Beth Cahill went to head up John Kerry's presidential campaign.
A search of the Washington Post and The New York Times drew no substantive hits. Nor did a search of the Emily's List Web site; paging through the news releases, the reader will see founder Ellen Malcolm always made their public statements. It is not an auspicious track record for the person destined to be a leading public spokesman for one of the most controversial groups in American society.
Basile was surprised to learn that. 'I don't know what to say to you. We're satisfied that he has the skills to be a very good spokesperson.' He noted that Solmonese 'is a man running a women's organization. It is important that women be up front in that regard.'
'The spotlight shines on the women, we are in the background,' Solmonese said.
'HRC to Red States: Drop Dead?' is how gay conservative pundit Stephen H. Miller responded to rumors of Solmonese's possible appointment on his blog.
'Selecting an abortion advocate identified exclusively with electing Democrats would ensure that, going forward, HRC continues to have zero clout lobbying the party that actually controls the presidency and Congress—which is fine with HRC, since it has zero interest in engaging Republicans (or, broadly speaking, red state voters) in any case. HRC is a feel–good fundraising machine for liberal Democrats, which is all it aspired to be.'
Basile took umbrage at characterizing EMILY's List as a liberal organization, 'It's more accurate to say that they stay focused on what their issue is, and support those candidates. There are a lot of people in this country who are pro-choice and not liberal.' Solmonese readily accepted characterization of the group as liberal.
The fact is, Solmonese has only worked for Democrats, and liberal ones at that. Couple it with the return of David Smith to a senior position at HRC, after a year working for the epitome of liberal Democrats, Sen. Ted Kennedy. HRC decidedly tilts toward one poll of the political spectrum and lacks equivalent experience and access to Republicans who control Congress and the White House. Some have suggested that in hiring Solmonese, HRC has essentially given up on trying to move a political agenda at the national level for the next four years.
When pressed, Basile said, 'We considered a lot of people in the search, and some of them were Republicans. We think we got the best candidate.' He believes that Solmonese 'is somebody with very long political roots that cross the [political] aisle.'
Sherrill says, 'Finding somebody who can work with Republicans is important, but in terms of our issues, there may not be someone to turn to. It may be that over the next four years all we can accomplish is to stop bad things from happening—it's stopping the barbarians at the gate.'
A Conversation with Solmonese
Excerpts from a conversation with Joe Solmonese on the morning he was announced as the new HRC leader.
BR: Why HRC?
JS: I have been associated with this organization since the fall that I came out, when I was 22. As a gay man, given all that has happened over the last year, I could not be more drawn to this place and this work.
BR: Biggest challenges?
JS: The biggest challenge that we need to take on is moving out across the country, reintroducing ourselves to America, and beginning this conversation again about why our equality is important to us, but also why it ought to be important to them.
Bringing religious leaders, corporate leaders, and political leaders together to have that dialog and to elevate that in a meaningful way is very important to me.
BR: Speaking to the red states?
JS: At EMILY's List, we have a real record of getting things done. What I bring to this is the experience of walking into a state like Kansas and saying, 'How can we get a pro-choice Democratic governor elected here?' What about the social fabric? What about the political climate?'
BR: Legislation and elections?
JS: Given the dynamics around choice, we have become much more focused on legislation; every week it seems there is a different assault on choice, either in a state or here in Washington. ... As we advance this [pro-gay] legislation, we don't just fight it here in Washington, we have to go out around the country and fight it from the bottom up … . It is affecting change at the grassroots and in the mindset of the states that creates an appetite and an enthusiasm for electing [supportive officials].
JS: It is in everything that we do, it is what we are working toward ... . As a political issue in the last election, it was not nearly as a divisive issue that people would have you believe. That election was decided on one thing, fear. ... We have marriage in Massachusetts and a natural reaction to that in a handful of states around the country. To me, that is the ebb and flow of social change. I like to say, it's as though you gave people the final exam on the first day of class. We have not immersed ourselves in an education around this issue—around why do we seek marriage.
BR: How to judge his effectiveness?
JS: Five-seven years down the road is key for us. The more successful we are at working in states throughout the country, as we approach the next [congressional] redistricting in this country, if we do what we need to do, that is going to be a wave that we are going to ride.