Like many, Human Rights Campaign Executive Director Joe Solmonese has his eye on the race to the White House. However, Solmonese knows that it takes a lot more than a fair-minded president to get work done on behalf of LGBT people.
Although HRC was able to celebrate some victories last year, such as both houses passing inclusive hate-crimes legislation, there were definite setbacks. Solmonese spoke with Windy City Times about the presidential race, how the tide is changing, the criticism HRC received last year during the ENDA battle and more.
Windy City Times: I primarily want to talk to you about the presidential campaign—it's such a stark contrast to four years ago.
Joe Solmonese: It's really been interesting to watch, I think. Certainly among Democrats, there is a degree of angst and concern about how the primary process has played out. For our community, as far as I'm concerned, it's a wonderful place to be in. We would be very enthusiastic about the nomination of either Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton. I think, if anything, our community is just we're ready for the general election. We're read to take on the fight. As you said, it's a stark difference from where we were four years ago.
WCT: Do you think this time around, not only as a community are we getting excited about this, but do you think the candidates are recognizing gay voters as a more powerful force than they have in the past?
JS: There is no question. I think that goes back to—if you look over the course of the past year—the LOGO debate that we sponsored with LOGO where we had almost all of the Democratic presidential candidates there. I think they came well-prepared, they were conversant on the issues and they were thoughtful about the issues. Obviously, the frontrunners are not where we want them to be on marriage equality, but again, we had something that we certainly did not have four years ago, and I think that was the beginning of a thoughtful debate about it. That's a debate that will hopefully continue.
WCT: There are some people who are frustrated, saying that candidates aren't bold enough about LGBT issues, but it sounds like you are saying there is still reason to be hopeful.
JS: This is a process. The fight for our rights is an ongoing, long-term process. As a community, what our power is really derived from is when we look at each opportunity and each set of circumstances and we make a decision that is going to serve us best. While Sen. Obama nor Sen. Clinton support marriage equality, the circumstance that we are faced with is who is going to be a better president for our community—one of them, or John McCain? The choice couldn't be clearer, so the work we need to do couldn't be clearer.
WCT: Even though John McCain might appear to be a lot different then say, Huckabee, he does have, wouldn't you say, a checkered past when it comes to LGBT issues?
JS: Yes. His rhetoric has certainly not been nearly as divisive as Gov. Romney or Gov. Huckabee, and he did vote against the Federal Marriage Amendment. [ However ] , I think in the case of Sen. McCain he cited his belief that the marriage debate was best left to the states. At the same time, his own state of Arizona was fighting a marriage ban, and that was a ban that he supported. You have to look at not just the actions in this case, but the words behind the actions to really get the full picture of Sen. McCain's views on marriage, hate crimes or any number of issues.
WCT: Do you see the Republican side, maybe later on down the road, using us as a wedge issue, like we have been used in the past, or do you think things have changed a little bit in that regard?
JS: I think the use of any group of any group of Americans as a political wedge tends to shift from election to election, and a lot of that has to do with the broader sense of circumstances that are influencing the election. We were used as a wedge in a post-911, post-marriage ruling time in Massachusetts, when you had a fearful electorate, when you had an electorate clinging to its faith and you had people like [ Bush's former Deputy Chief of Staff ] Karl Rove saying things like the one thing tearing at that faith is the gay community's fight for marriage equality.
I think we have a very different electoral equation this time. We have a much angrier electorate, we have an electorate that's much more mindful about what is going on around the world, much more concerned about the economy, so you have a number of different factors that seem to be pointing to the issue of illegal immigrants as the wedge issue of this election cycle. On the one hand, I think it is much less likely that we will be used as a wedge in these elections. I think that shouldn't give us any comfort when it only means that another group is being used as a wedge.
WCT: When you first came into HRC as the executive director, you had to deal with a Republican-controlled House, Senate and White House. As a group that primarily focuses on lobbying, what has changed? Are Democrats more willing to touch our issues?
JS: Oh, there is no doubt about that. There is no question. We certainly had a good number of Republicans supporting hate-crimes [ legislation ] . We certainly look to and count on people like [ U.S. Rep. ] Mark Kirk right out there in Illinois, who played a real leadership role on behalf of our community. I think it's not so much a partisan thing as it was about the people who are in control. I think the Republican leadership was the real problem for us. … Now we're seeing that the Democratic leadership has been really championing our issues both in the House and the Senate.
WCT: Do you think we, as a community, have learned a lot and changed since 2004, when we had multiple states approving same-sex marriage bans? Do we know how to organize better?
JS: I can only speak for HRC. Our goal, which we saw in 2006, was to use our power more wisely and in more strategic ways. We have power. We have the potential of power—it's just a question of how we use it. I think what we did so well in 2006 was, individually, to lift our sights out of our own backyard and our own neighborhoods and to really understand that there were some key places in the country that we had to focus our energy that were going to impact everybody in this country. We asked people in 2006 to send money to Pennsylvania to try to defeat [ former U.S. Sen. ] Rick Santorum. Rick Santorum may not represent Illinois, but he went to Washington every day and tried to make life to LGBT people in Illinois miserable. Our community, I think for the first time, stopped saying, 'What are you doing for me in my own neighborhood—how you are going to send the money back to my own backyard?' and we saw that, in fact, we are all connected across this country and our fate is connected, as well.
WCT: We're looking at the bigger picture.
JS: Exactly. I think we did that well and we focused our energy and resources on a much narrower set of races. We won the vast majority of them, and the National Journal said we were the second most effective organization in Washington last cycle. It made a difference. Democrats did take charge of the House and Senate and we elected a record number of fair-minded people to both bodies. We've seen the results of that over the course of the last year. But it doesn't mean we don't have a long way to go.
WCT: Let's go back to the election for a little bit, and talk about the role of gay delegates and superdelegates are going to play, since it is so close. What is the vital role these delegates will play?
JS: The superdelegate question and what they end up doing and who they end up nominating aside, I think that having LGBT Americans as delegates in attendance at the Democratic National Convention and in attendance in these caucuses, the importance of that is immeasurable because our issues are debated [ and ] discussed, and then we know while we are at the table, our issues are debated and discussed in a much different way—a healthier and more positive way. So that, in and of itself, is a big victory right there as far as I'm concerned, despite who they end up picking or who they end up nominated.
WCT: It's not as big of a deal as the fact that we are participating.
JS: Right. I think that's the most important thing.
WCT: Although a lot of people have their eye on the presidential race right now, that doesn't mean that HRC stops working on all these other issues. We're over a month into 2008. What are some areas you think we need to continue really focusing on and what is HRC going to hone in on this year, for sure?
JS: If you think about the fact that what we committed to our community on the heels of the 2006 election is that we would really begin to move legislation through Congress in ways that we have never had before. We knew that as long as George Bush was president, there was very little likelihood that they would be signed into law. We've made good on that promise. We passed an inclusive hate-crimes bill that passed the House and Senate. We began what I think is going to be a long journey towards an inclusive ENDA. We made the first step in passing a sexual orientation-only ENDA in the House. In order to move both of these efforts and all the other stuff we are working on—Don't Ask, Don't Tell, uniting American families, any of the same-sex relationship benefits that we can bring to people at the federal level—in order to do any of those things, the path could not be clearer to me. We need more LGBT-friendly members of Congress. That is certainly something we are poised to do this election cycle.
We need a president who will sign these bills into law. We are doing that and working harder than ever in electing another round of fair-minded people to Congress and, again, I think if you look at the possibilities in the Senate alone, we're probably going to elect another five or six pro-LGBT members to the Senate this election cycle and that's going to be incredibly historic. Then, holding the historical gain we've made on hate crimes and making sure we come back and vote on that again, that we continue to be victorious in both the House and the Senate and taking the lessons that we learned from ENDA, bringing it to a floor vote and understanding that, in fact, there is disparity in the House in the number of members who will vote for sexual orientation-only bill and the members who will support gender identity and getting a sense on what that gap is and doing the work that needs to be done to close that gap.
WCT: Speaking of ENDA, HRC received a lot of criticism and continues to do so because of the disappointment in how ENDA turned out. How do you respond to continuing accusations that HRC does not work on behalf of the entire LGBT community?
JS: I think the most important thing to note there is when you talk about how ENDA turned out—ENDA has not turned out at all, by any means. In some ways, I think we are the victims of our own success because we were so lucky with hate-crimes [ legislation ] and ... passed an inclusive bill through the House and the Senate that when circumstances unfolded differently in the House—and when we saw that there was a real disparity there around support for gender identity in the House—we took all the information that we had, and we took all the conversations that we had with members of Congress that we had about what would be the best way to begin this process, understanding that there was a desire to move forward on the sexual orientation-only bill—something that none of us were happy with, even those who were advocating moving it forward.
Don't forget this is a piece of legislation that had never been voted on in the House before. ... It would be the first step in what we anticipated would be a long road toward an inclusive bill. It is the course that every other civil-rights measure has taken. It is the course that the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, every other measure that has come before Congress, [ took ] . Often times, as we have stepped up to the starting point, the conclusion has been made that it is something we need to do in pieces. As much as that is the conclusion we came to here at HRC, I certainly understand that that would be grounds for a lot of fear and anxiety in the community that a group of people were being left behind.
WCT: You must feel a lot of pressure because HRC is viewed as the national organization for us, our voice in Washington. All eyes are on you at all times.
JS: Right, but sometimes a measure of leadership is to look at all of those facts and made a decision of moving forward that will ultimately get us to where we want to be in the most expeditious way rather than something that is going to maybe make us feel good, but not really get the process started at all. That's the weighty decision I was left with was is there a way to start this process and like building blocks, build one victory on top of another that will get us to an inclusive place, verses walking away from the process, have the bill pulled and brought back in a few years, perhaps no further along than we are now on educating members about identity because it would continue to be in the abstract, as opposed to the real.
WCT: You'd end up starting all over again?
JS: Right, an abstract about a piece of legislation nobody is thinking about because it is not coming to the floor for a vote. When something is scheduled to come to the floor for a vote, and the House whip is walking the halls of Congress getting that vote counted, that's when you get the true sense of where members are. I understand that's complicated and sometimes a hard thing to explain to people out there who don't do this stuff every day.
WCT: Is there anything you'd like to add about where HRC is headed and maybe the direction it has gone in and where you'd like to see it go?
JS: Beyond our political work, one of the ways that I think about organizing our work is that if there is a place in our country where Americans are congregating on a daily basis, whether it is the workplace, your community space, America's healthcare settings, your places of worship—if there are places where Americans are congregating on a daily basis, the Human Rights Campaign is going to be in that setting, trying to change the experience for those in our own community, and in the process, hopefully change that experience for everyone in that setting.