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Interview with Human Rights Campaign's Joe Solmonese [26 August, 2009]

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Joe Solmonese, executive director of Human Rights Campaign (HRC) , frequently finds himself in the eye of the LGBT political storm.  In recent years, criticism of the nation’s largest gay organization has increased, whether for what many described as the betrayal over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) or its rumored agnosticism over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT).  The organization recently unveiled a nationwide campaign, No Excuses, which aims to empower LGBTs everywhere to talk to their members of Congress about the issues facing them.  Solmonese talked to Windy City Timesover the phone about the campaign, and about a range of legislative and political issues.

Windy City Times: How would you explain the No Excuses campaign?

Joe Solmonese: We have a president who is poised to sign into law everything that we have been fighting for.  We have many more allies in Congress that we’ve had before, we need more help from the grassroots, we need people out across the country doing work to bring [our] legislative items to the finish line.  We reached out to our membership and to LGBT people across the country.  We asked them to go into the office of their member of Congress’ offices, in their district—reminding them that they are, in fact, their constituents—and tell their story.

WCT: Is this HRC changing tactics in the face of the anger felt by people around [the anti-same-sex marriage measure] Prop 8 and, more recently, in response to widespread LGBT frustration with Obama?

JS: What has changed is not HRC’s tactic.  What has changed is the dynamic of Congress in that the potential is there, but we’re finding far too many excuses for them not to do things.

WCT: How would someone who goes to the HRC Web site find resources above and beyond HRC’s FAQs? How is this different from similar campaigns by other organizations?

JS: You might be someone who lives in Boise, Idaho and live in a very challenging place, with many challenging members of Congress, without many HRC members around you.  We’ve had training conference calls; we’re having all sorts of interactive things going on with our membership so that you can be as armed as you can possibly be.  You might live in a Congressional district where the member of Congress is scoring 65 or 75 on HRC’s scorecard.  And there’s real work to be done to move that member from a 75 to a 100.  In that case, it’s very likely that the volunteer infrastructure or staff member would organize an in-district meeting, something almost akin to a town-hall meeting where we would bring all people in for a meeting with that member of Congress.

WCT: ENDA is looming once again.  As you know, HRC still comes under a lot of criticism for the last time, with many in the community using strong language like “betrayal,” What guarantee can HRC give that the same thing will not happen this time around?

JS: Well, it’s the same guarantee that we gave when it happened.  We understood, the last time around, that Congress was going to build support for this legislation and they used a time under a president who wouldn’t sign that legislation to build that support.  So when Congress brought a bill to the floor that they felt was not all that we wanted it to be but it was something that they felt they could build on, we supported that idea.  Every other piece of civil-rights legislation, things like the Family and Medical Leave Act [and] the American Disabilities Act; those were pieces of legislation that were built over years.

WCT: Are you saying that if the same thing were to happen, HRC would do the same thing?

JS: No, because now what has changed is that we have a president who will sign that law.  So the consequences are different.  Our commitment is now that no legislation will be signed into law that is not inclusive.  And that is because we laid down that legislation, a painful process that we went through to build on it, but we have done that work.  We believe that we have done a significant amount of work to close that gap and stand poised to pass fully inclusive legislation.  But if we are not there, if we are not where we need to be, then that bill will not move.

WCT: And you’re not saying that HRC is entirely responsible for ENDA?

JS: I can only say what HRC’s position is.

WCT: Which brings me to the perception that HRC does not set an agenda as much as it moves along pieces of legislation that it thinks it can win.  For instance, with DADT, as you know very well, both Jason Bellini and Nathaniel Frank have asserted that HRC had no interest, at least in the beginning, in DADT.

JS: First of all, Jason Bellini lied about almost everything he wrote and he is trying to make a name for himself as a journalist.  And Nathaniel Frank was completely wrong about what he said.  And there is nobody, which I find fascinating, in the administration or in Congress who has backed up the assertion that they have made that we have in any way said that Congress or the White House should wait or hold off on DADT.

But the notion that the largest LGBT organization in the country would, in any way, not be doing everything possible to try to overturn DADT is absurd.  There is no DADT bill in the Senate right now, so common sense would dictate that it’s very likely that hate crimes would pass before DADT.  I’ve got a news flash for people like Nathaniel Frank: There are many other issues like the overturning of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] , and there has not been a bill overturning DOMA in the Senate, either.  I think it would be a much more productive undertaking if people all got about the business of lobbying members of Congress and getting them to support legislation, rather than looking for someone to blame someone for the fact that it’s not far along as it should be.

WCT: Can you tell me about a specific instance where HRC spoke to a member of Congress about DADT?

JS: You could speak to our legislative staff and they could point you to a meeting almost on a weekly basis.  You have to remember that up until 2006, when you were talking to members of Congress, oftentimes you were talking in the abstract.

WCT: Regarding politics in general: Steve Ault’s recent Washington Blade article questioned why we should fight for things like DADT and marriage which, he suggests, are conservative issues.  As you know, though you talked about the last eight years, HRC has also been criticized for its own conservatism.

JS: It’s sort of laughable that we are called right-wing or conservative.  You know, we advocate for real LGBT people who are living their lives across America.  For instance, there is a tax that same-sex couples pay in order to access same-sex domestic partnership benefits that straight people do not have to pay.  So we are advocating to have that tax removed.

WCT: But about health care: Being married isn’t going to help if you don’t have health care.  There’s also a criticism of hate-crimes legislation, which HRC advocates, that it’s similarly conservative and heightens the criminalization of mostly poor people of color.

JS: The hate-crimes legislation was borne out of a real-life need that has been and continues to be expressed by local law enforcement as a need for them to—or for them to call on federal authorities to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.

WCT: Do we focus on criminal penalties or community education?

JS: I would say both.  I think if you were to ask Judy Shepard or me for that matter, [we would say that] community education and the work of bringing down the instances of hate crimes do not end.

WCT: So I’ll assume you are in favor of penalty enhancement?

JS: Yeah.

WCT: And that you’re not in favor of prison abolition, the position of groups like the Audre Lorde Project.

JS: No.

WCT: What’s the next step for HRC, your next projects?

JS: We are continuing to do the work we’ve done in expanding on our foundation, whether it’s our religion and faith program, and using our religion and faith counsel to push back on religion-based bigotry, or expanding on programs like our corporate equality index.  We’re also launching our health care index, where we’re going to be weighing in on hospital settings and the job they’re doing for LGBT people.

WCT: Can you talk a little more about health care and hospitals?

JS: It’s the same model as the corporate equality index, but for hospitals.  We basically have gone to hospitals and said: “We’re going to be rating you and the job that you’re doing in providing health care and a welcoming and equitable environment for your LGBT patients.  And so we started similarly by talking to hospitals, by coming up with a set of criteria by which we would measure them and we have begun that process and you might imagine that like corporate America, it’s really changing the way America’s health care settings are responding.  You can look at the first report; it’s actually on our Web site.

WCT: Can you point out one kind of legislative agenda that HRC has initiated entirely on its own?

JS: I would say we have really led the legislative agenda and have taken the leadership role in most legislative efforts.  Going back to the very beginning, of crafting the hate-crimes bill or the more specific things like the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act or eliminating the tax on [domestic-partnership] benefits.  I wouldn’t say we singularly did all this, but certainly led the drive on them.

WCT: You have also been criticized for endorsing Republicans.  Do you define yourself ideologically? That seems to be a question for many organizations these days.

JS: I think that we have a responsibility to ensure that we are bringing as many members of Congress to a place of being supportive of LGBT issues as possible, regardless of what side of the aisle they sit on.  To say that we are a Democratic organization and to dismiss the idea that there is any hope of bringing Republicans around LGBT issues would be short-sighted.  It may seem that today with Democrats having such big margins in both chambers, that it might be safe to do that.  But our job is to ensure that we have the greatest number of LGBT-supportive members of Congress as possible.

WCT: Regardless of their political orientation?

JS: Regardless of their political orientation.

See www.hrc.org .

RESPONSE FROM JASON BELLINI:

I find it disgusting and desperate that Joe Solmonese would attack my reputation as a journalist, and use the word “lies” to describe my reporting on the actions of his organization.  Everything that I reported is 100 percent true, and backed up by Senate sources with direct knowledge on this matter.  Since my report came out, others have come forward with corroborating details.  I’ve never had an axe to grind with Joe Solmonese or the HRC, and I would never risk my reputation as a journalist to “make a name for myself” on a single story, as Solmonese suggested in your article.  What would be my motivation to make up “lies”? The people who know my work know just how careful, and devoted to accuracy I am.

We should expect more from our leaders than ad hominem attacks.  I’m sorry if HRC’s fund raising is suffering as a result of the reporting by myself and others.  One of the jobs of the media is to let people know how their donations are being spent, and one of those ways, earlier this year, was in lobbying to discourage members of Congress from pursuing DADT.

Any questions about the quality of my sources should have been cleared up by the news I’ve broken exclusively in The Daily Beast since that HRC report.  I was the first to break the news that Senator Gillibrand was pushing, behind the scenes, an amendment to suspend DADT for 18 months, and then that the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee agreed to hold hearings on DADT in the fall.

I never intended for this to be about me, but I won’t let words like those used by Joe Solomonese (with whom I had a friendly relationship with before all this) go unanswered.  Joe, please knock off this hateful nonsense.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 26 August, 2009.


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