Washington insider Chad Griffin to lead gay rights lobby as new president of Human Rights Campaign

By Claire Veyriras, California News Service

WASHINGTON D.C. – Chad Griffin, a leader in the fight against California’s ban on same-sex marriage, will take the reins of the nation’s largest gay and lesbian lobbying organization on Monday.

Griffin will be sworn in as president of the Human Rights Campaign, just days after a federal court refused to reconsider its ruling overturning California’s ban, a development that likely will bring the matter before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 38-year-old former White House press aide is expected to bring aggressiveness and independence to an organization that some gay and lesbian activists have faulted for being too cautious and beholden to the Democratic Party.

Though Griffin lost the fight to defeat Prop. 8, he is credited with crafting an effective message and soliciting established lawyers from opposite ends of the political spectrum – including President George W. Bush’s solicitor general Theodore Olson – to challenge it in court.

“Chad coming on board of the HRC now is a really perfect timing,” said Kate Kendell, the executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights. “The country is definitely shifting in term of its receptivity to supporting the right of same-sex couples to love and marry.”

Griffin replaces Joe Solmonese, who announced he would leave his post last year after serving as president since 2005. Solmonese was named a co-chair of President Obama’s re-election campaign last February.

Griffin will take over an organization which counts over a million members and a $40 million budget. He declined to be interviewed until he begins his new post.

The Washington-based organization has been criticized for being too quick to compromise, such as when it agreed to support a workplace equality law that excluded protections for transgenders.

Griffin has been emphatic about including lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders in all issues HRC faces.

“When I say `LGBT,’ I mean every single letter,” Griffin said during an earlier interview with Frontiers Magazine, a Southern California LGBT magazine.

Before Obama embraced same-sex marriage, Griffin criticized him, calling it “a step backwards.”

Griffin is expected to reach out to Republicans in addition to Democrats as part of his strategy to make the HRC more inclusive, as he did in the Prop.8 lawsuit.

His brand of advocacy is seen as a shift in tactics for the HRC and an effort to bring together different supporters of the LGBT cause.

“Chad has the credibility to unite the HRC family and propel the organization to a more visible activist role,” said Carole Migden, a former California state senator who first met him when he was leading Rob Reiner’s foundation, Parent’s Action for Children.

“His zeal, plethora of `A’ list contacts and acumen of “rough and tumble” inside politics makes him ultra-suitable for the job,” Migden said.

Griffin was born in Hope, Ark., the same town as President Clinton, and moved to Fresno when he was a high school student.

He brings a resume and list of contacts that impresses people on both ideological sides.

“I don’t know him well and we are on opposite sides but I admire his work,” said Frank Shubert, the national political director of the National Organization for Marriage, who managed same-sex marriage ban campaigns in several states. “He is very qualified for the job, and is very professional.”

Griffin has strong Washington connections as a founding partner of the consulting firm Griffin | Schein. One of his former business partners, Kristina Schake, is Michelle Obama’s communications director.

Griffin raised his profile to the national level by co-founding the American Foundation for Equality of Rights (AFER) in 2009 to organize, publicize and fund the California Prop.8 lawsuit, known as Perry v. Schwarzenegger.

The Advocate, one of the nation’s largest gay newspapers, named him one of its “People of the Year” in 2008. As the leader of “No on 8” campaign he reached out to his wealthy contacts such as the actor Brad Pitt who pledged $100,000 to fight the proposition.

Pitt participated in Griffin’s play called “8” along with other Hollywood actors such as George Clooney, Jane Lynch and Martin Sheen. Griffin also convinced business magnate Ron Burkle to host a $500 per person fundraiser with performances by Mary J. Blige and Melissa Etheridge.

Griffin got his start in Washington politics at age 19, serving under President Clinton’s White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, which made him the youngest staffer to ever work in the West Wing.

He has been a leader on many non-LGBT issues including clean energy, health care, stem cell research, and education.

He led the campaign that created a California institute devoted to stem cell research as well as California’s Clean Alternative Energy Initiative, and a proposition on early childhood education which generates $600 million a year.

He was also the executive producer of Kirby Dick’s film “Outrage,” which depicts politicians who lobby for anti-gay legislation in the U.S.

Solmonese, the outgoing HRC president, counts among his successes the establishment of the Religion and Faith Program which aims to debunk the idea that religion and LGBT issues are at odds. In 2008, the National Journal ranked the HRC as one of the five most effective interest groups.

However many have criticized the HRC under his presidency, labeling it as elitist. Solmonese has been accused of rubbing shoulders with the Obama administration, prompting some advocates to complain that the organization has become too partial to the Democratic Party.

Griffin’s nomination has not satisfied everyone. Some gay activists say that his presidency will not be enough to improve the HRC.

“The Human Rights Campaign still sucks. It will take more than a new executive director with great qualifications to undo the decades of waste, political laziness and hardcore elitism,” blogged Michael Petrelis, a gay activist, reacting to Griffin’s nomination.

Yet with Griffin taking over, most people expect the HRC to be more virulent in its criticism of the White House, regardless of the outcome of the November election. Griffin is known for his ability to be impartial and to treat LGBT issues in a bipartisan manner even if that means criticizing Democrats.

Griffin displayed his willingness to reach out to Republicans at AFER by enlisting Olson and Ken Mehlman, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, to help overturn Prop. 8.

“Chad will certainly aggressively lobby on Capitol Hill and seek unlikely allies – that is Republicans – and use Olson to be part of the LGBT cause to increase its impact,” Kendell said.

Griffin has suggested that he will not focus solely on same sex marriage.

“It’s not any one thing that impacts the life of a gay person,” Griffin told Metro Weekly. “We have to fight the battle on all fronts, whether it’s school bullying, an inclusive ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) or a whole host of other things, political or otherwise.”


The California News Service is a journalism project of the University of California Washington Center and the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Email: cns@ucdc.edu.

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