January 14, 2007
HRC gets Dem-jacked
Posted by: Chris
The answer arrived this weekend for anyone still wondering whether the Human Rights Campaign would maintain any semblance of nonpartisanship under Democratic operative-turned gay rights activist Joe Solmenese. This comes from a fawning profile in Saturday's Boston Globe about HRC's role in the election campaign last fall:
Playing down its support for gay marriage, the HRC mobilized its 650,000 members to staff phone banks, raise money, and participate in get-out-the-vote campaigns to elect candidates sympathetic to gay issues, even if they didn't support gay marriage. The group was the single biggest donor to Democratic state Senate races in New Hampshire, helping the party take control of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since 1874.
The group also helped congressional candidates from Arizona to Florida and Ohio, and party activists believe the organization can play an even larger role in the 2008 elections. The idea, leaders say, is to become a steady source of funds and grass-roots support for Democrats — more akin to a labor union than a single-issue activist group.
I can certainly understanding the decision not to adopt some sort of "suicide" strategy on marriage, refusing HRC support to all but the few candidates willing to back marriage equality. But HRC's new commitment to partisan politics goes far beyond that bit of political realism.
(An editor's aside: "Bipartisan" is among the most misused words in politics. Legislation gets called "bipartisan" if it has even one sponsor from "the other party," which is indicative of nothing more than a single party rebel. Even more often bipartisan, which means "marked by cooperation between two major political parties," gets used when really what is meant is nonpartisan, which means free from party affiliation or bias. HRC has long claimed to be "bipartisan," though you have to click to the jump page of its mission statement to find the word now. In fact, HRC aspires to be nonpartisan, or at least it used to.)
How has the hijacking of HRC by Democrats worked out so far? For one, HRC took money out of the fight against ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage, even when they would amend state constitutions. "Solmonese said the group decided after the losses of 2004 that they could be more effective by focusing on candidates instead of ballot initiatives," the Globe reported.
So instead, HRC sank money and support in favor of Democratic Party priorities, like winning a majority in the New Hampshire state Senate. In fact, the Globe reports, HRC was the single largest donor on New Hampshire state Senate races. How exactly does that move gay Americans closer to equality?
The effect of the new HRC strategy is to put all the gay movement's marbles in the Democratic Party basket, even though from Bill Clinton and John Kerry on down, the party has almost never taken a political risk for its gay constituents. The Globe story compares the new HRC strategy as akin to that of labor unions. We can all see how powerful they aren't, after sinking themselves into a one-party, no message strategy.
What's worse, HRC support for Democrats, especially in the most contested congressional races, often went to beat moderate and even pro-gay Republicans. They weren't targeted as such, but moderate Republicans are by and large from mixed, closely contested districts. So while you'll hear all sorts of gloating about the defeat of Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Democrat successes in most places came at the expense of GOP incumbents like Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick, another Pennsylvania Republican. Log Cabin endorsed Fitzpatrick, but HRC dumped him for Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy.
It's too soon to know whether HRC's blind faith in Democrats will bear fruit, or whether Solmonese will muster the courage to criticize his fellow travelers if they follow previous patterns. Color me skeptical. Solmonese came to HRC from Emily's List, a women's rights group that chose to officially align itself with the Democratic Party; clearly, Solmonese envisions something similar for the nation's richest gay rights group.
People like Solmonese so committed to partisanship will forgive all sorts of abuses from the party under the guise of buying into the bigger picture. They will invariably accept excuse after excuse why now isn't the time for Democrats to expend political capital on the civil rights of gay people.
The HRC "Massachusetts mafia" that hired Solmonese wanted a political operative, not an inspirational leader; and unfortunately, that's what they got. Anyone who's heard Solmonese speak, or listened to his satellite radio show, knows that his focus is all on the horse race. He must snooze his way through news articles about civil rights until he can get to the "good stuff" — who's up, who's down, raw politics. There's no harm in that, per se, but you hire that person to direct your political operations, not lead the whole organization, much less a movement.
"What makes you political powerful is money and membership," the Globe quotes Solmonese as saying. Notice that missing from that poli-sci lesson is anything about the message. In the Solmonese playbook, having a meaningful message just doesn't count. (Neither does Solmonese's claim about membership, since he admitted last year that HRC cooks the numbers, counting as "members" anyone who's ever given even a single dollar to the organization.)
The Solmonese partisan allegiance, along with his disregard for winning hearts and minds — as opposed to just votes — is what's really behind his decision to divert money from the ballot measures to backing Democrats. The mixed results from November — which included several close calls and a win in Arizona — prove these ballot measures are, in fact, winnable. And losing has a serious cost, given the difficulty of re-amending a state constitution to once again permit marriage (and in many cases, even civil unions).
But those aren't the biggest costs to the movement from Solmonese's failure to keep his eyes on the prize, as Martin Luther King, Jr., used to say. (Can anyone imagine the Civil Rights Movement putting the likes of Solmonese at its helm, much less suborning the dream of equality to one political party?) Unlike the countless, faceless races in which HRC spent gay rights money on somewhat-pro-gay Democrats, these ballot initiatives are about "our issues." They represent an important opportunity to engage the public on marriage, something our leaders always say we need to do more of but never seem to get around to doing.
In fact, HRC has wasted lots of money fighting marriage ballot measures, usually on ads that don't even advocate for marriage but instead invoke bland rhetoric about "not writing discrimination into the constitution" or making the argument that marriage is already banned by legislation. It's the kind of message that tests well with focus groups but (a) doesn't win elections and (b) does nothing to engage on the issue itself, reaching "the mushy middle" that is sympathetic to gay people but hasn't gotten over "the M word."
Rather than see the money was wasted because it didn't go toward the message, Solmonese has instead diverted crucial funds even further from the actual battleground. That's because the HRC of Joe Solmonese has given up reaching those people, and instead chosen the lobbyist end-run: giving money through the back door to buy politicians who it's hoped will show leadership. It's a big gamble and one that shows little faith in the power of the message. And it's certainly no way to run a movement.
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