January 21, 2008
We invested $100 million, and all we got was this lousy T-shirt
Posted by: Kevin
The Democratic presidential race has come perilously close to devolving into a fight over identity-loyalties and fear-mongering rather than a debate over the issues and the future of our nation. Supporters from both campaigns have been appealing to "loyalty" to one's race (Obama) or one's gender (Clinton) rather than debating the issues in depth, fearlessly. While Obama has taken clear steps to stop such efforts on his behalf, the Clinton machine has been going into frantic overdrive since their defeat in the Iowa caucuses to fan its flames to their advantage.
Appeals to the lowest common denominator are usually a sign that you really don't want to compete on vision or policy, nor that you really want to be held accountable for your record or your ability to deliver on your promises. This is no purely Democratic tendency. The Republican far right has used fear-mongering to hide its shortcomings and mendacity since the Nixon Administration, and the GOP deserves to pay a price every time it cleaves to such tactics instead of telling the truth.
It's becoming a tendency of the gay movement as well. This is sad, because on the core ideals of what we say we stand for, we are right. We deserve to prevail. But the most powerful among us, as they compete for our attention, our votes and our money, too often fall into the same trap of demanding loyalty in the face of being held accountable. And in turn, the soul of the gay movement is ripped out.
Much like their eponymous and clearly-favored candidate in the Democratic primaries, the unquestioned behemoth among gay political organizations -- the Human Rights Campaign -- has spent the past several months boasting of the resources and staff it is devoting to primary states and campaigns, without even explaining what they're doing there or what their measurable goals are. This is troubling, given the enormous policy challenges we face as a community. There is no question that HRC and its allies delivered votes in 2006 that helped install the Democratic leadership in Congress, raising expectations that have been dashed as of now, since the same Congress has delivered on none of its promises to gay voters after a year in office.
It's common knowledge that HRC is a major player in the Democratic Party among outside organizations. Its then-executive director, Elizabeth Birch, was given a prime time speaking slot at the 2000 Democratic Convention, and the group has given the overwhelming share of its money to Democratic candidates, the national Democratic Party, national Democratic PACs and organizations, and to state Democratic parties for nearly two decades. A back-of-the-envelope calculation from searching out public statements on their various annual budgets, plus their PAC and foundation spending, puts the total amount of money they've spent at about $100 million since their founding.
HRC has earned the right to make demands on the Democratic Party, and to hold it accountable for its failures. But has it done so?
Let's do some comparative analysis among what some HRC partisans have inferred are "lesser" organizations:
- The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, with an annual budget ranging somewhere around 10% of HRC's, gives no money to candidates or political parties. Its then-executive director Torie Osbourne participated in a White House meeting with Bill Clinton, but did not flinch from condemning the "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it was adopted: "It says something about his character that he sparked the debate and then ran," she said publicly of the sitting president. That has come to typify their leftish-independent streak. Merciless with Republicans not only for anti-gay positions, but on things like economic policy, foreign affairs and affirmative action, NGLTF also stood for years in favor of a trans-inclusive ENDA. Say what you want about their beliefs, they stood by them on every occasion and doled out criticism to those they felt deserved it. Did NGLTF flinch ever from holding the powerful to account for failure to keep promises? In my 20 years of activism, I don't remember an occasion.
- The Log Cabin Republicans, an organization that opened a national office in 1993 (full disclosure, one I worked at for 10 years), has less than 1/30th of the budget of HRC. Its mission has always been a narrow one, and its role within the bigger picture very distinct. It is a partisan organization seeking to impact the GOP from the inside on gay issues, by both accountability for bad things and praise for good things. Log Cabin has gotten worldwide media attention, and since its founding has been the one gay organization to have any real impact on the GOP at any level. When it came to taking on their own political party, Log Cabin wasn't shy in praising local, state and national Republican officials when they did the right thing - from backing marriage rights, to signing pro-gay executive orders or legislation, joining as co-sponsors on pro-gay bills, making pro-gay public comments or gestures like marching in pride parades. They were often alone in that praise among gay groups. But when it came to holding Republicans accountable, Log Cabin also did so. Some examples here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. To name a few.
- Then there are gay Democrats themselves. No one ever expected the Stonewall Democrats to hold the Democratic Party accountable for anything it did. Nor did anyone ever expect gay staffers at the DNC to consider putting anything but their party first. But when Paul Yandura, one-time leader of Stonewall, publicly criticized the DNC for its failure to take any action against the wave of anti-gay referendums appearing all over the country in the 2006 election cycle, the DNC retaliated by firing his partner, Donald Hitchcock (a former HRC staffer), as its gay outreach director. As reported by the Washington Blade and this blog, Hitchcock's lawsuit against the DNC for their retaliatory action has revealed internal communications among gay staffers at the DNC which speak to a contempt for the independent gay press, for lesbian columnist Deb Price of the Detroit News, and an overriding need to do whatever was possible to keep DNC Chairman Howard Dean from ever having to face the gay marriage referendum issue in public.
So amidst this background sampling, and considering its gigantic size, budget, staff and public profile, what has HRC comparably done to ensure the accountability of the party it has invested so much in for so, so many years?
I'd like to know. Cuz I couldn't find anything.
I did stumble across an open letter that Log Cabin wrote to Birch in 2000 as she prepared to give her history-making address at the Democratic Convention, asking her to hold that party accountable and listing its many shortcomings. Then I re-read the speech she later gave. Then re-read her recent comments about whether anything had been accomplished in the decade leading up to her historic moment on prime time television.
To paraphrase Torie Osbourne, the juxtaposition of it all says something about character. Perhaps it's off-base to question Elizabeth's character; I know her to be a nice person, and a caring person. But this one juxtaposition is part of a broader question about whether the biggest, the richest, the most powerful among the gay movement's organizations, after all that money invested, is even interested in -- or at this point, genetically capable of -- holding the Democrats accountable.
One or two readers call this "beating a horse" or "HRC bashing". But others calls it accountability. They call it democracy. And I call it incredibly important stuff for gay Americans to be doing in every election year.
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