Thursday, June 04, 2009

Joe Solmonese Interview: Discusses Obama, Responds to Critics

Joe Solmonese, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, came on the show yesterday, joining me in the studio. I was glad he came to speak to listeners across the country who want to hear from the people who are actually meeting with White House officials and Democratic leaders in Congress on LGBT issues.

I've posted audio of the interview below, but for background, if you don't listen to my show, you should know that I have been complaining on the show that HRC has seemingly gone underground and has rebuffed interview requests since shortly after Joe Solmonese went into a meeting with the White House weeks ago (after the first complaints of Obama's lagging on gay issues arose) and came out saying to the NY Times that he was "pleased" and that the White House had a "plan."

Many people saw a pattern, a la the Clinton era, in which gay leaders apologize for an administration's inaction in order to protect their access, and then avoid questioning from the LGBT press. I was not the only one who couldn't get the usually responsive HRC to get Joe for an interview. Other gay journalists I'd spoken with lamented to me that they too were being told that Solmonese was "busy" with a tight schedule. Again, I talked about it on the show (sometimes to the chagrin of some HRC staffers), even joking that Dick Cheney has now come out of his bunker and Joe Solmonese has gone in it.

Then, all of sudden, we get a call from HRC yesterday, and they want to have Joe Solmonese come on, literally within a few hours.

What changed? A few things, perhaps. First, I'm not sure that it was a coincidence that the Jason Bellini piece was posted on the Daily Beast on the same day. Bellini reports that HRC has lobbied members of Congress not to move on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and to focus on hate crimes legislation first, following on HRC's incrementalist approach. HRC adamantly denies Bellini's report, which had no named sources, calling it an "outright lie." It's possible HRC wanted to get out front on this and give interviews immediately.

While Bellini had unnamed sources, I, however, have a named source saying exactly what Bellini reports, someone I interviewed several weeks ago on the show: Aaron Belkin of the Palm Center, the research institute that focuses on the military and sexuality, located at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Belkin writes often for The Huffington Post and interacts with members of Congress. (I have included a few-minute clip from that interview here as well). I didn't see or know about the Bellini piece when I interviewed Joe (it either had just posted or wasn't up yet), but I did ask him about what Belkin claimed. Belkin was relatively certain in what he told me:

AB: "...Our major national gay rights organizations -- it would be one thing to say nothing, but there is pro-active lobbying on the hill for Congress not to consider [the "don't ask, don't tell"] issue. And so the community has been appalling on this issue.

MS: Have you seen any response from any of those groups, and I guess we're talking about the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, other Washington groups?

AB:...We've heard from so many offices that not only are they not doing anything but they're pro-actively lobbying against consideration of the issue. I feel very confident in saying that.

NGLTF doesn't lobby on the hill, so the reference was clearly about HRC. Joe Solmonese denied this claim when I quoted it, though for accuracy's sake I should state that I asked him specifically about lobbying the White House on the issue and not Congress.

The other things that have changed which perhaps have made HRC, rightly, realize they need to communicate with the LGBT public about their interactions with the White House revolve around the rapidly shifting political and cultural terrain, in the country but also among LGBT activists in recent weeks. Prominent activists Cleve Jones and David Mixner, joined by many others, have called for a march on Washington. Another group of activists met in Dallas and came up with the Dallas Principles, which challenge HRC's approach. And a group based in Hollywood has formed specifically to back Ted Olson's and David's Boies' challenge to Prop 8 in federal court -- a legal challenge that many gay groups, including HRC, oppose, fearing that is too risky and could result in a setback decision. The director Rob Reiner, Academy Award-winning "Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and Chad Griffin, a former Clinton administration staffer (who also is an executive producer of the film "Outrage") are among those on the board of the group, The American Foundation for Civil Rights. It's safe to say that a group like this, especially, is somewhat of a threat to HRC because it has access to money and big names.

With all of this going on, and with the criticisms of Obama on the gay blogs and in the media, surely HRC doesn't want to seem completely irrelevant and perhaps is concerned the train is leaving the station, as one blogger said to me. It's interesting that Joe mentions the Dallas Principles and the Ted Olson federal legal challenge without my asking him about them. (It was in the context of a question I asked about something else people are talking about: pushing an omnibus gay civil rights bill that includes everything rather than the incrementalist approach HRC has embraced and which many people feel is outdated.)

This is the Solmonese interview:

And this is a clip of the Aaron Belkin interview which I referred to in the interview with Solmonese; we were discussing the study the Palm Center released which showed that Obama could stop the discharges of gay and lesbian soldiers with an executive order, even with the "don't ask, don't tell" policy still in place. The pertinent statements come at about the 2:10 mark.

UPDATE: Senator Schumer's office has put out a statement refuting the Daily Beast story: "Sen. Schumer has never said the White House didn't consider the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' a priority, and he never said the Human Rights Campaign struck some quote-unquote deal on this issue. Any rumors to the contrary are flat-out wrong." Jason Bellini had tried to get a response from Schumer's office when he produced his piece, but they offered no comment at the time.