This piece is a very long extension of a story cross-posted at FrontiersLA.com.
(Editor’s note: I’ve known Torie Osborn since 1986 when she worked as the communications director for David Mixner’s Pro Peace: The Great Peace March. In 1989, when I started writing for the gay press, I covered Torie when she was the executive director at the LA Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center. After she left, based on interviews with several very reliable sources, I reported a story that the Center was in a financial mess after her departure. During our almost two hour interview for this story, she explained what happened after she left the Center and NGLTF, information I think is important to LGBT history. Therefore this opus of interview, history, fact checking and some personal opinion is in three sections: the first is the story in Frontiers, followed by comments from supporters, then the extended interview regarding the 50th AD race, followed by the LGBT historical piece – Karen Ocamb)
50th AD Candidate Torie Osborn Challenges the Sacramento ‘Machine’
One of the most explosive races in California is the battle for the 50th Assembly District in the Westside of Los Angeles. Of the four candidates in the June 5 open primary, much of the attention has been focused on the battle between Assemblymember Betsy Butler and Torie Osborn, the energetic lesbian community organizer who has become both a lightening rod and a voice for those raging against the “machine.”
But Osborn is no political novice. Her savvy team of advisors includes former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, LA City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl’s chief deputy Mike Bonin, and Democratic marketing and messaging strategist Dante Atkins. Leading up to the California Democratic Convention, Osborn plainly out-organized her rivals by buying memberships to local grassroots Democratic clubs that then endorsed her. While some longtime club members complained, the procedure is a longtime practice and was totally by-the-rule-book legal.
But at a time when the Occupy Wall Street movement has awakened grassroots activism and in a state where the budget deficit seems perennially out of control, this 25-year Santa Monica resident with an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and many years as director of four non-profit social change advocacy organizations has caught the attention of a range of supporters from billionaire gay philanthropist David Geffen to Venice activist/blogger Marta Evry.
“Sacramento is broken, and we need fixers. Torie has the three things it will take to be an effective Assemblymember: an intimate knowledge of her district; skill at working with people of all views to build consensus; and the experience and ability to create opportunity from crisis,” Bonin told Frontiers. “From the Gay & Lesbian Center to the United Way, from Liberty Hill to the mayor’s office, Torie’s passion has been creating solutions, empowering people, and improving people’s lives. She’s not a politician; she is a proven problem solver.”
At the start of an almost two hour interview, Osborn noted three polls suggesting that either she or her rivals – Butler, Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom or gay Republican attorney Brad Torgan could wind up in the top-two spots for a November election run-off. “I think the story is that the race is totally up in the air,” Osborn told Frontiers. “There is no leader, in terms of the voters who have already decided. The majority are undecided and the race is anybody’s to win.”
Osborn is counting on the LGBT community in pockets of the 50th District such as West Hollywood to help her win. Indeed, her campaign has flooded the mailboxes of likely LGBT voters, much to the consternation of some environmentalists. She often quotes the late icon Harvey Milk’s directive “that we must continue to elect our own to represent us,” especially since the LGBT Caucus will be minus a lesbian when Christine Kehoe terms out.
“Part of the dynamic of this campaign is that both of my Democratic opponents have strong LGBT backing,” Osborn said. “So it’s absolutely critical because of term limits that we continually elect our own to protect existing rights as well as advance our rights.”
But the LGBT Legislative Caucus – including openly gay Assembly Speaker John A. Perez – has endorsed strong straight ally Assemblymember Betsy Butler, as has the LGBT lobbying organization Equality California on which Butler sits as a board member. One of the more controversial aspects of Osborn’s campaign is her harsh rhetoric indicting Perez as part of the Sacramento “machine” and “the incumbency-protection racket.”
“I’m an effective, pragmatic person. I have always been good at doing the leadership work that’s necessary to build a winning coalition. It’s worth mentioning that of EQCA’s 12 bills last year, that my opponent championed none of them. My opponent received the Equality California endorsement without my getting an interview. It was self-dealing. It was absolutely the worst example of incumbency-protection and self-dealing that I, frankly, am running against and that the voters are sick and tired of.
Listen I’ve had 48 meetings in Sacramento. They have all gone fantastically. Sacramento, except those who are part of the incumbency-protection racket, is ready, willing and able to embrace me with open arms. My capacity to build and maintain relationships across the board – with multiple constituencies – with labor, with business, with all kids of constituencies – will be excellent.”
Osborn remains livid over Perez and the Democratic Party designating Butler as an incumbent seeking re-election rather than recognizing Butler as a “carpetbagger” who moved into Osborn’s district despite the citizen-initiative-created Citizen’s Re-Districting Commission designating the new 50th AD as an open seat. However, Osborn is confident that after she wins, all hard feelings will be smoothed over.
Asked to identify “the machine,” Osborn said, “We’re talking about the Speaker’s Office, we’re talking about the existing lobbyists – the Sierra Clubs – all circled the wagon. It’s not just the Speaker. It’s an entire Sacramento machine that circles the wagons around those who have already been elected….It is not personal about me or Richard Bloom. The machine is amoral. It is not about a person. It is simply doing what it does. The Speaker is doing his job.”
Torie Osborn has generated some very strong supporters:
I support Torie because our state is literally bankrupt. Whatever we have been doing we cannot keep doing. Torie is a movement person, not just a movement candidate. She leads by empowering. She listens, thinks and acts to build and drive a vision. She is transformational, not transactional.
As we speak, Courage Campaign and our allies are fighting Democrats in Sacramento for a Homeonwer Bill of Rights. We’re fighting Democrats. Why? Because banks have money and use it. Torie would be there right now fighting to win passage of this crucial bill. She’d not flinch.
A victory for Torie will be a victory for LGBT people, on whose shoulders so many of us stand. It will be a victory for progress. And it will be a victory for independent-minded voters who care about our future.
On a personal level, I have known Torie for nearly 20 years when she served as interim-ED of Food and Friends in DC on which Board I was. She has mentored me and so many others over the years. When Prop. 8 passed, Torie was the first one to see that the community needed training. She invented Camp Courage and infused our community with the power of the Story of Self. And that indeed is what President Obama referred to when he announced his evolution on marriage. It’s all stories. It’s all people. And that’s Torie.
After Prop 8 passed, the under 30 generation was angry, disillusioned, and a little lost. Everyone wanted to take action, to do something, but many of us weren’t sure how or where we should focus our efforts. Camp Courage brought the situation we were facing into focus and gave us the tools to do something about it. It couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. People were so upset that voters had taken away our ability to marry the person we love, and it was difficult to talk about it without being angry and reactionary. Camp Courage became the first step in a healing process that honestly many of us did not know we needed. Camp Courage then helped people get comfortable with their own stories and develop those stories into a compelling elevator speech, which is an extremely useful tool that can be applied across issue areas. For me, it taught me how to talk calmly and rationally about the issue of marriage equality and to explain to people who don’t agree with me why it is wrong to deny me the freedom to marry. It also gave me formal organizing training which has been vital for my role as LGBT Liaison for Mayor Villaraigosa and also in my work with the City Council as his Legislative Director.
For the last year Torie has been building an impressive grassroots effort for the open 50th District Assembly seat. She has held training sessions to teach rudimentary campaign skills for those working in a campaign for the first time. Her issues would be the pride and joy of the current populist mood and would make anyone in Occupy Wall Street very proud. She has lined up extremely impressive endorsements from Labor, community leaders, homeowner associations and local elected officials. She has raised a significant amount of funds for her race.
She has done everything right.
Then Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (a friend of the LGBT community) didn’t like her new district and simply moved into the one that Torie has been working for a year. Of course it is her right to do so but it is also our right to do a big “say what?”
Torie Osborn is no new kid on the block who hasn’t earned her right to win this election.
Tom Hayden in The Nation:
Osborn is not just another progressive candidate. As she jokes, she’s “a lesbian with an MBA”—and more. After years of fighting for LGBT rights and other causes, she threw her energy into the 2008 Obama campaign because of her belief in the necessity of organizing broader coalitions. At the time, the LGBT community was in a losing and confusing battle over Proposition 8, which overturned the legalization of same-sex marriages in the state. In the midst of that battle, Osborn helped to obtain Obama’s endorsement of the “no on 8” position, which would have boosted support for the LGBT stance among African-American and Latino voters. After the campaign against Prop 8 went down to bitter defeat, Osborn was critical of what she called the “insularity” of the LGBT leadership who ran the campaign and failed to use Obama’s statement. She has some scars as a result.
Editor’s note, part 2: disclosures, fact-checking, personal opinions and historical context. Torie has repeatedly asked me to be more “on her side” since she’s the only openly gay Democrat in the race and this race is important to the LGBT community. She has also repeatedly asked me to be “fair” in covering her, presumably because of sporadic confrontations over the years – though in 1994 I wrote a short but fairly glowing article about her for the gay book, Uncommon Heroes. I’ve explained that Frontiers does not endorse candidates, that the whole point of giving each candidate a page in this Pride issue of Frontiers magazine is an attempt to be fair, and that as a journalist, it is incumbent upon me to try to be “fair” anyway. However, our interpretations of what “fair” means apparently differ at times.
Additionally, since David Mixner and others have called Torie a “lesbian icon,” I feel it’s incumbent upon me to provide some historical context, at times from a personal perspective – though it’s been difficult to fact- check everything. For instance, in his Nation piece (which Bennett Kelley calls a “hatchet job” on Butler and Bloom ), Tom Hayden says, “Osborn helped to obtain Obama’s endorsement of the “no on 8” position.” As you can see in the interview transcript, Torie never mentioned such a significant contribution. Indeed, it is my understanding that candidate Barack Obama sent a letter to the San Francisco-based Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club on the occasion of their 36th anniversary and they sat on the letter from the Illinois Senator until their Sunday, June 29, 2008 Alice Pride Breakfast when the letter was read:
As the Democratic nominee for President, I am proud to join with and support the LGBT community in an effort to set our nation on a course that recognizes LGBT Americans with full equality under the law. That is why I support extending fully equal rights and benefits to same sex couples under both state and federal law. That is why I support repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, and the passage of laws to protect LGBT Americans from hate crimes and employment discrimination. And that is why I oppose the divisive and discriminatory efforts to amend the California Constitution, and similar efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution or those of other states.
There was considerable consternation in the No on Prop campaign about whether or how to use that first mention of Obama’s opposition – especially since Obama subsequently placed his opposition to Prop 8 in the context of his explicit opposition to same sex marriage.
That’s just one example of the difficulty in fact checking. So what follows is my interview with Torie – minus the off-the-record comments, of course, and edits for redundancy. The first section is about the 50th AD race, where she has executed extraordinary organizational skills running as an “ideological” progressive candidate fighting for the vision advocated by Occupy Wall Street that apparently galvanized 1,658 district residents to contribute to her campaign – while she also wooed the Chamber of Commerce and a small business association.
The second section focuses on LGBT issues. In addition to the fiscal stories, we spoke a bit about Prop 8. Indeed, Torie’s plunge back into the LGBT community was her intense critique of the No on Prop 8 campaign after the antigay initiative passed. I thought Prop 8 would have been personally relevant to Torie, not just as an activist but because her marriage to Lydia Vaias – officiated by Sheila Kuehl – was in 2004 when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom OKed marriage licenses in that city. Ergo, theirs was among the thousands of marriages that the court annulled, prompting a lawsuit that lead to the California Supreme Court ruling in May 2008 permitting same sex marriages – a ruling that gave rise to the Prop 8 initiative. But, as Tom Hayden noted, she chose instead to become a “Super Volunteer” for the Obama presidential campaign.
By the way, I did not ask Torie about her difficult divorce, which she wrote about for the New York Times and discussed with Denise Penn for The Lesbian News. (It looks like Torie got to keep the nearly $1 million house ). I don’t know Torie’s ex-partner to ask about her “side” of the marriage and divorce story.
EXPANDED INTERVIEW WITH TORIE OSBORN for the June 5th Primary:
I’m a more impressive leader than my opponent. She’s a good vote, she’s a good person. Bless Betsy Butler. She’s a good person. I take nothing from Betsy Butler. But she doesn’t match this district. This district wants leadership; they want vision; they want a fighter.
What’s your chief achievement?
My chief achievement is decades of experience persuading people on tough issues, forging coalitions, making change – whether it’s changing people’s opinions or whether it’s building the office of Strategic Partnerships at the LA Mayor’s office, whether it’s helping to develop the community response to AIDS, whether it’s hammering sheet rock on the first women’s health center in the state of Vermont – it’s a legacy, it’s a decade of leadership. That’s my achievement. And that’s what I bring up there. What I bring up there is the skills of leadership: the capacity to chair meetings, the ability to bring people around. If you ask Julia Brownley why she is supporting me over her colleague – and frankly paying a cost, by they way, of support for her bills by leadership because she’s supporting me against the will of the Speaker and others – she will say, “because we need leaders up there. We don’t need followers.”
Why isn’t Fran Pavley, Sheila’s friend, not supporting you?
Fran Pavley and Mike Feurer are both staying out. They’ve both been incredibly friendly to me against an enormous among of pressure from the machine – that’s a win for me. And that is because Fran is, by nature, a cautious person. She is running in a very tough race. Nobody expected her to endorse in this race. Betsy expected her to endorse. But I never would have expected her to endorse me. When I sat down with her, she was incredibly helpful. She and her husband are as warm as can be. I get welcomed with open arms – that is her nature. For me it’s a victory that she stayed out.
Fact check: Fran Pavley may not have endorsed, but she did “applaud Butler’s leadership” in getting the BPA toxic chemicals bill passed- a bill Pavley had been working on for years. (See the Betsy Butler story)
Last Friday, June 1, the California Small Business Association endorsed Osborn:
“Torie Osborn is a small businesswoman who understands what it takes to balance a budget, meet a payroll, and who can easily grasp the practical effects that laws passed in Sacramento will have on Main Street,” said Betty Jo Toccoli, President of the CSBA. “Torie knows small business is the engine of California’s economy and has been underserved by state government. We look forward to working closely with her in developing common-sense solutions to get Sacramento working for Californians again.”
From Osborn in the CSBA press release:
“There is this caricature out there that if you’re a progressive it means you’re anti-business,” said Osborn. “I have run a small business, and I recognize what most small-business owners know: a well-run, effective, and efficient public sector and a vibrant private sector are complimentary, not competing goals. Small businesses owners I’ve talked to throughout the 50th district are concerned by the priority in Sacramento on helping big corporations. They want a champion who ‘gets it’ that they are struggling with health costs, that they want to see job growth, economic stability, and an educated workforce. The vast majority of new jobs in California are created by small businesses, and I’m glad to have their confidence in my campaign, moving forward.”
Fact check: I didn’t recall seeing “businesswoman” on Osborn’s resume so I asked her about it. In a cryptic email, she wrote:
Alternated private sector small business w nonprofit executive mgmt
1. Redwood records. Moved to CA to run it in 78. Wrote lots about the women’s music small business network
2. My own consulting biz over the years
That has produced concerts as well consulted to tons of businesses, nonprofits, gov.
MBA in Finance/marketing UCLA 84
Member SM Chamber of Commerce
Redwood Records is the non-defunct feminist record label started by Torie’s friend Holly Near.
What is the corruption you’re talking about and what are you going to do if you get to Sacramento?
I think the systems are broken. My message is that California is in profound crisis. The California Dream that has benefited three generations of my own family – is careering off a cliff. The kind of leaders that are needed during a crisis are different from business as usual. We need champions for change; we need proven problem solvers. We need people who can stand up to special interests. We need people who can make a difference. And this district expects strong leaders.
That’s what differentiates me from my opponents. That I’m a lifelong change-maker who knows how to solve problems.
I didn’t say anything about corruption. I said the system is broken and the political culture needs to be shaken up in Sacramento.
How are you going to shake things up?
By the legislation that I carry. By the hearings that I have. By the priorities that I have. By keeping my eye on the prize – which is turning an upside-down governance and tax system right side up. So the 99% benefit.
And how are you going to do that?
I’m telling you what the principles are. I’m an ideological candidate. I’m about change. I’m for small businesses as opposed to big corporations that are out-sourcing jobs. My district is a small business, entertainment and tourism district. I will champion the people of this district.
Yes, I understand. But when you say legislation – can you give me an example of something?
All you have is your leadership skills and your legislation. I can tell you 100 bills I would bring. But I’m going up there next year and we’ll see what bills are in play that I could carry. I will champion single payer healthcare. I want to be on the health committee. I want to be in the higher education committee. I want to be on natural resources. I can tell you the committees – but it’s not up to me. It’s going to be up to the Speaker. Mark Leno will be terming out. Mark Leno has picked up Sheila Kuehl’s ball on single payer – and by the way – it is not a coincidence that the gay people are the leaders of single payer here. What we learned from HIV/AIDS. So I can tell you I will be carrying that flame while I serve on the health committee and try to implement the Affordable Care Act or whatever we end up with, post-Supreme Court decision.
[Fact check: State Sen. Mark Leno is running for re-election this year and presuming he wins, he won’t be termed out for another four years or in 2016.]
Those conversations [about committee assignments] don’t happen until you win. Another reason I will be in such a strong position when I go up there is because this district has always been a district – as Sheila puts it – that’s a “donor-nation,” as opposed to a “sucker-nation.” You bring the capacity to raise money – and that is a huge asset in Sacramento. Neither of my opponents has built that asset. I have 2,200 donors. I’ve raised $800,000 – independent of Sacramento and special interests. That gives me both the wind at my back in terms of a grassroots movement….
But isn’t that the same thing you’re railing against? How money plays in Sacramento?
I have 2,200 individuals who support me – $5 bucks a month. And $3900 from philanthropists. I have the capacity to come back and say let’s do a hearing on small business legislation that needs to be done. I have relationships in the district that because they want me to represent the district in Sacramento, they don’t want Sacramento to send somebody who represents Sacramento to the district. That’s the difference in this race: Sacramento special interests, Sacramento born-and-bred – Betsy Butler! And funded by Sacramento interests. She hasn’t developed any local donors. She’s developed a few….I have the Chambers of Commerce support interested in what I’m going to do on small businesses….In addition, I will pledge my loyalty to the Speaker as soon as I win. He and I are going to be working together. He knows that. He’s told me that…..
I don’t understand what you mean when you say: “they want me to represent the district in Sacramento, they don’t want Sacramento to send somebody who represents Sacramento to the district.”
Betsy – when she speaks, she always says she was born and bred in Sacramento. Her parents were lobbyists. She worked as a fundraiser and a lobbyist. This is the difference. Betsy is a very good person. Bless her soul. A good person; a good vote. She’s not a leader. She has no track record of leadership.
[Fact check: please see the Betsy Butler piece, in which Betsy emphatically denies that either she or her parents have ever been lobbyists.]
Why doesn’t anybody ever ask Betsy Butler to carry a bill – until this year when the Speaker has given her a bill? Why has nobody, zero, nada, ever gone to her to be the leader on a bill? I can tell you why. You ask Julia Brownley. She’ll tell you. You ask anybody who’s willing to talk to you – on or off the record – because she doesn’t have any persuasion power at the microphone. Because she has no skills in coalition building.
The perception among many politicos is that this in some ways is a surrogate race – that Torie and Sheila are insiders and it’s them – two machines – against Speaker John Perez.
Have you asked Sheila about that? Sheila would say: “What machine? I have no staff. I’m working four different jobs trying to get my life together. What machine do I have? I have no machine. I have my name, my reputation and good will in the district….And if you have no staff, you have no power. What are you talking about?” Sheila’s out of power…
I should have asked Sheila about that. I’ve known Sheila since 1986, when she would come pick up Torie from Pro Peace. But I think perhaps an update on Sheila Kuehl is another story.
Here’s more historic background on Torie.
At the beginning of her career, Torie was very lesbian/feminist centric (even lesbian separatist) but after Mixner’s anti-nuclear war Pro Peace effort, in 1987, Torie was hired at the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center as Finance Director. A year later, she was promoted to executive director. During that time, she became a strong leader combating the horrific HIV/AIDS crisis. Not only was she trusted by ACT UP/LA, but she turned the Center into the focus for national events such as honoring artist Keith Haring. She also was one of the few people in LGBT LA who could talk to both feuding leaders Steve Bennett of APLA and Michael Weinstein of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. AIDS activist and writer Michael Callen once told me that Torie was one of the country’s leading AIDS activists.
During the 1991 demonstrations after Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the gay rights bill, AB 101, Torie provided the pickup trucks and sound systems for the speakers and even joined in the street demonstrations yelling “Burn! Baby, Burn!” as Wayne Karr, Rob Roberts and other activists burned the California flag while longtime activists such as Morris Kight looked on. The Center also became a hub for strategy meetings lead by GLAAD’s Carol Anderson, where checkbook activists such as Dr. Scott Hitt sat on the floor with angry Queer Nationals. Torie officially left the Center in October of the following year.
When Torie returned to LA after her 10-month stint at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington DC, she got involved with the non-gay Liberty Hill Foundation and its community funding board, enabling her to interact and build relationships with “a youth from South Central L.A., a tenant organizer from East L.A.,” among others, according to a Liberty Hill report that also said:
Former Liberty Hill executive director and board member Torie Osborn explained that meetings “ took me out of my world. When I was a board member, we were in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, and my world was all about gays and AIDS. I developed relationships with people outside of my sphere. It enabled me to see AIDS in the broader context of homelessness, lack of health care, and of course race and class issues. ”
Torie was executive director at Liberty Hill from 1997-2005, during which time she brought her old friend Rick Jacobs onto the board and developed LGBT rights an issue. In 2006, Torie secured a fellowship and became a senior advisor to Villaraigosa to build bridges between the private philanthropic community and government. While there, she became the behind-the-scenes de facto LGBT liaison between Villaraigosa and the LGBT community (resulting in one of our confrontations).
Torie told me she left City Hall to write a book but she subsequently became a “Super Volunteer” for the Obama presidential campaign in Nevada. Since then Torie has had two jobs that have little direct relationship with LGBT issues and, other than regular appearances on Sheila Kuehl’s “Get Used To It” show on West Hollywood City Channel and her post-Prop 8 Camp Courage trainings, she has not been a consistent presence in the LA LGBT community.
Here’s the LGBT section of our interview.
I told Torie that I heard her say during the Stonewall Democratic Club endorsement that she was responsible for the Ryan White Care Act – something she ticked off doing a laundry list of accomplishments. I asked her to clarify. She started off noting that the Center had a history with Rep. Henry Waxman and his gay senior aide Tim Westmoreland, as well as with Sen. Ted Kennedy.
I started at the Center in April of 1987 and I became executive director in July of 1988. I raised the money from the Irvine Foundation for a policy position. We never had one. The first year that I was executive director, Gabe [Kruks] was head of the Youth Services. And it was my work in Washington, along with Gabe’s, that got him on [Health and Human Services Sec.] Louis Sullivan’s Blue Ribbon Commission. In fact, the Center was offered the position and I put Gabe in it rather than myself because I knew he knew it better. The first commission on high risk youth to have a gay person on it….
(Osborn also had a seat on the LA County HIV Commission because it was a position that came with the job of being the Center’s ED.)
But if I am talking to the world, do I say I appointed my Youth Services Director to sit on the first-ever…No. In fact, I don’t even mention Louis Sullivan. George [HW] Bush gets the credit and the executive director gets the credit, right? That’s just the way the world works. Do I ever, when I’m talking to somebody, not give Gabe Kruks the credit? You bet I give Gabe Kruks the credit. Because he was the genius. And when I went to Irvine and got the first ever grant for a policy position – ever, in the country – I did it for Gabe. And then I promoted him from Youth Services Director to Public Policy Director….He was in daily contact when the Ryan White Care Act was being developed. Does the Center get the credit? Absolutely. And does the executive director get the credit? That’s the way the world works. Do I always tell the world how it works when I have more than two minutes – of course I do. My credo is to share credit.
Speaking of the Center….in your big campaign brochure there’s a current photo of Center – but without the endorsement of Lorri Jean, which it implies.
I’ve never asked Lorri Jean for her endorsement. Plus, I’m assuming that she would – as I did when I was executive director – not endorse candidates. [I think Lorri Jean endorsed Richard Riordan over Mike Woo for LA Mayor in 1993] That building was built under my watch. I started the first-ever Capital Campaign in the country – that $8.5 million Capital Campaign was done under my watch. We built the building when I was there. Lorri Jean didn’t build that building. I didn’t have a picture of The Village – that’s Lorri Jean’s building.
[Implying Jean’s endorsement] did not enter my head. What entered my head and is in the brochure is that Capital Campaign was under my watch. That is – as Lorri Jean put it back in the early days – that is the house that Torie built. That is not the house that Lorri built.
When you left NGLTF after six months, you told me it was because it “wasn’t a good fit.” I’ve always cited that as a good example of someone not trying to make something work when it won’t. What happened?
It was [after] 10 months. When I was at NGLTF, I tripled their budget from $1.1 to $3.3 million, I doubled their membership that had stagnated for 10 years [under Executive Director Urvashi Vaid], from 17,000 to 34,000. I put together the Oval Office meeting with President Clinton…the catalyst for that meeting was Alexis Herman and Mario Cooper.
I am extremely proud of what I accomplished in 10 short months at NGLTF. The membership we doubled – and again – I didn’t do it, Sean Strub did it. Sean Strub was the gay direct mail genius that I hired to do it. I always give credit where credit is due. When Urvashi left, the membership had stagnated. I remember Urvashi saying, ‘You’ve got to figure out how to increase the membership.’ I brought in Sean Strub. My board wouldn’t even give us the front money to do the membership drive, the direct mail. So Sean Strub got all his vendors to take the risk, we got Martina Navratilova to do the letter, and we sent out a million pieces or something like that and doubled the membership. And my belief is – the last I checked – their membership is still around 34,000 that we got in 1993. So I’m incredibly proud of what I was able to accomplish. Frankly, it was unprecedented. When Urvashi was ED, the budget went from $980,000 to $1.1 million. You do the math on her three years there versus my 10 months.
So why did you leave?
I left because it wasn’t the right fit. The organizations’ culture was much more informal and kind of functioned like a collective. And I was used to a more professional organization such as the Center. My first executive director experience had been at the Gay & Lesbian Center and we had an excellent, evolved professional culture – the board of directors did what boards do, staff did what staff did. At NGLTF, quite frankly, the staff was always in the board’s business and the board was always in the staff’s business. It just was not the right fit for me. I didn’t feel that I had what it took to run a very informal collective-type organization, rather than a professional organization. I was ready to get things done at a level that if didn’t feel the organization was behind me. So I built the organization. My legacy was the institution building that outlasted me.
I haven’t looked into this but some people have said that when you left, the budget was in free-fall. What was that about?
I brought about a million dollars in major donor support with me from donors at the Center who transitioned to become donors at the Task Force. I came on very strong. When a strong leader leaves, money often leaves. So people stopped supporting the [Task Force] – they wanted me to continue. Their faith in the Task Force was attached to their faith in me. It’s very common. So the organization – and frankly, history has proven me right on the Task Forces’ organizational challenges. I think they went through three EDs over the following two years before Lorri [Jean] came in and stabilized it….Ironically, Lorri followed in my footsteps, again, and stabilized it and I think they’ve done fine ever since.
What I would say is – it’s one of those situations where if I had known…If I had done my due diligence during the hiring process, I’m not sure I would have taken the job. I think it’s just one of those things. But in the other, then I wouldn’t have been able to build the organization.
But you were so close to Urvashi – and Peri Jude took over after you. Surely you had some clue about the culture?
Did not know Peri at all. Here’s the truth. I asked for an organization chart but I didn’t ask how long the organization chart had been into effect. For example, the organization chart showed the executive director and I think 13 staff people – maybe there were 10. It showed an ED, it showed an executive assistant, it showed these directors. What they didn’t tell me was the organization’s chart had only been in effect for less than six months. And that the organization culture was used to functioning literally as a collective with consensus decision-making. And it was only in the last six months that Urv had instituted – they had worked with a consultant – they had instituted more of a hierarchy. I didn’t know that! She didn’t tell me that! I should have asked! If during the interview I had said, ‘OK, this chart looks good to me. When did you implement it?’ And I had known it was only six months – a big old red flag – to this MBA – would have popped up. But I didn’t ask, and they didn’t tell.
[Urvashi and I] were busy organizing together. I did not – and I can take responsibility for this – I did not think to vet certain organization cultural issues.
It fell apart after I left. And that often happens when you have rapid growth that’s attached to a strong leader. What it felt like to be there. It was quite traumatic. I didn’t talk a lot about it at the time. It leaked more than I know.
[And the Band Played On and Conduct Unbecoming author] Randy Shilts and I spent a day together in July of 1993. It turned out to be the day they did not lift the military ban. It was July 20 – a perspicuous day for gay history where Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell became the law of the land. Randy made several press statements when I left NGLTF in November that I later read in the press. He was a personal friend. I confided in him that day, which he later made statements to the gay press about the sadness of the movement being able to retain a leader of my caliber. All these positive things. During my conversation with Randy where it came into focus for me for the first time that sometimes, these organizational issues are just bigger than the individual. I experienced it as a personal failure – that I could not overcome the organization culture. He looked at me and said, ‘You know sometimes you have the courage to change and sometimes you just can’t do it. You need to take care of yourself.’
Torie said the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was a request to expend the budget to hire a COO because her contract had her on road 70% of the time raising money – which made it difficult to manage staff. “I couldn’t do it. I knew my own limit,” she said, especially after board co-chairs Curt Shepard and Elizabeth Birch went to bat for her but the board voted down the plan.
I also asked her what happened after she left the Center. I was made aware of the Center’s dire fiscal situation and interviewed several very reliable sources with independent inside information – all of whom asked for confidentiality. I called Torie for comment – which she says was the first time she heard of any problems.
I was unaware of this weird disinformation that had been put forward. The first thing I did was to call Scott Arneson, who had been my Controller and was still at the Center. He only left a few years ago. He had been there when the former Controller – the Director of Finance had left. When I was hired as Finance Director by Eric Rofes, there hadn’t been an audit in four years. And the Controller and the Finance Director had walked out and half the staff had left and it was a bloody mess. I didn’t know some of this. When I became Finance Director, I did a turn around job on the finances of the Center. Got an audit, put together financial management policies, went out and got a line of credit because when you have 43 separate government grants that are all reimbursement grants – and you have to spend money before you’re reimbursed – you’re always owing the government money. So I was a very successful Finance Director before I became, for a minute and a half, Deputy Director in March and became Executive Director in July. The first thing I did was turn around the organization, institute financial policies – work very closely with the board. The Finance Committee had excellent leadership. I helped Rand Schrader recruit Ed Gould, who was a former banker who then became the co-chair of the Capital Campaign and then co-chair of the board. Ed Gould and I worked incredibly closely together.
I have a finance background. My stealth skill in organization management is my financial management skill. People see me as kind of the external person and the spokesperson and the fundraising person – I get credit for that. I don’t get enough credit for my financial management. It has been the key to my success in all four organizations that I’ve been CEO of. My MBA is finance….It is why I succeeded at the Liberty Hill Foundation. It’s why I succeeded at Food and Friends as the Interim CEO. I know how to manage – but more specifically, I know fiscal management. I never met a budget I didn’t understand. I know how to bring budgets in on track and on time.
So what happened at the Center?
Nothing happened at the Center. Somebody decided to essentially to dis-inform people. The first I heard about this idea that there were any fiscal problems was from you (me, Karen). When I called Lorri Jean, she denied it.
The Finance Committee of the board of directors made a decision to authorize a short term budget deficit during the transition period between me and Lorri. This is in the minutes of the Finance Committee. Scott Arneson, Ed Gould, Gwen Baba – the people who were on the board at the time. This is the board of directors that made the decision. I didn’t do anything. I did nothing. I made no decisions without the board Finance Committee, is what I’m saying.
So, the rapid growth of the Center, the launching of a successful $8 million Capitol Campaign, Duke Comegys and I launched the Circle of Life campaign [in 1987] – first time we had an endowment. So there was what finance people call a “planned deficit” that somehow got mis-spun as some sort of financial mismanagement – that was, quite frankly, a campaign to – that’s very human when a new executive director comes in to kind of….I think what you do is try to highlight the weaknesses that you’re cleaning up in order to accentuate your strengths.
So when you have rapid growth, you have change of leadership, you have a new endowment campaign, you have a huge Capital Campaign – and you have a large budget – it made a lot of sense for the board to be OK with a short-term deficit. It wasn’t my idea. It was Ed Gould’s idea. It was the Capital Campaign chairs’ idea. It was the Finance Committee’s decision. It was a complete board decision.
So I don’t know what was said in that board retreat [after Osborn left]. I only know later what Ed Gould and Gwen Baba and others told me. So the first time I heard there was any problem was when you called me.
So all I’m saying is that I left the Center – when I took over as executive director, it had a $3.3 million budget. When I left it was between $7-8 million dollar operating budget.….and an $8 million Capital Campaign….
A few months before he died [in 1996], Ed came to Washington and we had dinner. He cried and made an amend to me [for letting the stories about fiscal mismanagement go uncontested].
Maybe this will help you understand. Eric Rofes felt I had done him wrong when I came in and emphasized his weaknesses. He actually called me later and said, ‘You know you’re taking credit for moving the Center from 70% white, men. The truth is – you finished the job. But I started the job – by hiring you and some other strong women. Don’t fall into that trap that insecure new leaders fall into of kind of down-grading the person that they’re stepping on the shoulders of.’ He said, ‘Don’t take credit for what I did and don’t blame me for things I didn’t do.’ And that’s just what Lorri did to me.
But it was a planned deficit of the Finance Committee….I even think they borrowed money from the endowment to cover the deficit. I think they were moving money around – completely legal. This was the policy of the Finance Committee of the board – not the executive director….You can borrow discretionary institutional endowment money – against future income, if you repay it. It’s the not the same as the government’s money. It’s your institution’s money. There was no messin’ with grants that were in the operating budget. …
Then Lorri’s kind of freaking out because she’s facing the real deficit. She’s got to make up the $200,000 that these guys decided to borrow to cover the operating. So we borrowed from permanent funds to operating. Right, got it? So she comes in and she’s got to make it up so of course she’s a little whatever. All things are true in a way. But the false thing is the notion that I somehow either did something fiscally imprudent. I didn’t do it. The board did it. And then the board let me be the one who was sort of the fall guy. And that was what Ed apologized for.
Fact checking: The Center’s timeline says for 1991: “Center ends FY 91 with revenues of $5.8 million; year ends in the red with expenses of $6.2 million.” And for 1992:
October Executive Director Osborn steps down and later briefly serves as executive director of National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
November Center moves into its new headquarters in Hollywood (now known as the McDonald/Wright Building).
Center’s non-capital revenues are $7.7 million with 150 staff and 4,000 monthly client visits.
Center ends FY 92 with revenues of $9.1 million (including $1.4 million capital campaign revenues); year ends in the black.
In January, 1993, attorney, activist and Federal Emergency Management Agency executive Lorri L. Jean officially becomes the new executive director.
Since Torie had personal experience with marriage, plus Liberty Hill was involved with the No on Prop 8 campaign,(underscored by the success of Liberty Hill-funded API Equality) and outreach to people of color is one of Torie’s passions, I wondered by she didn’t help more in the fight against Prop 8?
I did. I helped get several house parties among my straight friends, I wrote a lot of checks for the campaign. I gave money and I worked with Gary Stewart [chair of board of Liberty Hill] house party. But here’s the reality: the campaign was very opaque. Gary called me and said I’d like to do something but I’ve been trying to call and email and I can’t get any call-backs. I had to call Jenny Pizer in order to get the campaign to respond. The campaign was fairly hard to break into. So my job for No on 8 was kind of inside the Obama campaign. That’s where my work was.
I mean, I’m a pretty tireless fighter for LGBT rights. Was I formally involved? No. Like I was the Southern California campaign coordinator for No on 64. I worked on the Briggs Initiative by doing the cross-California tour of Meg Christianson and Holly Near. I was an active grassroots organizer for the No on 6 campaign. I was the Southern California paid coordinator for the No on 64. In the No on 8 campaign, I did not have a formal role. My priority was to work as a Super Volunteer on the Obama campaign. Was I constantly doing whatever I could? Yeah – we all were. The issue was a campaign that was very closed and difficult to break into.
I had 40 people who were part of Team Torie in Nevada – including several people who were training, who were working on the No on 8 field operation and came back Monday night and Tuesday for the actual GOTV piece. But I did my part and felt magnetized to the Obama for President campaign. That’s where my energy was.
My contribution to the marriage equality struggle was to do Camp Courage. That’s what I did. When people hit the streets after Prop 8 won, I saw that we needed to transform that anger into positive learning and [inspire] 1600 people across California. So my contribution was to the next generation of activists who rightly hit the streets in rage at that victory by the right wing.
The key to the top two winners in the June 5th Primary will be turn out. And then the battle begins again for Election Day, November 2012.