There is something absolutely stunning about seeing a bunch of really smart, powerful LGBT people giddily sharing their stories of political gains with each other. The comfort of commonality, the unguarded honesty of fellow frontline soldiers at a fabulous hotel in Long Beach enjoying a brief respite from the literal and symbolic downpour outside – the Victory Fund’s 2012 LGBT Leadership Conference Nov. 29-Dec. 2 was a gathering of hopeful but reality-bitten elected officials. From accessible star US Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin to Wyoming House of Representatives Cathy Connolly, the conference celebrated the extraordinary victories of out candidates on Nov. 6 and discussed the difficult roadblocks ahead – including the struggle for global equality in a plenary keynoted by US Ambassador David Huebner.
In the hallway among waves of well-wishers, Baldwin and Victory Fund Executive Director Chuck Wolfe agreed: “There’s a lot to smile about.”
I talked with Baldwin about how she came out to Los Angeles, hosted by ANGLE at the house of the late Dr. Scott Hitt, when she was first seeking election to Congress. Many of us were unaware of how really progressive Wisconsin was and were thrilled to hear how she was inspiring college students with a famed Margaret Mead quote that is now oft repeated by others. Baldwin, who was relaxed, laughed easily and seemed moved to be at the Victory Fund conference, said:
I just had to vacate my House office as they get them ready for the incoming class, so I’ve gone through 14 years of boxes and files, finding all of the old stuff – which is really cool.
Let me repeated that quote that is so inspirational to me: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’
That quote inspires me and many others to this day and I think is very reflective of the way you begin when you think about, ‘Maybe I’ll run for office. Maybe I’ll ask a few friends to help. Maybe there’s a lot of doubters out there that don’t think it can be done – but it always starts somewhere and everybody can make a difference.’ At the tail end of the campaign, when the organization isn’t just one or two people but a large group of thoughtful and committed citizens – and yet, you’re still trying to reach that last one and say, ‘Your vote matters. You could make the difference. Please do.’(Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin with outgoing openly HIV positive New York State Senator Tom Duane, who says he’s very concerned about the trend toward HIV criminalization. Photo by Karen Ocamb)
I asked Baldwin what advice she would give to prospective LGBT candidates who are faced with demands for vocal grassroots activists that the candidate be very out and visible about LGBT issues, lest the candidate appear to be ashamed of being LGBT. Versus the way Baldwin handled her campaign, which was to be out but ensure the voters knew she would represent all Wisconsin citizens on a myriad of matters. Baldwin said:
I think in terms of being out while running for office, it does matter because voters care about integrity. And they know when somebody is being inauthentic or hiding something or holding secrets. And so, while my sexual orientation rarely came up on the campaign trail, it was well-known and I think did matter to people in terms of their sense that I had Integrity and that I would always be honest.
That said, any election for public office – if you are seeking to win – is going to be about the voters and what they care about and what they’re struggling with. And this 2012 campaign cycle occurred during a time when people were really struggling in Wisconsin and really frustrated with the disconnect between their lives and what they saw many state legislatures and the Congress debating – which had no connection to their lives.
We made our campaign for US Senate about the voters. So many people talked about the race as ‘Tammy versus Tommy’ [Thompson, her Republican opponent]– as though it were a personality contest, as though the candidates were the most important thing. They all got it wrong: we won because we were responding to the very real struggles that people in Wisconsin have and talking about how we would help to respond to those challenges as a member of the US Senate. That’s why I won.
It doesn’t hurt to be right on the issues, also.
I also noted how we watched Baldwin fight for unions during their battle against Gov. Scott Walker. And I noted how openly gay California Assembly Speaker John A. Perez , a former labor leader, talks about how labor contracts often offer job protection and domestic partner benefits for LGBT workers when state and local laws or companies do not. So with all the talk about “jobs, jobs, jobs” – it’s not fair that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the executive order regarding federal contractors is not being discussed more, though Rep. Jared Polis is apparently taking over the lead from retiring Rep. Barney Frank on ENDA. Baldwin said:
Because the election just happened and people are convening in Washington, the new members aren’t yet sworn in. But obviously we have a new freshman class coming into the House that’s really exciting – - I expect the really larger strategic conversations to probably begin in January.
And you know, I’m the founder of the LGBT Equality Caucus in the House – of course, I’ll be departing and hopefully organizing similar efforts in my new job. But that said, I think there’s a real opportunity at the beginning of any legislative session and regardless of who controls the House of Representatives, to get folks together and talk about how you can strategically advance the issue. See whether there might be – because Democrats still control the Senate – see where there’s an opportunity to perhaps move first there. Perhaps use the LGBT Equality Caucus to shine a greater spotlight.
But I will tell you that since the election, the LGBT Equality Caucus in House has already had a briefing on Capitol Hill on the future of ENDA. Now this is outside experts – including some of the organizations represented here today – talking about the prospects and the need – including the executive order campaign. So those conversations are underway. But I think involving the incoming members who will be able to play real critical roles will be important. [Including transgender people?] Absolutely. The briefing that I just referred to did include a representative from Mara Keisling’s group – the National Center for Transgender Equality.
One how if feels to make history, Baldwin said:
I have to quote my Election Night speech – which I will quote later today: ‘I didn’t run to make history. I ran to make a difference.’ But what’s historic is that, on all the challenges I was running to face, that the voters of Wisconsin chose me to help be the champion in the Senate. And that’s historic. And it’s pretty cool.(Longtime political strategist Steve Elmendorf. Photo by Karen Ocamb)
Political consultant and lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, who was a senior advisor and then chief of staff to House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt for many years and served as deputy campaign manager for U.S. Senator John Kerry during his 2004 run for president, said he’s pleased with how far and how fast the LGBT movement has come. Elmedorf said:
I think we’re doing great. I think the glass is more than half full. The fact that we won an election in four states – which we’ve never done before – we elected a lesbian Senator where it really wasn’t an issue in the election at all; that we’ve elected six members of the House, not to mention all the down-ballot stuff – to me, it’s just stunning.
I think it’s a sign that things have changed very quickly and they’re going to keep changing because it’s all demographic and younger people don’t care, don’t want to be told what to do in both parties – so I think it’s only inevitable. We’ve got to keep working but the fact of the matter is in 2004, when I worked for John Kerry, we had a big debate about whether we could be for civil unions and we ended up being for civil unions. The next time we have a presidential candidate in 2016, you won’t be able to be a viable Democratic candidate for president and not be for marriage…..
[To achieve ENDA] we have to get a Democratic House. As long as you have a Republican leadership in the House which is unwilling to even allow it up for a vote, it’s not possible. Now, one of the things we all have to do is build up our Republican base. But I think we’re a ways away.
I think [the executive order on federal contracts] is a big deal and [President Obama] needs to do it in the first six months of the year. I think it’s a very significant issue, because it sends a signal – not just a signal – but most businesses do some business with the federal government so it sets a standard that people have to meet.
I think we need to continue the dialogue with [Obama] we’ve had that has given us all the good things we’ve gotten. I think he’s very positive. I don’t really think he needs pressure. I think he’s going to do the right thing. I don’t think it’s a big debate, frankly. I’m not really worried about whether or not they’re going to do it. If it hasn’t happened in six months, then I think you can talk about what else you need to do. But I think people who are talking to them need to keep talking to them – and it’s going to happen.(US Ambassador David Huebner with Masen Davis, Executive Director of the Transgender law Center. Photo by Karen Ocamb)
Please note: I had an extraordinary interview with US Ambassador David Huebner but will publish that separately later. We talked a lot about how he’s used social media – including writing his own blog – as a way to introduce younger people in New Zealand and Samoa to American principles and places, as well as challenge homophobia and trans-phobia. . Meanwhile, here are some photos of some of the attendees at this remarkable conference:(The Williams Institute’s Brad Sears and journalist LZ Granderson discuss politics post election with other smart people. Photo by Karen Ocamb) (Journalist LZ Granderson with Charlotte, NC City Councilmember LaWana Mayfield. Photo by Karen Ocamb) (Ian Owen, West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran, EQCA Board member Deb Kinney, Bradnon Browne. (Photo by Karen Ocamb) (CA State Sen. Chris Kehoe, center, with her partner Julie Warren, left, and San Fransisco Port Commissioner Leslie Katz. Photo by Karen Ocamb) (Oklahoma State House Representatives Kay Floyd. Photo by Karen Ocamb) (Equality California’s Jack Lorenz, Long Beach Vice Mayor Dr. Robert Garcia, and Matt Mendez. Photo by Karen Ocamb) (Victory Fund’s Denis Dison with CA Assembly Majority Floor Leader Toni Atkins. (Photo by Karen Ocamb) (Marriage Equality USA ally Jane Wishon with newly elected Sacramento City Councilmember Steve Hansen. Photo by Karen Ocamb) (West Hollywood City Councilmember John Heilman, co-founder of the West Hollywood cityhood movement in 1984. Photo by Karen Ocamb) (Longtime political consultant and lobbyst Bob Burke. Photo by Karen Ocamb) (Los Angeles Police Commissioner Rob Saltzman. Photo by Karen Ocamb)