Equality California’s Existential Question
Karen Ocamb

Is Equality California still important and relevant? Or has the statewide LGBT political lobbying organization run its course? These fundamental questions are being asked now as the EQCA board struggles to save what to some appears to be a sinking ship after a series of economic and personnel blows. To make matters worse, the organization’s existential dilemma is being played out behind closed doors against the backdrop of a serious electoral redistricting fight that recently turned its ire on EQCA.

An EQCA collapse would not be unprecedented. The Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles raised money in the mid-1970s to contribute to politicians who were or promised to be good on gay issues, such as Asemblymember Willie Brown, Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy, Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally and Gov. Jerry Brown (who decriminalized sex between consenting adults of the same gender). MECLA also worked to defeat the anti-gay Briggs Initiative in 1978. MECLA collapsed when its strong leaders left or died from AIDS.

LIFE AIDS Lobby was formed in 1985 to respond to the AIDS crisis. They relied on straight liberal elected officials such as Willie Brown, Art Agnos and David Roberti, whose openly gay aide Stan Hadden helped craft important AIDS legislation before he died of the disease.

LIFE AIDS Lobby was made up of a broad cross-section of groups from ACT UP/L.A.’s Connie Norman to Log Cabin Republican co-founder Frank Ricchiazzi, with young civil rights attorney John Duran heading the board and Laurie McBride serving as executive director. (Full disclosure: Frontiers publisher Bob Craig served as Treasurer.) LIFE also helped defeat mean-spirited AIDS initiatives such as Prop. 64, the LaRouche Initiative. Though LGBTs didn’t generate a lot of support for the gay civil rights bill AB 101, they took to the streets with its veto by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. After the election of pro-gay Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 1998, support for LIFE dropped, and the organization collapsed.

California Alliance for Pride and Equality emerged with LGBT leaders recruiting longtime San Francisco-based politico Jean Harris as executive director. When that didn’t work out, major donor and board member Geoff Kors, a Palm Springs-based attorney, stepped in as interim executive director. Kors assumed the job full-time in April 2002, and EQCA started playing political hardball and fundraising as if the organization was in constant campaign mode.

Not everyone was happy with Kors’ tactics. In a Jan. 6, 2011, L.A. Weekly story about Kors’ announced departure on Dec. 3, 2010, former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, California’s first openly gay person elected to the state Legislature, famously said: “Equality California never really convinced legislators on their own [to pass a bill], but inevitably something would pass—and they’d send out a press release taking all the credit. I never thought they were team players. They would take credit, and it was more credit than they earned.”

But from April 2002, with a staff of two and a six-figure debt inherited from CAPE, Kors grew the organization to a $7 million budget, net assets of $1.5 million and a staff of 20. The board grew, too, from nine to over 50, and became the second largest member and donor LGBT organization in the nation. Additionally, by the 2010 elections, all constitutional office-holders supported full equality for LGBT people. “We’re in a really strong position today,” Kors told Frontiers at the time.

“All of us turned to Equality California because it was so successful,” Marc Solomon, former executive director of Boston-based MassEquality, told the L.A. Weekly.

“Geoff took the organization from infancy to maturity with his trailblazing leadership and tireless commitment, which have helped make California a leader in the fight for LGBT equality in America. We know his shoes are tough to fill,” Cary Davidson, Equality California Board Chair, told Frontiers in Dec. 2010.

Prophetic words. Apparently the board was surprised by Kors’ announcement, and though they had until March 31 before Kors left, they apparently did not have a replacement plan. Part of the problem was that Kors had become a lightning rod for criticism after Prop. 8 passed. Though Kors served primarily as a fundraiser, he became the ‘face’ for the ‘No on Prop. 8’ campaign as it struggled with campaign managers and messages. After the community blamed black voters, Mormons and ‘Yes on 8’ contributors, Kor became the target of public ire. And, as major donor and then-EQCA Board President Gary Soto recently told Frontiers, the board made a conscious decision not to defend Kors against the attacks.

The Prop. 8 criticism stained EQCA, and the board was faced with a dilemma when choosing Kors’ successor: pick Jim Carroll, the white gay guy who served as Kors’ number two at EQCA, or go with a grassroots person of color to reshape the organization and its image.

The board chose health care and Latino advocate Roland Palencia as the new executive director in May. Palencia was among the critics of the ‘No on Prop. 8’ campaign who chose to work for the election of Barack Obama instead.

“I think that, because Equality California had such a high profile, a lot of us when this was lost reacted in a way that pinpointed to some extent the blame to Equality California,” Palencia told Frontiers last May. “I think some of the lessons learned, obviously, are that we want to make sure that we involve all communities. Even though there were a lot of efforts, Equality California worked with HONOR PAC in the East L.A. office. But certainly, anything can be improved. And so a lot of people really felt that there were blind spots in reference to that.”

Palencia told Frontiers he thought the board hired him for his experience leading multi-million dollar organizations. “I have created the financial resources, the infrastructure,” he said, as well as having extensive connections in the philanthropic world. “I think what resonated for them is that I want to bring the community together. I want us to unite our diverse community.”

Palencia said he wanted legislators to take more responsibility for introducing LGBT legislation as he shifted the organization towards a more social justice mission.

But Palencia and the EQCA board had no Plan B when it came to anti-gay politics. Though he had attended the May 22 town hall meeting in West Hollywood to discuss EQCA’s pending decision on repealing Prop. 8 on the November 2012 ballot where Frontiers opined about an expected backlash against the California FAIR Education Act, Palencia—who officially started his job on July 5—had to be jolted into action when the bill was on Gov. Brown’s desk with no gay response to the negative outpouring by the Religious Right. Brown signed Sen. Mark Leno’s SB 48 on July 14 with a message saying, “History should be honest.”

The anti-gay Capitol Resources Institute freaked. “SB 48 is an attempt to indoctrinate children as young as five to not only accept but also endorse homosexuality through our social sciences curriculum, specially history, history books and instructional materials,” CRI wrote. Shortly thereafter, CRI launched a Stop SB 48 campaign to place a referendum on the 2012 ballot to repeal the FAIR Act.

Palencia was overwhelmed. He organized a coalition, but they were slow to respond and couldn’t provide much support—and the grassroots call to arms yielded little to no activism. Meanwhile, EQCA started hemorrhaging money and board members—some termed out, some upset with the organization’s new direction or lack thereof.

Criticism of Palencia intensified. Then, on Oct. 5, in announcing a $200,000 Haas Jr. Fund-sponsored project called “The Breakthrough Conversations” about LGBT people and kids, EQCA also said, “While it pursues this essential work, Equality California said it will not lead an effort to return to the ballot in 2012 to repeal Proposition 8.”

Some in the LGBT community were relieved, not wanting to see millions of dollars raised and spent in California that were needed elsewhere during Election 2012. Others were upset—what about all that money EQCA raised to go back to the ballot in 2012? Lester Aponte of Love Honor Cherish said he felt “betrayed.”

Palencia had developed personal friendships with many, including Kors, Carroll and Finance Director Steve Mele, who tried to help him navigate the political and increasingly dire economic situation. But finally, it was too much. On Oct. 10, Palencia told Frontiers, “I am stepping down. We will be having a board meeting and [will] have a transition plan by the end of the week.”

The board was caught off guard. He had promised a transition plan the board (now 36 members combined) was not prepared to deliver, which also caused some backlash and more questions. Finally, on Nov. 2, EQCA Board President Clarissa Filgioun and EQCA Institute Board President Cathy Schwamberger announced they had hired consultant Joan Garry to help with the transition.

“While transitions are never easy, we understand that we have an opportunity and a responsibility to use this transition time wisely,” they wrote. “Thanks to a generous leadership grant from the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, we have the resources to devote to a strategic and focused assessment of EQCA as an organization—from programs to development. We will also use this grant to create a plan for interim management of the organization and to develop a short-term strategic plan for EQCA that will serve as roadmap for a new executive director search.”

They noted that Garry—best known nationally as a former executive director for GLAAD (Anderson was GLAAD’s Development Director)—would serve as EQCA’s chief strategy and transition consultant through her nonprofit consulting practice.

EQCA Communications Director Rebekah Orr explained why Frontiers was denied an interview with Garry: “Joan has been retained as an organizational consultant, not as an interim ED or spokesperson for the organization. Joan is working closely with staff to help steer programmatic, communications and fundraising work. In addition, the board is overseeing the day-to-day operations of the organization and providing support to staff.”

Asked how Garry was selected, Orr said: “[T]he board knew we wanted to engage someone who was already an established, recognized, credible leader in the LGBT equality movement; someone with a deep organizational management and development background; someone with strong relationships with national and statewide movement leaders and funders; and someone who has a successful track record working with organizations in transition. ... There was lots of discussion and brainstorming, both within EQCA and externally, about who we should engage. Each grantee of the Flexible Leadership Program at Haas is assigned a plan consultant to oversee the grant and help grantees identify resources to meet their specific needs. Joan is on their referral list as someone who could work with Haas grantees on issues from executive coaching to organizational transition and was recommended to the board when Roland resigned.

“Joan runs her own consulting business and brings in people to work with her on a project-by-project basis,” Orr said. “Although Julie is not an employee of Joan’s firm, Joan brought Julie in because they have worked together on prior engagements like this and she thought Julie’s strong development track record and deep relationships with movement leaders and funders throughout the state of California would be an invaluable asset to us at this time.”

The Haas Jr. Fund grant is for three to four months, starting Nov. 1. After an “organizational diagnostic,” the team will “guide us in our transition efforts—offering tools, resources and strategies for us to effectively champion EQCA as we move into the future,” the board presidents said.

Matt Foreman, Director of Gay and Immigrant Rights Programs at the Haas Jr. Fund, told Frontiers that over the last 10 years, the Fund has invested just over $2 million in the EQCA Institute.

“It’s not unusual for transitions from a long-term successful founder to be rocky and we are very pleased that they have chosen to work with Joan Garry and Julie Anderson to help guide the organization through this time. Their work is being supported by the balance of $22,000 remaining on a current leadership grant, with the possibility of additional leadership grant support of around $25,000 in early 2012,” Foreman said.

“Our Leadership Program grantees—of which there are 45 currently—choose their own consultants. Ms. Garry and Ms. Anderson have very strong management and development backgrounds and will be providing interim management and leadership and developing a short-term strategic plan for EQCAI. They will be relying on current staff, board members, volunteers and others to implement the organizations’ programmatic activities.

“We consider Equality California Institute an important partner in our strategic objective of restoring marriage equality in our home state,” Foreman said. “We expect them to emerge from this transition with a strong plan for the future and to continue our partnership.”

Asked if he thought EQCA can survive its current situation, Foreman said, “By any measure, Equality California Institute and its sister organization, Equality California, have been the most successful statewide LGBT advocacy organizations in the nation. It would be a terrible shame for people to walk away from them because they’ve hit a bump in the road—we’re not going to do that or talk about doing that.”

Others are pleased with the Garry hire, as well. And the two consulting clients mentioned in the EQCA press release endorsed Garry’s consulting services.

“Joan Garry consulted with the Foundation over the winter of 2007-2008 during a staff transition process,” said Jason Marsden, Executive Director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, though he didn’t elaborate.

“We started working with her about a year after I became ED,” said Kathy Ahearn O'Brien, Executive Director of the New Jersey-based Hyacinth AIDS Foundation. “We engaged her to conduct an ‘under the hood’ assessment of the organization so that we could continue to grow. Currently she is working with us on executive coaching and board/staff development. She is smart and focused and has been exceedingly helpful.”

Garry left GLAAD in 2005 and, other than serving as the co-chair of the LGBT Finance Committee for Obama for America in 2008, seems to have no experience with legislative lobbying or leading political campaigns—all of which have been the core mission for EQCA and its predecessors since the mid-1970s. Which raises the question: How can Garry give advice about the restructuring of a political organization if politics is not an integral part of her sensibilities?

Meanwhile, another issue gnawing at EQCA is the recent criticism from supporters of Torie Osborn, candidate for the newly redrawn 50th Assembly District—

On Nov. 7, EQCA announced their early endorsements in state legislative races with this explanation: “All those endorsed are incumbents who have earned a 100 percent pro-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality voting record in the 2011 legislative session. Equality California’s policy, except in rare and extraordinary circumstances, is to endorse incumbents with a 100 percent pro-LGBT voting record, who are running for reelection to the same legislative house.”

This is an important explanation. The policy has been in place for many years to let politicians—especially straight LGBT allies—know that EQCA would have their back if a hard vote caused them problems during their re-elections. When Palencia joined EQCA, he had already endorsed Osborn and contributed $500 to her campaign. When repeatedly asked if he would issue a statement distancing himself to avoid an appearance that he might influence the endorsement process, Palencia said the policy was up for review. Frontiers discussed this with several elected officials at the EQCA Awards gala on Aug. 13, and a number expressed surprise and dismay.

While they didn’t want to go on the record, they said such a move could cause a backlash and distrust of the organization.

EQCA endorsed longtime LGBT ally and EQCA boardmember Betsy Butler——who has raised thousands of dollars for EQCA and the ‘No on Prop. 8’ campaign.

“Equality California is proud to give our endorsement to Assemblymember Butler,” said Suzy Jones, Chair of the Equality California Candidate Political Action Committee. “Her 100 percent pro-LGBT voting record clearly demonstrates that she has been, and continues to be, a key ally and partner in our efforts to secure full and lasting equality for LGBT people in California."

“I am proud to have the support of Equality California,” said Butler. “For over 20 years I have had the privilege of working with leaders of the LGBT community throughout the country and in California on issues of fairness and equality. I look forward to continuing to work in the Legislature to ensure equal rights in California.”

Osborn and her supporters are angry that EQCA didn’t even give her an interview. Osborn told Frontiers that an election following redistricting qualifies as “extraordinary circumstances,” especially when there is an important LGBT leader in the race. Additionally, Osborn notes that because the districts were redrawn, there are, in fact, no incumbents. Butler, Osborn claims, is essentially a carpetbagger, moving into the Santa Monica/Westside district she has called home for decades.

“There should be no dibs on political office unless you’ve earned it from those voters in that district,” Osborn said. “For the LGBT PAC for the state to not even give consideration to an LGBT leader is just plain unfair.”

“It’s not a matter of how much Betsy has or hasn’t done. She is a wonderful progressive,” says Osborn supporter Laurie McBride. “The key is in the extraordinary circumstances of the Santa Monica race. Torie didn’t choose to run against Betsy. Betsy chose to move into a newly drawn district, one that is largely new to her, and run against Torie. My first loyalty is to Torie, an eminently viable and extraordinarily capable candidate who has been running for over a year and who has been building toward this run for far longer.

“EQCA has chosen a closed process to give the nod to someone who sits on the EQCA Board of Directors,” McBride continued. “They hide behind their policy of sticking with the incumbent who isn’t. In addition, their own policy says that they will stick with the incumbent except under extraordinary circumstances. The circumstances are indeed extraordinary—Butler is no incumbent, and the deed was done without the courtesy of giving the lesbian candidate an interview.”

But West Hollywood Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Prang disagrees. Prang dropped out of the race after his 42nd district was redrawn into the 50th AD, and openly gay Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez asked Butler to move into the 50th district. Pérez is trying to elect a super-majority of Democrats to be better able to deal with state budget issues. Prang says he’s known Butler for 20 years and considers her a Westsider.

“Torie Osborn and I had looked forward to running sister campaigns in adjoining districts, but [after redistricting], we were placed in the same brand-new district in which an incumbent was planning to run—Betsy Butler. I didn’t want to challenge a sitting Democratic legislator and I agreed to end my campaign and support the incumbent,” Prang told Frontiers. “As a Democrat, I am appalled by the wholesale destruction of the safety net for Californians and the gutting of education, the environment, health care and other critical programs that serve basic public needs. We need to try and secure a two-thirds majority so that we can balance the budget and protect those programs from Republican obstructionism, which has been having a devastating impact on our state.

“Betsy sits on the Assembly floor, makes arguments and is paid as an assemblymember; that is the definition of an incumbent,” Prang continued. “There are a lot of sitting legislators wishing to return, and they are by definition incumbents. If you agree with this rationale, then Speaker John Pérez, Assemblymembers Bob Blumenfeld, Holly Mitchell, etc., are not true incumbents and are carpetbaggers in the new portions of their district, too.”

The 50th AD race is also turning into a surrogate race for the L.A. mayor’s race, among other political power plays. In one sense, this is also becoming a test between challenger Osborn and Speaker Pérez.

But for EQCA, the repercussions could also be enormous if they are perceived as either shafting a strong LGBT leader or turning their backs on straight allies. And with their apparent decision not to be out and visible during this transition period, they are once again leaving their reputation in the hands of people with the loudest microphone.

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