Most LGBT Americans know Chad Griffin as co-founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the Los Angeles-based organization that boldly brought together two former U.S. Supreme Court combatants—conservative Republican Ted Olson and liberal Democrat David Boies—to successfully challenge the constitutionality of Prop. 8.
Griffin, a political consultant and communications strategist at Griffin/Schein (formerly Griffin/Schake before Kristina Schake became communications director for First Lady Michelle Obama), is expected to bring bold bipartisan thinking and innovative political skills to his new job as president of the Human Rights Campaign when he joins the nation’s largest LGBT lobbying group on June 11.
Griffin has considerable political experience. His firm has worked with numerous clients “looking to promote social good,” such as the California Endowment, Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference and singer Alicia Keys when Bono asked her to co-host the ONE Campaign’s major conference during last year’s 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day. Griffin has also worked on major ballot initiatives, including Prop. 71, which won billions of dollars for stem cell research in California, despite the religiously inspired ban imposed by the Bush Administration; Prop. 87, the major California Clean Alternative Energy Initiative; and Prop. 10, the Early Childhood Development initiative lead by actor/director Rob Reiner and his wife Michelle in 1998.
Griffin’s work on Prop. 10 suggests he might be a fearless leader at HRC. In 1996-97, Reiner launched a foundation to raise public awareness of the importance of early childhood development. But he and Griffin realized they needed to create a permanent statewide commission to provide comprehensive information and services unfettered by political considerations or budget cuts. Prop. 10 proposed a 50-cent tax on tobacco on the November 1998 ballot to set up a discreet fund.
“Few thought we could win,” Griffin told Frontiers, with their $7 million bipartisan coalition going up against $40 million from ‘Big Tobacco.’ “We won, and now there’s over $7 billion brought in annually because of that. It’s hard to find a more exciting achievement than that because of the number of lives it has impacted.” Kris Perry, one of the plaintiffs in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger Prop. 8 challenge, runs that state commission, called First 5 California.
The question the campaign had to tackle, Griffin said, was: “How in the world, with such limited resources, do you defeat such a well-funded evil giant” as Big Tobacco? The answer was “to marry vision with tactics—you can’t have one without the other.” They created good messaging and a united broad-based coalition that grasped how high the stakes were and a willingness to fight on all fronts.
Griffin sees a parallel between fighting against Big Tobacco and fighting for the LGBT movement for equality. “We have well-funded organizations on the other side. But for the first time in history, they are now on the defensive on every single front,” he said. “I expect to be able to carry over and utilize that skill set in my new role when I move to HRC this summer.”
Griffin won’t discuss personnel or policy issues before he assumes the job, but emphasizes that he intends to have a diverse staff. “When I say ‘LGBT,’ I mean every single letter. I think it’s an embarrassment and a shame that Congress has not passed an inclusive ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act),” Griffin said. “It’s so frustrating, because it’s so obvious. I don’t know how you were raised—but one thing we were all taught was the Golden Rule, that you treat other people the way you want to be treated. That’s all ENDA is!”
That mutual respect, Griffin said, is “a founding principle of our country.” However, he noted, “that’s why we must have an equality majority in the Congress.” Meanwhile, he thinks that while an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in federal contracts “is something that should happen,” he also notes, “we must be careful because it is not the answer” to ending workplace discrimination. “But I think it’s absolutely important that we do everything to get that done.”
“I am not a patient person, and there is a real frustration with the lack of progress. Lack of progress has real-life consequences, whether for the retirement population or the suicides as a result of bullying—which is a direct result of discrimination sanctioned by the state that gives license to other kinds of discrimination,” Griffin said. “I think we have to do everything we can to eradicate discrimination and do it with a sense of urgency.”
Whether hanging out with Hollywood stars or attending a White House State Dinner, as he did on March 14, Griffin never forgets that he is “one of the luckiest damn kids” to come out of Hope, Ark. At age 19, he served in the Clinton White House before starting his own career as a political strategist. But his passion and motivation is evident to anyone who has heard him introduce Olson, Boies and the AFER team—he knows the fear of LGBT youth in small towns, what it feels like to be closeted and isolated, fearful of laying your head down at night, fearful of going to sleep, fearful of what the next day might bring.
“If we make every decision through the lens of what is in the best interest of those young people, then I think we’ll be doing the right thing,” Griffin said. “In many ways, I’ve spent my entire life preparing for this job.”