One month after officially assuming his position on Dec. 3 as the new executive director of the beleaguered statewide LGBT lobbying group Equality California, John O’Connor seems focused, a gay man on a mission. He is mindful of the pitfalls and the hefty responsibility of restoring luster to the tarnished organization, but he is confident in his own executive experience and dedication to achieving full equality.
“When there is a long-term executive director like Geoff Kors, it’s never an easy transition after their departure, and I think we all know that Equality California had a particularly difficult time,” O’Connor said in a phone interview with Frontiers on Jan. 3. “But rather than dwelling on what mistakes were made, I want to talk about the vision for the organization moving forward.”
O’Connor said he has been meeting with community leaders and donors and working on a strategy to rebuild the organization, the “heart and soul” of which is the 90-plus pieces of legislation EQCA passed over the last decade.
“The actual agenda, in terms of pieces of new legislation we are going to propose, is not ready for public announcement yet,” O’Connor said. “I am brand-new on the job as of December, so we are playing a little bit of catch-up—but I’m getting fully up to speed.”
But he has been busy, renewing the contract with respected legislative whiz Alice Kessler, with whom he has an existing friendship. “The continuity that Alice brings to the organization and her legislative expertise is extraordinary, and that is one of the great assets this organization has for 2013, moving forward,” O’Connor said.
Additionally, O’Connor hired transgender EQCA Legislative Fellow Jo Michael to serve as the public face of the organization and do the leg-work in Sacramento. “His work is exemplary,” O’Connor said. “I called Alice and asked for a reference, and Alice referred to Jo as, ‘Well, he kind of reminds me of a young Alice Kessler when I first came to Sacramento—all fresh-faced and eager and committed to the mission and wanting to work hard and do good.’”
Additionally, O’Connor hired Jack Lorenz as the Deputy Director for Programs and Development. “He’s an extraordinary talent, and we’re lucky to have him,” O’Connor said. And he brought back Steve Mele as Finance Director. “The continuity and history of the organization that he brings—his reputation and relationship-wise,” O’Connor said. “He was able to walk in the door on day one and be effective, which was good, because we really had a bit of cleanup to do with the absence of a finance director throughout 2012.”
O’Connor said he is still in the process of developing a work plan and budget for 2013 that he will present to the board next month. “There are a couple of co-factors for me to evaluate. What are the organization’s needs—and there are many competing priorities,” he said. “As the executive director and prudent manager, I need to move with caution before we start committing to a whole host of salaries.”
O’Connor estimates that rebuilding the organization will take the entire year. However, he will operate under the Carver model of governance. “The board is giving me all the deference and authority I need to do my job, while at the same time being engaged in a really great leadership kind of way,” with a board transition committee helping with “the massive amount of outreach” he needs to do to stakeholders statewide. “The dynamic between me and the board is strong and healthy,” he said. “I am running the joint, without question, with a great amount of support and deference.”
The Princeton, New Jersey-born O’Connor has experience working as a top executive at the California Hall of Fame, the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts, the Gill Foundation, the David Geffen Foundation and, most recently, he served as executive director of the LGBT Community Center of the Desert in Palm Springs, where he turned the organization around. But it was during his college years at Georgetown University from 1990-1994 that O’Connor became “a mission-driving kind of guy.”
“I came out when I was 18 years old in Washington, D.C., and while many of my peers at Georgetown were going to business school and were going to the school for foreign service and thinking about careers like that—my personal life, at a time when so much politically was happening in AIDS, where I could see my gay peers getting sick and dying...” O’Connor said. “And Georgetown, just prior to my arrival, after many years of a legal fight, won the right to organize a gay and lesbian student group on campus—so these personal concerns were more front-and-center for me at that time. And I got involved in ACT UP, and I met some of the people who were leading it, and I participated in some of the direct action. And I was inspired that the group of people, presumably with no political power, could come together and claim some political power. I saw how direct action changed the world. … I was really inspired that the world could be changed for the better—for me, for the other people that I loved and for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people throughout the country.”
For more of the interview, go to LGBT POV.