Chad Griffin, Leader in Prop 8 Challenge, to Head HRC

Chad Griffin, a public relations professional and the founding board president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER) –– the group challenging California’s Proposition 8 in federal court –– has been named the new president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the LGBT community’s leading lobbying group in Washington and nationwide.

Griffin, who is 38, will assume the HRC helm on June 11 when the group’s current president, Joe Solmonese, departs.

A native of Hope, Arkansas, Griffin got his start in public relations nearly two decades ago as a very young staffer in the 1992 Bill Clinton presidential campaign and later in the White House communications effort.

Now a Los Angeles resident, Griffin was a founder of Griffin|Schein, described in an HRC statement as a “strategic communications and campaign firm.” The group’s release cited a range of progressive causes with which the firm has worked –– including ballot initiatives in California to fund stem cell research and childhood education, to tax cigarette sales to support cancer research, and to tax oil company profits to provide money for alternative energy efforts.

The firm also joined with Maria Shriver, the former first lady of California, on public education campaigns related to Alzheimer’s Disease and women’s issues; with Warner Brothers to build awareness about hunger in Africa; and with Walmart to enhance its presence in Los Angeles’ non-profit sector.

Griffin worked with actor, director, and producer Rob Reiner on the tobacco and childhood education efforts, and it was a conversation between the two men after Prop 8’s passage in November 2008 that led to AFER’s founding. HRC credits Griffin personally with bringing prominent litigators David Boies and Ted Olson –– who had battled each other at the Supreme Court in the Bush v. Gore case that settled the 2000 presidential election –– to AFER to argue the case in federal court. Olson, a prominent conservative who was solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration, is widely viewed as a critical bridge to Republicans on the issue of marriage equality.

AFER, representing two plaintiff California couples –– one gay and one lesbian –– who wish to marry there, won a victory before US District Judge Vaughn Walker in 2010, when he found that Prop 8 violated the equal protection rights of same-sex couples. In a 2-1 decision last month, a Ninth Circuit appeals panel affirmed Walker’s ruling, though on narrower equal protection grounds. The Official Proponents of Prop 8, authorized to defend the amendment in the absence of either the governor or the attorney general doing so, have asked for a rehearing by an 11-member “en banc” panel of the Ninth Circuit.

The HRC statement quoted Griffin saying, “All over this country in big cities and small towns, there are families and young people who long to be accepted for who they are, and who want to be treated with the same dignity and respect as everyone else… While there’s no doubt that we’ve made tremendous progress on the road to equality, we must not forget that millions of LGBT Americans still lack basic legal protections and suffer the consequences of discrimination every day. Today's generation of young people, and each generation hereafter, must grow up with the full and equal protection of our laws, and finally be free to participate in the American dream.”

Within hours of the announcement of Griffin’s appointment, Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Barack Obama, released a statement saying, “The president appreciates the work that the Human Rights Campaign has done with us and we congratulate Chad on his new position as president of HRC. We look forward to working with him.”

HRC supported Obama’s election in 2008 and has endorsed him for reelection.

HRC issued a second release quoting prominent LGBT and political leaders praising Griffin’s selection.

Kate Kendall, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which won the marriage equality victory at the California Supreme Court later overturned by Prop 8, said, “Chad Griffin is a visionary and a force of nature. Chad sees around corners and finds ways to surmount obstacles and bring together disparate voices.”

Evan Wolfson, the founder of Freedom to Marry, who first began working on the gay marriage issue two decades ago in the pioneering Hawaii litigation, said, “This is a terrific choice for HRC and our movement. I admire people who raise the bar and bring creativity, smarts, and, of course, more people into the work of getting important things done. As we've worked together to win the freedom to marry, I have seen Chad do all of that with fresh energy and exceptional talent.”

This praise from leaders of two long-established groups in the marriage equality fight is particularly significant since most advocates who were working on the issue when AFER announced its litigation were wary of an approach that aimed at getting the issue in front of the US Supreme Court with its current composition.

It is not yet clear if the Prop 8 case will make it to the high court, which could let a narrow ruling like the Ninth Circuit panel’s decision allowing same-sex marriage to resume in California, but with no broader legal precedent, stand, rather than taking on the highly charged issue on a nationwide basis. Should AFER lose before an en banc Ninth Circuit panel, it is considered even more probable that the Supreme Court will decline to get into the case.

HRC also pointed to support voiced from other important political players.

Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader from Nevada, said, “I’m confident Chad will continue to provide the strong leadership that HRC has become known for here in Washington. I’m proud to count myself as a strong supporter of issues important to the LGBT community and look forward to working with Chad and HRC to advance these issues.”

Julian Bond, the chair emeritus of the NAACP, said, “Chad Griffin is a great choice –– he is a major leader in the fight for equality. HRC has staged a coup!”