The Tests of Leadership

As the Human Rights Campaign embarks on era of new leadership after the long tenure of Elizabeth Birch, it would do well to consider the pitfalls encountered by one very rich man, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

After charging a public commission with examining a shift to non-partisan municipal elections and then spending an estimated $2 million of his own money on building support for the proposal, Bloomberg found himself repudiated by the city’s voters by a margin of more than two to one.

Maybe New Yorkers are incurable Democrats. Or perhaps we just really like the voting system we already have. And it’s surely undeniable that more than a few of us were confused by the precise terms of what was being proposed on November 4.

But more than anything else, I believe, the mayor’s plan for doing away with political party primaries failed because voters sensed that he wasn’t leveling with them. The commission he appointed early this year was supposed to undertake a comprehensive study of the question that included input from the public, but the hearings were held in the dog days of summer and even before making its recommendations, the group had taken on the role of advocate.

As the fall referendum contest heated up, Bloomberg chatted up the idea that both sides of the question refrain from major spending in the interests of having the voters decide. But, by mid-October, he was not only funding a major PR blitz effort but was refusing to put his own name on the blizzard of mail brochures voters received.

In the name of creating an election system that would replace the cynical control exerted by party bosses, Bloomberg managed to spawn an unprecedented level of voter mistrust. New Yorkers rejected non-partisan elections because they didn’t know exactly what their mayor was up to.

This week, HRC made a major leadership announcement, naming Cheryl Jacques, an out lesbian Massachusetts legislator with solid political credentials but little name recognition outside her home state, to succeed the departing Elizabeth Birch. The way the group presented its new leader to the gay press, however, left much to be desired.

A telephone press conference introducing Jacques opened with a curt statement that the group hoped to move things along as quickly as possible. Much of the rest of the session reinforced the sense that a press briefing was something the group had little time or patience for, and perhaps would just as soon have skipped.

As should have come as no surprise given the increasing profile of transgender rights issues, Jacques was asked about the failure of the latest draft of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to include protections based on gender identity and expression. While voicing a strong commitment to the transgender community, HRC’s new leader ruled out any effort to amend the legislation’s language.

In her answer, however, Jacques made no reference to public commitments made earlier this year by Birch to develop a parallel legislative track that would craft a more comprehensive measure, not only addressing gender equality, but also tackling areas of discrimination beyond that encountered in the workplace.

Jacques’ silence was puzzling—has Birch’s earlier pledge become inoperative or is her successor simply not yet up to speed on the issue? Neither answer inspires the kind of confidence so crucial when power changes hands.

A more troubling response came when the Bay Area Reporter asked Jacques to disclose her compensation, saying it would all have to be reported in tax filings anyway. Jacques’ refusal to respond, on the dubious grounds that she is no longer a public official—despite her role at the helm of the queer community’s largest non-profit trust—was an error in judgment that we hope she soon corrects.

Jacques is new to leadership in our community—in fact, she came out only three years ago. We wish her the best, and believe she has strong experience to recommend her. But, she would do well to remember that her constituency is not merely the board of HRC, or even simply its donors. It is every LGBT person in America.

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