Joe Solmonese: Leading the Fight for Equality
Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese accepted the challenge to lead the nation’s largest LGBT political organization just 16 months ago and kicked off his tenure with a trip to Kansas City, America’s heartland. Solmonese returned to Kansas City this summer in a show of support for Kansas Governor Kathleen Sibelius, facing reelection this November. I caught up with the busy Solmonese, an old friend from my days in Washington, D.C., who is placing HRC in the forefront of midterm election battles. And, if there is any question about his important role, he took a call from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) during our interview.
It’s funny, I actually spent my first day of work here last year. It’s good to be back. I thought it was important to get out of Washington in my first year and get a sense of what the GLBT experience really is. Kansas City was the first stop of a nationwide tour. I promised to return in a year.
What did you learn on your stop to Kansas City?
I think what is refreshing is that in the Midwest, the community has a good, clear sense of where we stand in terms of full equality. Everywhere I visited, there seemed to be a big spark of change and lots of dialogue back and forth. I got a lot of feedback that has been helpful in setting [HRC’s> agenda.
What did Kansas Citians have to say?
I met with employees at Sprint and Hallmark. Both companies are leading the way nationally in terms of an equal workplace experience. I also met a couple of Lesbian moms in Lawrence who shared their challenges dealing with hospitals. One of our latest initiatives is a hospital project, similar to what we’ve been doing in the corporate world, encouraging non-discrimination policies, not only as employers, but also as health care providers. I was really inspired by the conversations in Lawrence.
Are Gays and Lesbians in the Midwest facing the same challenges as others across the country?
We asked state organizations, “What can we do?” In fact, we did polling on gay adoptions in Missouri at the request of PROMO. We found this is not the wedge issue that the conservative religious groups would like it to be. Not like gay marriage. We’ve seen this in states like Ohio, Kentucky, and Georgia. We are making progress on family issues.
What do you predict will be the outcome of the November mid-term elections?
It’s hard to not see Democrats picking up seats. Redistricting has entrenched incumbents and it will take a tidal wave to offset this. Claire McCaskill is polling strong in Missouri and Jim Talent really hasn’t seemed to become engaged yet.
HRC is not technically a Democratic Party-aligned organization, is it?
We align ourselves with politicians who support LGBT causes and we do support a number of Republicans. In fact, to get the hate crimes bill passed in the House we got 30 Republicans on board. We need those votes to get our legislative agenda passed.
What is your long term vision for HRC?
The work of social change can be very challenging in this country and we haven’t been in this fight long. When you look at where we were 10 years ago, it’s pretty amazing. I think my vision expands beyond any individual issue LGBT Americans are facing, like marriage. I would like for LGBT people, wherever they are, to feel the presence of HRC as the “air around us” changes and we continue to make progress.
And how will you accomplish this?
We’re always looking for more creative ways to engage straight Americans. I’m going to be doing a weekly radio show called “The Agenda.” I hope that it is entertaining and still cutting edge, with lots of call-ins. The challenge will be walking the thin line between speaking to our base and reaching out to middle America. I guess I’m going to be sort of a Gay “Car Talk” guy.
What words of encouragement do you have for Gays and Lesbians in Missouri and Kansas?
Keep at it. Change doesn’t always happen quickly, but when there is an opening, you have to be ready to move. That opening might be the election of just one fair-minded city councilor or a better corporate policy. Don’t get frustrated. You can’t live in Topeka, KS, in one of the most socially conservative states in the country, and get confounded by how much further along Massachusetts is than Kansas.
Any last words?
The LGBT community needs to be a bigger political force and this is our year to make big gains. HRC is leading the way, but we can’t do it without support in the heartland.
“The Agenda” airs Monday 6–10 pm ET on XM channel 200.