Chad Griffin takes on the gay-marriage losing streak

Posted July 27, 2012, at 6:13 a.m.
Friends and mentors of Chad Griffin, seen at his home in Los Angeles,
call his Arkansas childhood his main motivator in his quest.Chad Griffin is the newly appointed president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest and most influential gay rights advocacy group.
Bret Hartman | Washington Post
Friends and mentors of Chad Griffin, seen at his home in Los Angeles, call his Arkansas childhood his main motivator in his quest.Chad Griffin is the newly appointed president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest and most influential gay rights advocacy group.

Just a few months ago, Chad Griffin conferred with British Prime Minister David Cameron over plates of bison Wellington during a state dinner at the White House in Cameron’s honor. How, Griffin wanted to know, did the leader persuade his fellow conservatives to back same-sex marriage? A few seats away, at the head table, was Griffin’s boyfriend, Jerome Fallon, and a few seats from him was President Barack Obama, who had not yet announced his support of gay marriage.

“I didn’t eat a bite of food on my plate,” recalled Griffin, who can sound like a smarter version of Kenneth, the earnest page with the soft Southern drawl on TV’s “30 Rock.” “I wasn’t going to look down or have food in my mouth.”

On Monday evening, Griffin turned the tables, playing host with Fallon to some of the hardest-to-book high-recognition names on the planet. Over here was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; there was Sir Elton John and Sharon Stone, drawn to the District for the International AIDS Conference.

Yes, gay rights leaders such as Griffin have friends in the White House. They have enjoyed victories in federal courts and in statehouses. They have gay sitcom characters making their case. They have strong poll numbers. They have money.

But they lack one credential: a win at the ballot box.

This is now Chad Griffin’s problem.

As the new head of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights organization, Griffin has been tasked with stopping the streak of losses in statewide tests of same-sex marriage. This fall, the 39-year-old Arkansas native will be faced with ballot initiatives in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state that could overturn marriage rights for gays. He can count on mounds of money, with the HRC’s donors contributing about $40 million each year. But with it come almost as many opinions about how the contributions should be spent.

A few decades ago, awareness and empowerment were a unifying goal for the gay community. AIDS created new bonds as gay men and lesbians fought disease, hostility, ignorance and the institutional torpor in response to the plague. Slowly, the movement has matured, expanded the conversation to consider schoolyard bullying, teenage suicide and the challenges of starting a family. Still, unlike other civil rights groups, which are united by skin color or ethnicity or faith, the gay community remains difficult to steer.

“I have always gotten the most criticism from our own community,” said Dustin Lance Black, a Griffin friend who won an Oscar for his “Milk” screenplay.

The HRC has earned sneers for being the domain of “tuxedo gays,” lured to promlike galas with Lady Gaga, Pink, the “Modern Family” actors. Also invited are corporations, which earn plaudits for workplace inclusiveness even as they are dunned for donations and auction items.

“I have been dismayed and disgusted by them for a long time,” said Cleve Jones, who worked for gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk. “Working-class, minority, transgender individuals all felt completely abandoned and ignored and really disrespected by this organization.”

In Jones’s view, Griffin can and will change all that, but it’s not obvious how. Black churches and even local branches of the NAACP have recently campaigned against same-sex marriage. Yet here, at the helm of the largest gay rights organization, is another white man. “Well, if there’s one thing about myself I can’t change, it would be that,” Griffin said.

Self-awareness came late for Griffin, who dated women on and off into his late 20s. “I was closeted even to myself,” he explained.

Griffin described his childhood in Hope, Ark. — the birthplace of Bill Clinton, his former boss — as infused with a sense of isolation and confusion. “I didn’t know that I knew a gay person,” he recalled. “I have a wonderful family, and I’m very lucky. But I knew there were certain tables you didn’t want to sit at at the lunchroom.” He volunteered the epithets he was called. “I would just sort of isolate it and pretend that it didn’t happen. I would keep it in a box locked away.”

Betty Hightower is Griffin’s mother, a honey-voiced middle-school principal, now retired. She suspected her eldest son was gay. Eleven years ago, after he told friends in Washington and Los Angeles, Griffin asked to speak to his mother, at her home in Arkansas. When he closed the door behind him, she was making her way to bed, and his eavesdropping sister made the floorboards creak in the hallway.

This is how he often let her know about his life, not discussing a crucial decision until it was settled in his mind. “He was the adventurous type,” his mother said, “and, goodness, he was so determined.”

Friends and mentors call Griffin’s childhood his main motivator in his new quest. It’s a distant goal far beyond marriage equality, but no less important. If the acceptance of gays keeps accelerating, Griffin wonders, will society help kids figure out who they are at an earlier age? How early is too early? Will there still be a “closet”?

The first person Griffin came out to is Dan Pfeiffer, his best friend from their days at Georgetown University and now the White House communications chief. Griffin’s best female friend and onetime business partner, Kristina Schake, is the communications chief for first lady Michelle Obama. Griffin came to know his way around 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. well before they did. Pfeiffer explained that he once received a surprise text from Griffin, who was inside the White House and wanted to bring a guest by the press room. The visitor, on the premises to talk about post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, was Brad Pitt.

Griffin’s clout had been accruing ever since Bill Clinton’s 1992 war room. Back then, campaign press secretary Dee Dee Myers first piled chores on Griffin, her “go-to intern.” Whenever she returned to the Little Rock headquarters, she could ask the college sophomore to “go get an answer on this, go call these 10 people,” she recalled. He was quiet, competent, “not empire-building,” in Myers’s recollection. He was there every Saturday. He commuted to Ouachita Baptist University every Tuesday and Thursday. When others decamped for holidays, Griffin would be at his desk.

“What was I going to be doing in Arkadelphia?” he asked.

After the election, Myers pulled him into the White House, but under one condition: He had to return to college. At age 19, he was purportedly the youngest West Wing staffer ever. One Sunday, Griffin was given the job of conducting a White House tour for director Rob Reiner, who was dreaming up the film that would become “The American President.” Griffin would hear from Reiner again. In 1997, after his stint at the White House and after finishing his degree at Georgetown University, Griffin was offered the job of running a foundation the director and his wife started to fund early-childhood development programs. Griffin knew next to nothing about these “prenatal-to-5″ concerns.

He accepted, thinking he would be there for a year. Soon he and the Reiners hatched a 1998 ballot initiative that added 50 cents to the California cigarette tax, which has brought in about $7 billion for children’s health care. They followed with a 2004 ballot initiative, for stem-cell research, that has pulled in more than $3 billion.

Griffin is as high-reaching and strong-willed in his pursuit for gay equality. He insists that gay men and lesbians have long played definitive roles in society, in politics, in the military, however hidden. For many years, he has scoured flea markets for vintage photos of soldiers or sailors or airmen, showing some fellowship. “Photographs of male intimacy,” he called his collection. Each chastely captures a bond. Who knows what the nature of the bond was? “Go back several years, we were pretending gays in the military was a new thing,” Griffin said. “We’ve had gay soldiers in every war we’ve ever fought throughout time.”

How soon, then, will a gay president take office? His decisive response: “Who’s to say we haven’t had one already?”

A week before his move back to Washington, over a salad in the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, Griffin talked about what’s on his task list — a doctor’s visit, a condo closing, an electoral sea change. Even refracted in the Los Angeles prism, some traits of a onetime West Winger shine through. Griffin had on small-framed glasses, a navy blazer and laceless Oxfords. He was low-key and fast-talking, careful about when to provoke.

He has attended a Billy Graham revival and a Jerry Falwell sermon, listened on long drives to Rush Limbaugh books on tape. “You want to write your own campaign plan and strategy,” he said, “but you also want to write theirs.”

Bryan Brown, who runs the National Organization for Marriage, called Griffin a talented strategist who “knows what he’s doing.” But Brown possesses what Griffin and other gay rights leaders can, for now, only hope for: “What we have is the people, and people may not be as glamorous as George Clooney, but they decide elections,” he said, swiping at another Friend of Chad. “I’ve never lost any public vote on marriage.”

Griffin knows this all too well. After the Reiners, Griffin was in private practice, working with Schake as consultants to politicians, causes and corporate clients. The firm was brought in at the last minute to try to salvage same-sex marriage in California; it was Griffin’s first professional foray into gay rights.

With an influx of donations from the Mormon Church, California voters adopted Proposition 8, which brought same-sex marriage in the state to a halt. After the defeat, Griffin witnessed street protests that included blacks and Latinos, teenagers and seniors, gays and straights. His epiphany: The marriage-equality coalition could be bigger than most activists had assumed. He created the American Foundation for Equal Rights to challenge the professional class of gay activists.

His instincts were confirmed during a lunch with the Reiners at the Polo Lounge, when an acquaintance of the director’s dropped by their table. The conversation led to Ted Olson, the visitor’s former brother-in-law. Olson, who was solicitor general under President George W. Bush, supported same-sex marriage and had for a long time, the woman confided. Griffin promptly hopped on a plane to meet him in the D.C. offices of Gibson Dunn, Olson’s law firm. The two methodical minds clicked.

Democrat David Boies, a constitutional-law heavyweight and Olson’s opponent in Bush v. Gore, became a logical addition to the legal team, whose work would be supported by about $10 million amassed by Griffin’s fundraising, with entertainment mogul David Geffen providing the initial millions. “I wanted the level and the expertise and the commitment of time in a team just as Microsoft or Google would have,” Griffin said.

Fellow Republicans seethed at Olson. “There are many, many people who think I’m a terrible person for this, and they don’t hesitate to express it,” Olson said. As Brown of the marriage organization put it: “Ted Olson made a mistake.”

Opposition also blared among gay rights groups. A consortium of lawyers agreed on an agenda for approaching the Supreme Court, and Griffin’s legal challenge was out of order. Would the justices flinch? And wasn’t Olson really an enemy combatant, a fox in the henhouse?

“That I just laughed about,” Griffin said of the last charge, pointing, as ultimate vindication, to the landmark court victories scored by Olson and Boies.

Ever pragmatic and defiant, Griffin enlisted Ken Mehlman, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, who came out late in life, to raise millions from straight and conservative financiers for the Prop 8 legal challenge. Griffin’s outreach to Mehlman came at a time when other gay activists were still shunning their onetime opponent.

Griffin has learned much from living in Washington and Los Angeles, both capitals of illusion that can veer from sharky to warm in an instant: “Both cities are one-industry towns, ego-driven and mutually obsessed with each other,” he said.

Griffin is a product of both cultures. And he has all but ensured that those eyeing the job on Pennsylvania Avenue first make a stop at Rhode Island Avenue, where Griffin commands 150 employees from the HRC’s District headquarters.

Whether their biggest ally of all, Obama, wins or loses in the fall, the Democratic presidential hopefuls of 2016 are already courting HRC leaders and donors. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) strengthened ties to gay rights groups with his leadership in legalizing same-sex marriage in the state. So, too, did Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) during his try-try-again saga in Annapolis that resulted in a narrow win. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) made progress with supporters of same-sex marriage even though his efforts fell short. And Hillary Clinton, who many think will make another run at the White House, already has deep — and perhaps the best — connections to Griffin. At the dinner Monday night, she recalled how two decades ago, Griffin, now her host, wrangled reporters for the Arkansas governor who would become president.

“Hey, look,” Griffin said, “it’s pretty incredible that we have gone from a place where this issue was thought to doom one’s political career to a place where it is thought to be a career-maker.” And he’s not talking about just his own.

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