SAN FRANCISCO – A political strategist from California who has played a leading role in trying to overturn the state's same-sex marriage ban was named Friday as the new president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest and most influential gay rights group.
The Washington-based campaign's directors voted to hire Chad Griffin, 38, to replace outgoing president Joe Solmonese, who announced last year that he would step down after seven socially transformative and sometimes internally stormy years at the organization's helm.
Griffin, an Arkansas native, went to work in President Bill Clinton's communications office at age 19 and spent nearly two years in the White House before moving to Los Angeles to run a charitable foundation for director and actor Rob Reiner.
He also has extensive experience overseeing messaging for state and local political campaigns, including a 2004 ballot initiative that created a California institute devoted to stem cell research.
In the closing weeks of the 2008 fight over California's gay marriage ban, known as Proposition 8, he was brought in to help spearhead the foundering effort to prevent the measure's passage.
After Proposition 8 was approved with 52 percent of the vote, Griffin and Reiner decided to challenge it in federal court, a move initially opposed by established gay rights groups. The ban has twice been ruled unconstitutional, but it remains in place while the case is on appeal.
"We're ecstatic to have someone of Chad's caliber as our next president," Tim Downing, chairman of the campaign's lobbying arm, and Sandra Hartness, who chairs its nonprofit education foundation, said in a statement. "His superior credentials and achievements, both as a visionary and strategist, make him uniquely qualified to lead this organization forward."
Griffin declined to state his immediate priorities, saying it would be premature since he will not start his new job until June.
In recent months, gay rights activists have been pressuring President Barack Obama to endorse extending marriage rights to same-sex couple and to issue an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.
"If patience is in fact a virtue, it's a virtue I don't possess," Griffin said in an interview. "Sometimes change doesn't happen at the pace we would like, but we must keep pushing for it."
With annual revenue of about $40 million and a staff of 150, the Human Rights Campaign is recognized in Washington as the nation's most influential gay rights group.
Obama has twice spoken at its annual fundraising dinner, and the organization claims credit for a host of gay rights advances that have taken place while Obama has been in office, from the passage of a law making violence against gays a federal hate crime to new rules guaranteeing same-sex partners hospital visitation rights.
The campaign, however, has been criticized within the gay rights movement for being too cautious and representing only the interests of financially well-off gays. Solmonese was heavily criticized in 2007, when the group agreed to support a congressional bill that would have extended job and housing protections to gay men and lesbians but not transgender people.
Film producer Bruce Cohen, who serves on the board of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is financing the Proposition 8 case, said Griffin's skill in being diplomatic and forceful would be a bonus for the campaign.
"It shows bravery and a willingness for them to move into new territory by bringing Chad on," Cohen said. "Chad is fearless and Chad is a big thinker."
Griffin frequently cites his own experience growing up gay in the South and his desire to reduce the high rate of suicide among gay teenagers as the reason for his activism. He did so again Friday.
"Whether it's the kid in Arkansas I used to be or the high school student in Fresno who lies awake at night staring at the ceiling with dread because of the bullying he faces every day, those people are my motivation, and if every decision we make is to the win of that young LGBT person, we will be making the right decision," he said.