Largest LGBT advocacy group names new president

Chad Griffin attends the Family Equality LA Awards Dinner at The Globe Theatre at Universal Studios on Feb. 11, 2012 in Universal City, Calif. Noel Vasquez/Getty Images for Family Equality Council

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 gay rights lobbying and education 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.

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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, so he has extensive experience overseeing messaging for state and local political campaigns.

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 passed with 52 percent of the vote, Griffin and Reiner decided to challenge the voter-approved ban in federal court, a move initially opposed by established gay rights groups. The ban twice has been thrown out as unconstitutional, but the case still 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."

With annual revenues 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. President Barack 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 under Obama's watch, from the passage of a law making violence against gays a federal hate crime to new rules guaranteeing same-sex partners hospital visitation rights.

But HRC also 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, for example, 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 met Griffin through their mutual support for Clinton's post-presidential advocacy and serves on the board of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is financing the Proposition 8 case, said Griffin's skill in being both diplomatic and forceful would be a bonus for HRC.

"It shows bravery and a willingness for them to move into new territory by bringing Chad on. Chad is fearless and Chad is a big thinker," Cohen said. "But he is also a great multi-tasker. My prediction would be he not only will be able to continue to do everything HRC does so well, but at the same time entertain a whole new direction for the organization."

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.

"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," Griffin said. "As HRC president, I'll approach our work with a great sense of urgency because there are real life consequences to inaction."

He is expected to take over at HRC in June.

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