(BLADE) After a seven-year period leading the nation’s largest LGBT group that culminated in massive gains for LGBT rights supporters on Election Day 2018, Chad Griffin announced Thursday he will step down as president of the Human Rights Campaign.
“I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of this incredible organization at such an important moment in the history of our movement — and our nation,” Griffin said in a statement Thursday. “The true strength of the Human Rights Campaign is in its fearless army of staff and volunteers, who are committed to ensuring full equality reaches every LGBTQ person across America, and around the world. For decades, this organization has shown the world that love conquers hate. But this year, in this election, with the future of our democracy on the ballot and the equality of future generations on the line, we proved that votes conquer hate, too.”
According to the Human Rights Campaign, the HRC Board will work to establish an executive search process for Griffin’s successor in the coming weeks. Griffin plans to stay on until 2019 to ensure a smooth transition.
The news was first reported by the Associated Press. The AP reported Griffin informed staff earlier on Thursday of his intent to depart the Human Rights Campaign.
Griffin’s tenure at the Human Rights Campaign ended with massive gains in a “blue” wave that resulted in Democratic control of the U.S. House, Jared Polis becoming the first openly gay person elected governor and four new lesbian, gay and bisexual candidates elected to the House. The wins were bolstered this week when Kyrsten Sinema was confirmed as the winner in the U.S. Senate race in Arizona, making her the first openly bisexual person elected to the chamber.
The Human Rights Campaign contributed to this effort with a $26 million #TurnOut to vote campaign that sought to motivate the estimated 10 million Americans who identify as LGBT and 52 million Americans who support pro-LGBT policies to vote in the election. The #TurnOUT campaign identified six states — Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — on which to focus its efforts.
In a conference call with reporters last week, Griffin touted those contributions and said they helped drive the “blue” wave on Election Day that ousted anti-LGBT members of Congress, calling it the “largest grassroots expansion in the history of the Human Rights Campaign.”
“It is not only ousting these anti-LGBT equality members of Congress,” Griffin said. “If you look at the pro-equality champions they were replaced by, all across the country, in red, blue and purple states alike, they were defeated by not just pro-equality champions, but candidates who actually fought for our votes and made passing the Equality Act one of the top campaign issues in their districts.”
Griffin’s work to advance LGBT rights pre-dates his tenure at the Human Rights Campaign. In 2009, shortly after the passage of Proposition 8 in California, Griffin established the American Foundation for Equal Rights, hiring the dream team of Ted Olson and David Boies to challenge the ban on same-sex marriage in court.
The lawsuit was filed contrary to wishes of major LGBT rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, over fears the lawsuit was too risky and would be unsuccessful. Although the litigation worked its way through the courts for several years before making it to the Supreme Court, where justices ultimately issued a ruling based on standing and not the merits of the case, the lawsuit resulted in the restoration of marriage equality to California.
Kris Perry, who along with her spouse Sandy Stier was among the plaintiffs in the Prop 8 case, told the Washington Blade in the aftermath of Griffin’s announcement he’s an “incredible leader.”
“I first met him in 1999 after he helped Rob Reiner pass Proposition 10 in California, a tobacco tax that still generates hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding for children zero to five,” Perry said. “As you know in 2008, Chad turned his attention to fighting Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban in California which he masterfully won. Sandy and I have been HRC supporters since his arrival there in 2011 and we are in awe of the energy, expertise and courage he demonstrates year after year in his fight for human rights, fairness and equality. Chad has improved our lives and the lives of tens of thousands of Americans.”
Early on in 2012 during his tenure as HRC president, Griffin pushed to increase support for marriage equality by encouraging lawmakers to echo President Obama’s declaration of support for same-sex marriage. That year, for the first time, three states — Maine, Washington State and Maryland — legalized same-sex marriage at the ballot, and one state, Minnesota, rejected a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
In 2013, passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was a priority for the organization. Griffin coordinated an effort that led to passage of the legislation in the Senate, although the bill never came up in the Republican-controlled House.
After the legislative effort petered out, Griffin led efforts to develop and introduce the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to bar not only anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, but also public accommodations, housing, education, jury service, federal programs and credit.
Griffin also led the Human Rights Campaign during victories at the Supreme Court for same-sex marriage aside from the decision against Prop 8, including the 2013 decision in the Windsor case against the Defense of Marriage Act and the 2015 decision in the Obergefell case for same-sex marriage nationwide.
After the Windsor decision in 2013, many skeptics scoffed when Griffin said full marriage equality would come throughout the country within the five years, but that prediction became reality even sooner when the Obergefell decision was handed down years later.
But Griffin’s tenure wasn’t successful in every effort. The Human Rights Campaign was an early supporter of Hillary Clinton in her 2016 presidential bid and contributed to her election campaign. (Griffin at age 18 was a White House press office manager during the Bill Clinton administration.) Those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful and President Trump and Republican majorities were elected to Congress.
However, in that same year, the Human Rights Campaign contributed to efforts to unseat North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory after he signed the anti-trans House Bill 2 barring transgender people from access to restrooms in state government-operations buildings. Despite Trump’s success, McCrory in that year was ejected from the governor’s mansion.
Griffin also didn’t have consistent adulation from the LGBT community. When the book “Forcing the Spring” came out in 2014 on the Prop 8 case and compared Griffin to civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks on the first page, Griffin became the butt of criticism from LGBT rights supporters who thought he was taking too much credit for the movement. Griffin, however, distanced himself from the comparison and the controversy abated.
Hilary Rosen, a lesbian D.C.-based Democratic activist, said Griffin’s advancement of LGBT rights is consistent with the overall efforts of the Human Rights Campaign over the decades.
“The most gratifying thing about HRC is how it has tracked and led the progress of the movement,” Rosen said. “We have had the right leader for each growth spurt and each political season that has been just right. Chad took this organization to the grassroots at the right time in the right way.”
Rosen also pointed to Griffin’s creation of Project One American, a multi-year project that sought to advance support for LGBT rights in the South.
“He did so much for the movement, but one aspect really sticks out for me,” Rosen said. “His Arkansas roots gave him the incentive to work harder and smarter to make change for young LGBTQ kids and their families in North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and throughout the South. I think that will go down in history as one of his most singular contributions.”
Speculation emerged immediately after Griffin’s departure from the Human Rights Campaign that he’d seek to join the campaign of one of the potential 2020 Democratic presidential contenders, such as Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).
According to the Associated Press, Harris demurred when asked if she’d hire Griffin to help with her presidential campaign, saying only that she hadn’t made a decision on entering the race.
Harris, however, was public on Twitter on Thursday in her praise for Griffin, predicting history would remember him as a “leader in the moment he was needed to lead.”