A gay marriage advocate with ears in the White House
President Obama’s decision to support gay marriage came after years of pressure from some of his most ardent supporters.
One of them is Chad Griffin, the 38-year-old incoming president of Human Rights Campaign, an adovcacy group for gay rights. Griffin is an example of the behind-the-scenes power players who have been prodding the White House on this issue for some time. The California-based political consultant said he has made several appeals to the president in person to come out in support of gay marriage. And as one of the top bundlers for Obama’s campaign, he has been exerting financial pressure as well.
His ties to the White House go deeper than that, however. Griffin’s former business partner, Kristina Schake, is now Michelle Obama’s communications director. His college roommate is White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer. And Griffin and his partner Jerome Fallon were seated at the head table with Obama at the recent state dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron.
After Vice President Joe Biden said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday that he was “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage, it was Griffin who dismissed White House attempts to walk the comment back.
Having been in a private meeting with Biden and gay supporters last month, Griffin said Biden had made his feelings about same-sex couples clear then.
“Only in Washington and only in politics could someone parse the words of what the vice president said,” Griffin said.
That meeting may have been on Biden’s mind when he spoke, forcing the president’s hand. Obama said today he had already decided to announce his support for gay marriage before the convention, but he had not planned to do so this week.
Many of Obama’s top financial backers such as Griffin are gay, and some had threatened to withhold funds if the president did not come out in support of same-sex marriage before the election. After the president’s announcement, donations flooded in.
Griffin would not discuss private conversations, but he says he brought up gay marriage with White House officials at every opportunity.
“My role has been all along, both publicly and privately, when I’ve had the opportunity to urge the president to support marriage equality,” he said.
While he normally keeps friendship and work separate, on this issue, he didn’t.
“I have a lot of friends and associates and colleagues and I am not shy about making my views known on this issue,” he said. “It’s rare in politics that you get to do something that has direct impact on the lives of millions of people.”
But Pfeiffer says Griffin “never tried to push it with me.”
“He never tried to leverage our friendship for an agenda because that’s not what friends do,” the White House staffer added. “Chad Griffin certainly doesn’t need me to get to anyone in politics.”
An Arkansas native, Griffin volunteered for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992, when he was 19 years old. He worked in the White House for two years, the youngest member of Clinton’s staff. When director Rob Reiner visited the White House to research his 1995 film “The American President,” Griffin showed him around.
A few years later, Griffin moved to Los Angeles to run Reiner’s charitable foundation. In 2008, together with friends they decided to challenge the state’s gay marriage ban, Proposition 8, in federal court — a controversial strategy among many gay activists. In 2009, the two founded the American Foundation for Equal Rights, a nonprofit devoted to the challenge.
“Chad made a name for himself not by rising up the ranks in an existing institution, but by building something new, something he could throw his whole heart into,” said Schake. “He’s an innovator. He’s creative. And he’s truly made himself into one of the seminal voices for gay rights in America on the power of his own intellect and hard work.”
Griffin takes over for current Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese on June 11. “We as a nation have a lot of work to do,” Griffin said, but “yesterday was a major turning point in the history of his country.” He added, “I predict that we will never have a president of this country again who opposes gay marriage.”