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Largest Gay Rights Group Gets New Chief

By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page A06

After months of tumult, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization, has a new executive director, Joe Solmonese, the former chief executive of Emily's List.

Solmonese, 40, replaces Cheryl Jacques, who resigned as the HRC's director after the November elections. Despite the HRC's record fundraising for the 2004 election cycle, virtually every candidate and issue the HRC supported lost. Jacques, a former Massachusetts legislator, had held the post for less than a year, only slightly longer than the 10 months the HRC search committee took to find her.

Solmonese, a seasoned Washington lobbyist, was chosen after a three-month search. He comes to the HRC after 12 years at Emily's List, the nation's largest political action committee, whose mission is to help female candidates who support abortion rights get elected, and 2 1/2 years as its CEO. Solmonese is also a former fundraiser for Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of the few openly gay members of Congress.

One early task for Solmonese, who is gay, will be to repair the HRC's reputation among other gay rights groups. After the November elections, the organization had to publicly restate its commitment to goals such as same-sex marriage after published reports suggested that it planned to step back from more controversial issues. Several prominent advocacy groups, including the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the oldest gay rights group in the country, publicly rebuked the HRC and vowed to step up aggressive efforts to fight for all the myriad issues affecting the country's gay men and lesbians.

Last month, the HRC announced a major reorganization and several broad initiatives to reassert its commitment to fighting for legal benefits for gay and lesbian families, including formal marriage recognition. But without a director, the organization was seen as rudderless. Just weeks ago, the NGLTF, while stressing that it was not treading on the HRC's lobbying turf, announced that it was forming a committee to lobby Congress for GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) issues.

Solmonese will begin his duties next month and plans to spend a week or more touring the country, meeting with GLBT leaders and citizens at town hall meetings and other community settings.

"A primary concern for us is to reintroduce ourselves to the American people," he said, "to begin a dialogue both in red states and blue states," he said. He added that the HRC will work with other GLBT groups, continue to lobby Congress and also work with the states on long-term changes in the fight for gay civil rights.

"This struggle that we're in in this country right now is not just for GLBT Americans but for all progressives," he said. "All of us are redirecting our energy and adapting to a considerable shift in the political landscape, not just in the GLBT world."

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