Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Obama's Town Hall Lesson
for HRC's Solmonese

(Joe Solmonese sits for Washington Life magazine's photographer, Clay Blakemore. September 2009.)

It's not required by law, but modern presidential hopefuls, as part of running for the nation's highest office, must subject themselves to town halls with voters. I don't know how many such forums candidate Barack Obama held, but since taking office he's held quite a few.

The White House in March created a web page to help Americans participate in an online town hall a few days later, and we saw the President begin a commitment to use the forums to keep in touch with average citizens.

Since then, Obama has held town halls abroad in Turkey, France, across the United States in Virginia, the District of Columbia, New Hampshire, Montana, Colorado, and Louisiana. Counting all in-person and online forums, Obama has conducted nine town halls. As if that's not enough, while in Asia next week, he'll hold a public forum with students in China.

The President reaped many large and small rewards from the dialogues, including engaging Americans to support his legislative and political agendas, leading to accomplishments such as the House passing a health care reform package last weekend. I don't think there are any serious drawbacks to town halls for Obama, indeed, they've assisted in keeping him connected to regular folks and vice versa.

But no such town halls ever take place before a new person is installed and crowned as America's Gay Leader when they take over the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay organization.

When the then-obscure Joe Solmonese was plucked from EMILY's List in March 2005 to head up HRC, it was because the board of directors met behind close doors and picked him to be the new executive director, and for many gays, the thing they said after the decision was announced was, "Joe who?"

There was no public auditioning of the candidates for America's Gay Leader by HRC, a fact that I believe leads to lack of connection and engagement many non-HRC members and donors have toward Solmonese. This lack of commitment from the larger gay community with Solmonese is clearly exhibited in the criticism he constantly faces from a loud chorus demanding a more assertive approach by him and his organization with the Obama administration.

These days, when Solmonese issues a weekly letter to HRC supporters or appears on national TV and does a masterful job of apologizing for lack of action from Obama, many bloggers and traditional gay media folks are ready to pounce on him. He is given no slack.

If Solmonese were to learn a few lessons from Obama in how to use town halls to bring people to endorse and work for your agenda, it would be a big step forward in convincing me that HRC truly has a roadmap for pressuring the White House, but also to more fully engage a wider spectrum of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

Imagine if Solmonese began holding regular monthly town halls at HRC's state-of-the-art media center at their DC headquarters, with any member of the gay public allowed to ask direct questions and questions submitted from gays around the country via email, YouTube and Twitter, and all of it streamed on HRC's web site.

Why, we'd have some genuine transparency and utilization of modern communication tools to better mobilize and organize the community to move forward more cohesively on a gay agenda. HRC would also be seen less as a monarchy given to ruling from an ivory tower with a rainbow hued foundation. Just as with Obama's town halls, there are great things to come of Solmonese's town halls, if they ever occur.

If the leader of the free world can find the time to host many town halls to carry out his vision and dreams for America, the de facto leader of the nation's gay community should do likewise. Town halls aren't as glamorous as sitting all gussied up in formal wear for a photo session, but they should be an integral duty of Solmonese's in the very near future.

(Solmonese, back row, second from left. Washington Life magazine. Photo credit: Clay Blakemore. September 2009.)

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