Karen Ocamb

HRC's LA Gala: Theron's a Hoot, Matthews Praises Solmonese & Griffin's a Hit

Filed By Karen Ocamb | March 19, 2012 4:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Chad Griffin, Charlize Theron, Chris Matthews, HRC gala dinner, Human Rights Campaign, Joe Solmonese

DC's newst gay power couple - Chad Griffin and Jerome Fallon (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

There was not one Get Equal or Occupy LA protester in sight outside the Ritz Carlton/JW Marriott at LA LIVE near downtown Los Angeles Saturday night, March 17, demonstrating against the Human Rights Campaign for associating with Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd C. Blankfein. Of course, they could have been obscured by the mass of LA Kings fans heading to the nearby Staples Center or the throngs out for St. Patrick's celebrations. UPDATE: A few GetEqual protesters who were outside the event left comments on my site to let me know they were there.. I was stuck in traffic, arrived about 7:00pm and was forced to drive around for a long time looking for parking since the hotel’s lots were full. I looked for but saw no protesters – but I apparently just missed them.

Inside the ballroom, the mood was jubilant. This is a black tie crowd that appreciates the work accomplished by departing HRC President Joe Solmonese and agrees with him that re-electing President Obama in November should be a top priority for LGBT people. Solmonese is one of the co-chairs of the Obama re-election campaign. They were also anxious to meet incoming president Chad Griffin, best known as the innovative leader of the American Foundation for Equal Rights who boldly brought together top flight conservative Republican attorney Ted Olson and top flight liberal Democratic attorney David Boies to fight for marriage equality. The "odd couple," as they are often affectionately called, sparred at the US Supreme Court in 2000 in Bush v Gore but together won decisions at the district and 9th Circuit courts in Perry v Schwarzenegger (now Perry v Brown) that Prop 8 is unconstitutional.

The group also showed love for LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa - chair of the Democratic National Convention, who supports putting a marriage equality plank in the Democratic Party platform. Lots of ebullient reaction, too, for Ally for Equality Award honorees Charlize Theron and Kathleen and Chris Matthews, a friend of Joe Solmonese and host of MSNBC's Hardball.

Jerome Fallon and Chad Griffin arriving for the White House State Dinner (Screen capture from C-SPAN)

The HRC gala came three days after Griffin and longtime HRC board members and top Obama campaign bundlers Dana Perlman and Barry Karas attended the State Dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron at the White House Wednesday night, March 14. Griffin and his boyfriend Jerome Fallon sat at the President's table opposite First Lady Michelle Obama and actor George Clooney, who played David Boies in Dustin Lance Black’s play ’8.’

"It was a tremendous honor and privilege to even be in the room and a grand surprise to be seated at the table with a war veteran, with the mom of war veterans, with the Prime Minister, the President, the First Lady - it was really a unique and special night," Griffin told me.

Seating chart for President Obama's table via Reliable Sources/Washington Post

I jokingly asked if he learned anything from Warren Buffett, who was seated one person away. Griffin laughed and said:

"I sat – on my left – with Susie Buffett, so we talked a lot. I've worked with Susie before in the early childhood arena. She works closely with [Perry v Brown plaintiff] Kris Perry - in the ‘it’s a small world’ department – so we talked a lot about the early childhood movement and some of the similarities in the two (LGBT equality and early childhood movements) and ways we could potentially work together. I have so much respect for the entire Buffett family."

This may be no light-hearted dinner chitchat – nor is it simply about snagging another source for potential future fundraising. As I note in my interview with Griffin for Frontiers magazine (online Monday at FrontiersLA.com), in 1998, Griffin worked with actor/director Rob Reiner on Prop 10, the Early Childhood Development initiative. With $7 million dollars, they successfully went up against Big Tobacco's $40 million and created the state commission First 5 California, headed by Perry. Susie Buffett chairs The Sherwood Foundation, The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, and The Buffett Early Childhood Fund. Both Buffett and Perry have participated in events sponsored by The Advancement Project, a social justice "action tank" intent on "closing the opportunity gap." The potential for collaboration is enormous, especially in the context of bullying, as well as eliminating stigma for children of same sex parents, many of whom are not economically well-off.

I also asked Griffin if he spoke with Obama. "I did," he said. "The President congratulated me, as did the First Lady and the First Lady talked about how excited she was to have Jerome and me in Washington and I told them how we looked forward to being able to work with both of them. So it was a grand honor."

A grand honor that perhaps should not have come as such a surprise. Former ANGLE fundraising honcho Jeremy Bernard is the Obama administration's Social Secretary, responsible for State Dinners. And Griffin's former partner in their political consulting and communications strategy firm Griffin/Schake is Kristina Schake - now communications director for First Lady Michelle Obama. In the "old" days, during the Clinton administration, power couple Elizabeth Birch (then head of HRC) and Hilary Rosen (then head of the Recording Industry Association of America ) were friendly with the Clintons but apparently were even closer with Al and Tipper Gore – Tipper even played drums during HRC's Equality Rocks concert at the Millennium March on Washington in 2000. Interestingly, Griffin worked in the Clinton administration, as did California Assemblymember Betsy Butler, who was also at the HRC dinner. Many in the LGBT community have wondered if the Obamas have any real close LGBT friends. Perhaps Griffin and Fallon might fill that bill.

I suspect most of the HRC gala attendees where not thinking of the State Dinner or whether Griffin and Fallon could get close to the Obamas as the power couple made their way around the room meeting people. Rather, it was a moment for quick introductions and brief idea-sharing - though it appears Griffin may have picked up a tip or two from his former boss Bill Clinton, whom he followed to the White House from Hope, Arkansas. Like Clinton, Griffin has that knack of looking a person in the eye as if all the other people patting his back and tugging at his sleeve must simply wait their turn. In a room where political cruising (and cruising of a more personal nature) is de facto, this inter-personal skill may well help Griffin as he moves forward.

HRC President Joe Solmonese with board member Barry Karas (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

While Solmonese was patted on the back (carefully given his hurt shoulder) and Griffin was welcomed - the HRC crowd also roared with appreciation for special guest Joe Manganiello.

"I don't happen to be gay....yet," Manganiello teased. "But I am on a little show called True Blood." He explained that he understands what if feels like to be "prejudged" by people who don't know you. As a kid, he wore coke-bottle glasses and had big ears that stuck out. But he started to work out and by high school, "I spent my time defending those artistic friends I had from being bullied by those kids." He described turning down sports scholarships to do musicals - but one thing he wasn't was a bully. "In high school, as in life, it is something I completely abhor. I think every kid deserves to grow up in an academic environment that allows them to express themselves freely without physical or mental turmoil." He applauded HRC Foundation's Welcoming Schools program, which teaches kids about the importance of family diversity. “To me, its' about taking the kids at an early age and teaching them that we all need to understand one another," he said. That sure sounds like a program Griffin might be able to interest Susie Buffett and the First Lady in supporting.

Actress and HRC honoree Charlize Theron before taking the stage (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

If I'm not mistaken, I think Charlize Theron was the first Hollywood celebrity to say she wouldn't get married until same sex couples had the right to marry. The HRC program book oddly only mentions her filmography, without elaborating on her incredible portrayal of real life lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, a role for which she won the Academy Award in a movie she produced. The program notes also skip all the good work she's done for people with HIV/AIDS and the LGBT community - though some of that was captured in the video introduction. What was left out of that video, however, was how on-the-frontlines Theron's been - as this snippet illustrates from her appearance at the post-Prop 8 Meet in the Middle event in Fresno on May 30, 2009.

Theron knew her audience. There were wild cheers when she thanked actor Michael Fassbender, her Prometheus costar (in theaters in June) for the introduction and appreciated his full-frontal nudity in Shame. Before his official introduction, Fassbender took a swig of something liquid and raised a glass to St. Patrick's Day. And before she started her remarks, Theron took a hit off that drink, grimacing slightly as it went down.

"You Irish don't fuck around," she said, turning to a laughing Fassbender. "It was overwhelming."

Theron continued, with her remarks punctuated with applause – and hoots and hollers when she referenced Fassbender in Shame:

First, thank you, Michael Fassbender. You're not going to make me cry. No, seriously, I want to thank Michael, who literally flew in six hours ago and said yes to doing this.....And how about - wow - Shame…As an actor, I was truly impressed that you chose to play it big. I mean, most other actors would have gone small, trust me. No – I know because I've worked with most of them. Now, you're all sitting there thinking: who's she talking about? No, seriously, your penis was a revelation! I am available to work with it any time.

Anyway...thank you to everybody. It's a nice changeover, yeah. Thank you for this amazing award. Thank you, so much. In 1996, the Gallop organization conducted a poll asking Americans if they supported gay marriage. The results were clear: 68% of Americans said, 'No.' A few years later, in 2005, 59% said, 'No.' But then, finally, in May of 2011, the lines crossed. 45% of Americans opposed gay marriage - but 53% supported it. So what happened in just 15 years? Well, you happened. And in this short span of 15 years, you have moved a culture. You have worked tirelessly and the results are clear: today the majority of Americans stand with you in one of the most important civil rights issues of our time.

Marriage equality is about more than just marriage. It's about something greater. It's about acceptance. 15 years ago, somewhere in America, there was a young LGBT boy who saw those statistics, looked at what the world thought about him and thought, 'There must be something wrong with me.'

But not today. Today, somewhere in America, there's a young LGBT girl looking at the world not even questioning whether there's something wrong with her. Instead she's dreaming a better future. She knows – because of you – that she's accepted. She's free to love who she wants.

Because of the work you do, young men and women will now have their feet firmly planted on the exact same starting line as everyone else. And that means everything.

And so it is with great, great pride and honor that I accept his award. I will always be your cheerleader.

MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews, center, with his wife Kathleen and son Thomas to his left and Joe Manganiello to his right (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Dana Perlman introduced Chris and Kathleen Matthews, the other recipients of the Ally for Equality Award.

Kathleen Matthews spoke first and immediately won over many in the audience by noting that she had been a TV anchor and reporter in Washington DC for 25 years prior to becoming the chief communications and public affairs officer for Marriott International and had covered the late Frank Kameny, the gay pride events, the Whitman-Walker AIDS clinic, and the march for domestic partner benefits - albeit, I'm not sure which march she's talking about.

She also said she checked out the Marriott company before signing on. The company has a 90% rating on HRC's 2012 Corporate Index. She said:

I was extremely proud, extremely proud when our 78 year old CEO Bill Marriott actually found out about the Proposition here in California (Prop 8) - of course, Bill Marriott is Mormon. But he instantly went on his blog and said, 'I did not contribute to that campaign and we offer domestic partner benefits at the Marriott. We welcome all people - whether they work for us or [stay with us].' It's so great to be working with a leader like that.

A quick check confirms that account, though the Salt Lake Tribune for Nov. 14, 2008 reports that while Marriott said neither he nor the company contributed to Prop 8 - it was actually in reaction to a threatened boycott:

Gay-rights activists had called for opponents of Proposition 8 to boycott Marriott Hotels because of the LDS Church’s broad financial support for the campaign. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints raised about $22 million for the initiative, which passed on Nov. 4.

Anti-Proposition 8 activists have demonstrated outside several LDS temples from Oakland and Westwood, Calif., to New York City. A Salt Lake City rally last Friday drew more than 3,000 protesters to the LDS temple here.....

But Bill Marriott, who has been a leader in the LDS Church in the Washington, D.C., area, defended his company’s record.

For the past 20 years, Marriott International has had domestic partner benefits, and has earned a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index for two consecutive years, Marriott said in a statement earlier this week.

Many of the hotels have hosted lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community functions and events for years.

“The Bible that I love teaches me about honesty, integrity and unconditional love for all people,” Marriott said. “But beyond that, I am very careful about separating my personal faith and beliefs from how we run our business.”

UPDATE: Communications guru Bob Witeck emailed to say that the Tribune story was incorrect. In fact, he worked with the Marriott family and with Kathleen Matthews at the time and their response was that neither the family nor the corporation gave one dollar towards Prop 8. It was NOT in response to a threatened boycott.

While there was much enthusiastic applause throughout the evening, Kathleen Matthews talking about their 26 year old son Thomas got one of the loudest of the night. "When he was in high school in an all-boys high school, [Thomas] started the Gay/Straight Alliance. And he took a lot of shit for that," she said. "So Thomas, Bravo! You inspire Chris and me."

Kathleen Matthews also delivered what HRC could use as a pull-quote for a Corporate Index recruiting poster:

So welcoming the LGBT community is not only what we do at Marriott, it is part of our business strategy. It's how our company is going to be the number one hospitality industry as we host all of your marriages in our ballrooms.

Chris Matthews also cheered his son - with a twist:

He's on the new Aaron Sorkin show this summer called Newsroom and he plays a producer on a political talk show. So first thing he did when he got the job was he called me up and say, 'What's a producer?' He took a lot of interest in my career.

Matthews identifies as a "sarcastic wise guy - that's how I communicate." And unless you are a fan of his MSNBC show Hardball, it might be difficult to understand his heartfelt but sometimes truncated stream of consciousness. For instance, in wishing Irish people, then the entire audience, well on St. Patrick's Day - he said:

Let's all speak on behalf of God on St. Patrick's Day. On behalf of God - we are all God's children!….Sometimes I think people in my religion, the Catholic religion, and I am Catholic and a practicing Catholic and I argue with these people - We're all god's children.

It's funny how the right wing - and I will now get a little political - they believe in creationism - except for people here. What was creationism about? They're all for the concept because it's one of the reactionary ways they can argue about science. But how about humanity? God created us, everybody here. ...I'm going to keep arguing about it within the church.

Matthews cracked people up when he praised his friend Joe Solmonese.

Look, protest plays a role in our lives. It has played a great role in civil rights across the board - human rights across the board. Women's rights across the board. Choice. Protest does it all. But politics plays a role, too. Good, solid politics. Joe is probably the best politician I've met since Tip O'Neill. Joe is so good - because you know what a politician does? They seduce. It's all about seduction. You don't even know you're an ally until you find that you are. It's like that girl with Jack Kennedy: 'I don't know what happened.' ...He wanted it and he had her. That's how Joe operates. Ask, thank, with courage and you reward. That's how you make friends....I always say to people, never say 'No' to yourself. Most people do. 'Oh, they won't like me here.' Make them say 'No.' ....Never say 'No' to yourself.

And if such high praise for Solmonese wasn't enough, Matthews said the Republican National Committee (RNC) could learn a lesson or two from HRC:

I was thinking of another example of how we learn from other people. [He reads from an HRC press release]: 'Griffin's appointments follows an extensive six-month search by the board that included a consideration of over 100 diverse and extremely well-qualified candidates from the worlds of business and academia and activism.'

I just saw [HBO's] Game Change and the way they picked the Vice President of the United States. They googled her! And you guys do it this way. You should pass this over to the RNC this summer. They might be able to find someone....No, seriously. This is groundbreaking, to do it this way.

Congratulations, Chad. I'll do what you need. I'm with you - just like with Joe.

The Obamas, the Buffetts and the Matthews - politics, finance, media – sounds like Chad Griffin is off to a well-connected start even before he assumes the presidency of HRC. Next stop - the grassroots where his successful push against Big Tobacco on behalf of California’s kids and AFER's anti-Prop 8 victories should earn him some friends.

HRC will no doubt post their photos and videos of the speeches shortly. Meanwhile, here are some candid shots of some of the folks who attended the gala:

LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has supported marriage equality since 1994 (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Longtime Congressmember Maxine Waters has been a staunch ally to people with HIV/AIDS and LGBT people since at least the late 1980s. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Assemblymember Betsy Butler and Dana Perlman (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Jerome Fallon, Chad Griffin, Ari Ruiz, unknown, and Michael Colorge of Stonewall Young Democrats (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

LA City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti with Stonewall Young Democrats honchos Michael Colorge and Ari Ruiz (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Openly lesbian LAPD Medal of Valor recipient Sgt. Lisa Phillips (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Chad Griffin, Barry Karas and unidentified friend (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Chad Griffin and Mary Jo Godges, who with her wife Renee Sotile are filmmakers at Traipsing Thru Films (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Ross Matthews of E! Fashion Police (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Tom Carpenter (upper left) and his beaming husband Art Andrade (lower left) at the SLDN/OutServe military table (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

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