Out gay woman on cabinet short list
by Lisa Keen
The big news in the presidential transition this week for the LGBT community was not the appointment of Senator Hillary Clinton to become secretary of state, nor that of longtime ally Bill Richardson to become secretary of commerce. It was a Wall Street Journal blog report Tuesday that President-elect Barack Obama is considering an openly gay person for his administration's secretary of labor – a pick that would itself make history.
The Journal said Mary Beth Maxwell, openly gay founder and executive director of American Rights at Work, a pro-labor advocacy group, is on a short list for the post. If chosen, Maxwell would become the first openly gay person ever to hold a cabinet post.
The Journal suggested Maxwell is a long-shot for the post, not because she's gay but because she's not as well known as many of Obama's other appointees so far. Others reportedly on the short list to head the labor department include Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm.
The Journal blog noted that the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT political group, sent a hurried letter to the transition team Monday to urge support for Maxwell's appointment, even though it had earlier endorsed another candidate, Representative Linda Sanchez (D-California).
Maxwell did not return a reporter's call, but in her biographical sketch on the American Rights at Work Web site, Maxwell notes she is a member of HRC, as well as the Family Equality Council, an organization advocating on behalf of gay families. She also notes that she lives in Washington, D.C., with her 7-year-old son.
In speeches available on YouTube, Maxwell is a tough advocate for the rights of workers to basic safety and respect on the job. She calls the labor movement part of the overall struggle for human rights. She also wields a dual strategy – both criticizing employers who treat workers poorly and publicly praising those who treat them well.
In his December 1 letter to Obama, HRC President Joe Solmonese said Maxwell has been "an active supporter of the LGBT community's efforts to enact protection against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity."
Solmonese said Maxwell and American Rights at Work have been "strong allies" in the effort to pass an inclusive federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act bill.
"Ms. Maxwell clearly understands that the challenges facing our workforce must be solved by including all American citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity," wrote Solmonese.
Jeremy Bishop, executive director of Pride at Work, the LGBT affiliate of the AFL-CIO, told the Bay Area Reporter Wednesday morning that Maxwell would be a "fantastic choice."
"She's very progressive and very committed to low-wage workers and people of color," said Bishop, who knows Maxwell. "She's very well regarded in the labor movement by both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win."
Change to Win is the group of seven unions and 6 million workers that formed in 2005 to build a new movement.
Bishop also noted that American Rights at Work was one of the first organizations to sign on in support of an inclusive ENDA, when controversy swirled last year after Representative Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) and HRC indicated support for a version of ENDA that does not include gender identity. Jobs for Justice, another organization where Maxwell once worked, also signed on in support of an inclusive ENDA, Bishop said.
Maxwell also supports the Employee Free Choice Act, Bishop said, which is one of organized labor's biggest legislative efforts. Like the watered down version of ENDA, the act passed the House but is stalled in the Senate.
Solmonese had kind words this week for recent Obama appointee Ellen Moran, executive director of the political action committee Emily's List. Moran has been named White House director of communications.
"She's one of my best friends," said Solmonese, who shared an office with Moran when they both first arrived at Emily's List.
"On a personal level, she really understands the struggle LGBT people face – including families," said Solmonese.
The role of communications director puts Moran in a position to be "one of a group of people" who could have influence on when the president might use the bully pulpit to address LGBT concerns, said Solmonese.
On Monday, Obama formally appointed Clinton, his former Democratic presidential opponent, to be his secretary of state. A CNN blog also noted that Obama's pick to be national security adviser – former Supreme NATO commander and Marine Corps Commandant Jim Jones – has "softened" his opposition to gays in the military over the years. According to the report, Jones told CNN last year that "People can serve and serve honorably regardless of where they come from."
And there was at least one other appointment during the past week that is being eyed closely by the LGBT and AIDS community.
Out MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow reported that AIDS activists are concerned about reports that Obama may appoint Representative James Ramstad (R-Minnesota) as his administration's director of national drug policy. Ramstad, unlike Obama, has supported bans against making clean syringes available to injection drug abusers.