O'Connor settles in at EQCA
by Seth Hemmelgarn
The new executive director of Equality California has indicated health care reform would be a main focus of the statewide LGBT lobbying group's efforts this year.
John O'Connor, 41, who joined EQCA in December, has spoken of shifting the nonprofit's activities, and offered more insight recently when he met with the Bay Area Reporter.
One law that will influence the group's work is the Affordable Care Act, the national legislation designed to expand health care coverage.
"LGBT people, while there is this myth of affluence, have socioeconomic disadvantages and disproportionately suffer from a lack of access to health care," and the act "is a huge opportunity to bring people into the fold of health coverage," O'Connor said when he met with the B.A.R. January 10.
He said his organization is assembling a campaign to help educate people about the reform. EQCA's looking for partners among black, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Latino people "so we reach all of the LGBT community," he said. He added transgender people are another "very vital" component.
"The needs of the transgender community is specialized," O'Connor said. "It is different from other LGBT people we will be reaching out to."
As part of the national reforms, individuals and small businesses will be able to buy affordable health benefit plans through a competitive insurance marketplace. Open enrollment begins October 1, according to http://www.healthcare.gov, a website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"We are having an internal planning process right now to figure out what is our capacity and what could it be and how do we ramp up between now and June perhaps," O'Connor said. That would allow them to reach people at events like LGBT Pride festivals that take place that month.
O'Connor hasn't shared many details on state legislation EQCA plans to support in 2013, but said announcements would be made in the end of January and early February.
Over the years, the organization has successfully backed bills that promote everything from housing rights to school safety. O'Connor recently indicated the agency would focus on helping to ensure that state laws are adequately implemented.
In an email earlier this month, EQCA spokesman Steve Roth said the group "is particularly interested in ensuring the full implementation of all legislation related to safe schools, which will be achieved in part through the efforts of the Safe Schools Audit, which we sought and secured in 2012."
The estimated release date for the audit, which covers school safety and non-discrimination laws, is June.
In his meeting with the B.A.R., O'Connor suggested he and others anticipate the audit will include findings they're already aware of.
"We know kids continue to be bullied, harassed, and beaten up by their peers and sometimes even by teachers," he said. "They are punished for speaking up rather than protected."
He added, "It is an outrage schools and districts throughout the state have not protected these kids."
EQCA this week announced three new staff hires. A Tuesday, January 22 email blast from the group says the additions are part of O'Connor's goal "to extend the capability of the organization by building a core team of dedicated, fulltime staff."
Jack Lorenz has been brought on as deputy director of programs and development; Steve Mele is returning as finance director; and, as the B.A.R. previously reported, Jo Michael has been chosen as legislative associate.
Lorenz had worked with the group as a programs and development consultant for the last year. Mele, who coordinates the finances of EQCA and its educational arm Equality California Institute, among other duties, had previously served as EQCA's finance director but left in 2011.
"EQCA is facing new opportunities in today's new political and cultural landscape," Mele said in an email Tuesday. "John O'Connor is the right person at the right time and has a vision for the future that is compelling. I came back because I want to give the organization every chance for success and I believe that my long history with the organization will be very helpful as we look to the future."
Roth declined to share salary information for any of the three.
Besides legislation and bringing on more staff, another important aspect of O'Connor's work is fundraising, something that he acknowledged as the agency recovers from a decline in revenues; it spent nearly all of last year without a permanent executive director and is rebuilding.
Documents that EQCA filed with the IRS for the 2011-2012 fiscal year show that contributions and grants declined from about $3.2 million the prior year to almost $1.4 million. Total expenses dropped from approximately $4.5 million to about $2 million.
O'Connor expressed optimism in EQCA's financial future.
"The improvement of our reputation and telling success stories of EQCA has resonated with people, major donors and foundations," O'Connor said. He added, "Some are going to stay on the sidelines and take a wait and see approach, which is completely understandable," but he also said, "I am completely optimistic we will rebuild our financial health in 2013."
So far, opportunities for people to meet with O'Connor or other EQCA officials is limited.
Asked about having a public forum in San Francisco, he said, "I don't have specific plans for that."
O'Connor did say that EQCA had an online forum on Facebook recently and he said the group will maintain a presence in San Francisco. Additionally, the organization will hold its San Francisco awards gala next month.