Featured Photo Above: Equality North Carolina Executive Director Chris Sgro speaks at a press conference announcing several endorsements for Charlotte City Council. Photo by Matt Comer.
Following my stories Tuesday and Wednesday on the new TurnOUT Charlotte! campaign — organized by Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC), Equality NC and the Human Rights Campaign, and directed at turning out the LGBT vote in next month’s city primary — I’ve seen questions surface on exactly how these three groups chose their mutual slate of endorsed at-large and district City Council candidates.
Below are five facts drilling into how the choices, along with some analysis and commentary on my part…
(If you need more background on what happened or want to see who was endorsed, see this story from today.)
1. Candidate questionnaires and interviews
Each of the groups asked local candidates to complete questionnaires and/or participate in in-person interviews. Some groups required both of some candidates. The model isn’t new — political action committees and other endorsing groups, including MeckPAC, have used the model for years. In fact, it’s MeckPAC’s bread and butter. Questionnaires give their endorsements committee their first look into a candidate’s stances and follow-up interviews allow members to dig further into a candidate’s views and, sometimes, seek clarification.
In the past, MeckPAC has occasionally released their questionnaires. I’m waiting on word on whether they’ll release them publicly again and hoping Equality NC will release theirs, as well. I’m most interested in analyzing for you how the questionnaire responses match up to forum performance and past records. Stay tuned.
2. Candidate forum
Earlier this month, an historic first took place when over 200 LGBT and straight ally community members came together with five community organizations for an at-large and mayoral candidates’ forum specifically focused on LGBT issues. I was honored to serve as a co-moderator at the event, where in-depth questions on a variety of often overlooked LGBT issues were asked of over a dozen at-large candidates and four mayoral candidates. In addition to candidate questionnaires and interviews, the groups reportedly took into consideration candidates’ presence and responses at the forum when making endorsement decisions.
3. Past record
There are plenty of newcomers to the at-large and mayoral field this year. Some of them are largely unknown or untested politically. But there are other leaders long known and with well-established records. James “Smuggie” Mitchell is one example. He served on City Council for 14 years, representing District 2, before unsuccessfully running for mayor in 2013. He was a lead proponent, along with City Councilmember LaWana Mayfield, of extending domestic partner benefits to LGBT city employees. Another incumbent, Vi Lyles, reportedly has a good rapport for her record and stances with groups like MeckPAC, despite some concern that she and Austin proposed the “compromise” non-discrimination ordinance package that stripped away protections for transgender residents. At the time and since then — as she did at the candidate forum — Lyles had said she was supportive of the full, comprehensive package. When it became clear a vote had been lost — falling short of the six required for the comprehensive deal — Lyles sought another alternative.
4. A pledge for equality
Scott Bishop, member of the Human Rights Campaign’s board of directors and chair of MeckPAC, said at the Wednesday press conference that each of the endorsed candidates had made a “pledge to support a fully inclusive, comprehensive” non-discrimination ordinance. He also told reporters that “backing these protections must be a priority for the next City Council.” Such a pledge for a fully comprehensive non-discrimination package seems to have been a strict requirement for endorsed candidates — perhaps, even, a stronger requirement than MeckPAC’s marriage equality pledge asked of candidates in 2013.
I specifically asked one of the leaders about how choices were made after the press conference today.
I’m certain electability and the actual chance of success on the ballot played a crucial role in the final decisions, but I don’t think you’ll find organizers saying that so directly or publicly.
Hinting, though. You will find that.
From Equality NC’s Chris Sgro, emphasis mine: “There were thorough conversations that included a digest of the wonderful forum that the coalition put on earlier, our questionnaires separately as organizations, we talked to our requisite boards and leadership, we came back together to see who all we though were the best advocates and then we sat down with candidates to see what different people were doing in terms of their campaign and who, really, of the folks who are really wonderful on our issues were going to run strong campaigns that we could plug into in a meaningful way to help shape the election.”
Asked specifically about electability, Sgro responded, again emphasis mine: “There are a number of really wonderful candidates who are beloved by members of our community and we certainly sat down with them. But, at the end of the day, again, through our candidate interviews and questionnaires, we determined both who the folks are who are running really great campaigns that we could plug into and in a field where there are a lot of folks who are really good on our issues who were the best on our issues.”
My take away
Fact one through four are pretty innocuous and straight forward. I’m betting observers will find the fifth — electability — the most subjective, personal and controversial. It’ll certainly make for good conversation at the bar.
But electability is important. Endorsing organizations and those donating money to contribute to these candidates will see it as an investment. There is a large slate of candidates running this year who are good on our issues, but not all of them have the campaign structures, resources, name recognition or influence to win at the ballot box. Endorsements, by their very nature, are investments. And just like any financial investment, investors don’t want to take unnecessary risks. Betting on candidates who are both best on LGBT issues and most likely to win sounds the safest bet for those investing a great deal of time, money and energy into a coordinated campaign like the one we’re seeing unfold in Charlotte.
Now, all that might suck. And, maybe, you think this campaign all boils down to politics and money or, specifically, who has the money. That’s certainly the a legitimate, debatable point of view, even if it’s the most cynical view. Though we might dream for a different electoral system, we have to deal with political reality. Winning office takes money. Without it, your chances of winning are slim to none. Investors — campaign donors — aren’t going to throw away their cash on those who are likely to lose, just like Wall Street bankers won’t bet on tanking stocks.
I can say this: Having been acquainted with several of these organizers and candidates, I believe with absolute certainty that these endorsement decisions were made diligently and honestly. None of it is personal.
At the end of the day, these endorsements are suggestions. Don’t like them? That’s cool. Research other candidates and cast your vote accordingly. ‘Tis your right in this wonderful experiment we call American Democracy.