By Lisa Keen on June 17, 2013
President Obama this month nominated three openly gay men for posts as ambassadors to Spain, Denmark, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
On June 14, the president named James Costos to take over as ambassador to Spain and Rufus Gifford to become ambassador to Denmark. On June 10, he named Daniel Baer to serve as ambassador to the 57-nation security group that cooperates to address concerns over such matters as border security, human trafficking, and the illegal distribution of weapons.
Baer was originally appointed to the State Department, serving as deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, working on human rights and labor issues. This is his second appointment from President Obama.
Left: James Costos ; Right: Ruffus Gifford
Costos and Gifford were both involved in raising money for Obama’s re-election last year, giving or bundling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Costos is vice president for global licensing and retail for HBO; Gifford was finance director of the re-election campaign.
Costos and his partner, interior designer Michael Smith, hosted a fundraiser for Obama at their home last year. First Lady Michelle Obama attended the fundraiser; she also selected Smith to redecorate the residential section of the White House.
The Washington Post “In the Loop” column has speculated for weeks that one of Obama’s first and top picks, John Berry, who recently stepped down as head of the Office of Personnel Management, could soon be appointed ambassador to Australia. The column reported this week that another gay fundraiser, James Brewster of Chicago, might also be in line for an appointment.
Prior to this month’s nominations, openly gay people had been appointed to serve as ambassadors to relatively small countries, including Luxembourg, New Zealand, and Romania (the largest, at 22 million population). While Denmark’s population hovers around five million, Spain’s is more than 47 million.
The Human Rights Campaign applauded this week’s nominations and noted that Spain and Denmark are among the 13 countries in the world that have marriage equality.
Meanwhile, the full Senate on Thursday gave voice vote approval to Nitza
I. Quinones Alejandro, the president’s openly lesbian appointee to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
And the Senate Judiciary Committee this month held a confirmation hearing for President Obama’s openly gay nominee to serve as an assistant attorney general, heading up the Civil Division of the Department of Justice. Nominee Stuart Delery, who has served in an acting director capacity in the position for over a year, introduced his partner and their two sons, but was asked almost no questions by the committee.
If confirmed by the Senate, Delery will formally take over the position formerly held by Tony West held when he argued against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in a federal district court in 2011.
The new nominations this month bring to estimated 272 the number of appointments President Obama has made of openly LGBT people to his administration. That’s almost double the estimated 140 appointments of LGBT people by President Clinton during his two terms. President Obama was also the first president to appoint an openly transgender person to his administration.
About 50 of the Obama LGBT appointees serve in positions that are largely administrative. At least 30 are engaged in public affairs and media relations. Fourteen serve as legal counsel, including as legal counsel to the president. President Obama has also appointed openly LGBT people for the first time to such important entities as the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Occupational Safety & Health Review Commission.
Most of Obama’s LGBT appointees serve in policy-oriented positions on a range of issues that are not specifically or even indirectly LGBT-related. They include advisory and policy positions on the environment, veterans’ affairs, helping communities affected by the auto industry downturn, drug control policy, and small business development.
Some of the increased number under the Obama administration is no doubt due to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund’s creation, in 2008, of a “Presidential Appointments Project.” The project is aimed specifically at “increasing LGBT appointees” and provides an easy mechanism for interested candidates to funnel their resumes into the right hands. A former Victory Fund President, Brian Bond, was among the first of Obama’s openly LGBT appointments. Bond served in Obama’s first term as deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.
Seventy-five of Obama’s openly LGBT appointees serve in the White House or on presidential boards or commissions. The rest are spread out over 15 departments, 12 agencies, and the federal judiciary. After the White House itself, the Department of Education has the largest number of openly LGBT appointees (24), followed by the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services (both with 16).
Grant Colfax is director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, charged with coordinating the federal response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States. Nancy Sutley is chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and, as such, is the president’s principle advisor on environmental policy and initiatives. Michael Camuñez, Assistant Secretary of Commerce, and Fred Hochberg, chairman of the Export-Import Bank, promote American exports.
Richard Socarides, who was arguably in the best position to influence the president on LGBT issues during the Clinton White House, says how much “influence” each has can be measured in a number of ways.
“Do they have an important policy job in their area,” asks Socarides, “or are they influential in terms of setting broad government policy?” It also matters, he notes, whether one is looking at influence on LGBT policy or other important issues. And some people measure influence by how quickly, easily, and often the person can speak to the president himself.
Here’s a look at what might be considered the top 12 most influential positions to which President Obama has nominated an openly LGBT person:
- Director of the Office of Personnel Management.
Some LGBT activists were hopeful that President Obama would make the first appointment of an openly gay person to a cabinet level position. So far, that hasn’t happened, and his appointment of John Berry as OPM director probably came closest. OPM has more than 5,000 employees and manages personnel issues for some 2.8 million for U.S. federal civil service employees around the world. One of its biggest missions lately has been issuing guidelines to other federal agencies on how to handle furloughs associated with the current sequestration budget cuts. Berry announced his resignation April 11, one day before his four-year term expired. Unconfirmed reports suggest he may be in line for an ambassadorship. OPM’s openly lesbian general counsel Elaine Kaplan is serving now as interim acting director.
- Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice. There are 12 assistant attorneys general at DOJ. Delery has been appointed to head the department’s Civil Division, which represents the U.S. government in litigation involving such critical matters as national security, presidential powers, immigration, energy, banking, and consumer protection. Recently, the Division has defended the Affordable Care Act and the administration’s protection of information concerning the CIA use of drones to eliminate suspected terrorists. The DOJ Civil Division has 1,400 employees. Delery took the helm as Acting Assistant Attorney General in February 2012, but his official nomination to the post is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
- Chairman, Export-Import Bank of the United States. Fred Hochberg was appointed to the position in Obama’s first term, and in March, the president reappointed him for a second stint. The Export-Import Bank provides financial credit and support to promote the sale of American goods to other countries. In doing so, the aim is to support and promote jobs in the United States. Under Hochberg, the bank says it “supported more than 255,000 American jobs” in FY 2012 with almost $36 billions of financing.
- Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Any federal bench provides the appointee with a potential for a lifetime of influence. The 179 judges appointed to a federal appeals court have influence over –not just a district but — several states. The 16 judges of the appeals court for the Federal Circuit have jurisdiction nationally on a limited variety of legal conflicts, including disputes over patents, trademarks, international trade agreements, government contracts, federal personnel, and veterans’ benefits. President Obama named a highly qualified openly gay man, Edward DuMont, to a Federal Circuit seat, but Republicans in the Senate, perhaps suspecting it would improve DuMont’s chances for eventual consideration as a Supreme Court candidate, refused to allow DuMont even a hearing. DuMont eventually withdrew his nomination.
- Director, White House Office of National AIDS Policy. This is the office charged with coordinating the federal response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States. That includes implementing the National HIV/AIDS Strategy to reduce the incidence of HIV infection and make sure people with HIV receive proper medical care. In this position, Grant Colfax also serves as the president’s lead advisor on HIV-related domestic policy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men having sex with men account for 63 percent of new HIV infections, and the percentage is even higher (72 percent) for MSM 13 to 24 years old.
- Commissioner, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This is the agency charged with enforcing federal laws against discrimination in the workplace. EEOC laws pertain to employers with more than 15 employees, including the federal government itself. While federal law does not proscribe sexual orientation-based discrimination in the workplace, an executive order signed by President Clinton prohibits such discrimination by the federal government. President Obama named Chai Feldblum as one of five commissioners who direct the EEOC’s work.
- Commissioner, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The eight-member commission is charged with guiding the federal government’s national civil rights policy and the enforcement of its civil rights laws. Among other things, it does research and analysis into potential discrimination in voting rights, and holds public hearings and issues reports on civil rights matters. President Obama named Roberta Achtenberg, a prominent appointee during the Clinton administration, to one of the eight seats.
- Chief Judge, U.S. Court of Federal Claims. This is another court with national jurisdiction and specialized cases. Its 16 active judges deliberate over lawsuits brought by private citizens against the U.S. government. President Clinton appointed Emily Hewitt to the court in 1998, and President Obama designated her as Chief Judge in March 2009. In March, President Obama nominated Elaine Kaplan, who is currently acting director of OPM, to the Federal Claims bench. If confirmed by the Senate, she will joint the bench in deciding lawsuits against the U.S. relating to taxes, government contracts, natural resources, and foreign governments.
- Social secretary, The White House. It may not sound like a power position, but insiders say it is. The White House Social Secretary works for the First Lady to plan all White House events, from small coffee receptions to large state dinners. In the world of power politics, an invitation to a White House party carries real value. For many invitees, it signals recognition from Washington’s most powerful entity that the guest has some political influence. And for those at the more select events, it’s an opportunity to be seen as part of a powerful elite. The Social Secretary, says Socarides, “basically decides who gets invited.” The current Social Secretary, Jeremy Bernard, is “the highest ranking gay person at the White House,” says Socarides. When appointed, in February 2011, Bernard became the first man –and the first openly gay person—to be appointed to the position.
10. Judge, U.S. District Court. There are more than 600 federal district court judges, but each has a lifetime appointment and serves as the first line of judgment in legal conflicts big and small. President Obama has nominated seven openly LGBT people to federal district court positions in six different districts. Five have already been confirmed (Paul Oetken and Alison Nathan in Manhattan, Michael Fitzgerald in Los Angeles, Pamela Chen in Brooklyn, and, on May 20, Michael McShane of Oregon). Two others are still pending (Nitza Quiñones Alejandro in Philadelphia and William Thomas in Miami).
- Associate counsel to the President. There are at least a dozen people identified as Associate Counsel to the President, and they fall below the Counselor, the Principal Deputy Counselor, and the Senior Counselor. They are not as high up as Karen Tramontano was when she served as Counselor to President Clinton’s Chief of Staff. But they do have influence, says Winnie Stachelberg, executive vice president of the Center for American Progress, a group that has had a great deal of interaction with President Obama’s White House. The associate counsels have played key roles in a number of issues including the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and workplace discrimination, from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to drafting an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation. Two lesbians have held one of the positions thus far in the Obama White House: Allison Nathan, who is now a U.S. district court judge, and Kathleen Hartnett, who just left.
12. Director, Region IX, Health and Human Services. HHS has ten regional offices that address intergovernmental and external affairs and the president appoints the director of each region. Based in San Francisco, Region 9 covers the states of California, Arizona, Nevada, and Hawaii, as well as several territories. Each region serves as the HHS Secretary’s advisor and liaison to state and local governments and community organizations on matters of policy and programs. Herb Schultz, former senior advisor to then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is director of Region 9. The Center for American Progress’ Stachelberg says the job covers such matters as implementation of the Affordable Care Act, AIDS service delivery, and programs aimed at lesbian health. “Running that region,” she says, “is a huge responsibility.”
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