Massachusetts State Senator Cheryl Jacques will become the next president and executive director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the organization announced on Monday, following a Sunday evening vote by the group's board of directors. She will take over the position from Elizabeth Birch, who's leaving after nine years as executive director.
Jacques, 41, graduated from Boston College in 1984 and received her law degree from Suffolk University Law School in 1987. She became politically active at an early age and was first elected 1992 to the Massachusetts State Senate, where she has since served continuously.
Jennifer Chrisler, her partner of nearly five years, gave Jacques a gift of attending the Millennium March on Washington for GLBT rights in April 2000 and that experience led to her public coming out as a lesbian in an editorial in the Boston Globe.
She ran for Congress in a special election in 2001 when Ninth Congressional District Rep Joe Moakley died in office, and came in second in a crowded field where the liberal vote was divided among several candidates.
In endorsing her for that race, the Boston Phoenix said, "Beyond these tangible assets [of her record] Jacques has something else that's hard to quantify: call it star potential. Although she's been in the campaign just eight weeks, she has grown dramatically on the trail.... She is easily the most articulate candidate on issues ranging from stem-cell research to civil rights to tax reform."
Jacques announced a bid for the Democratic nomination for Lt. Governor of Massachusetts in 2002, winning the early support of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. However, she later abandoned that effort to run for reelection to the state senate.
Vic Basile, co-chair of the HRC search committee that hired Jacques, says he is "really excited about having her here. She has a great deal of presence, she's real smart, she's got political experience."
Jacques was hired by a unanimous decision of the board, he said.
"One of the things that was very important to us was [selecting] someone who can build bipartisan bridges," Basile said. "With some of the legislation she has passed, she could only do it with bipartisan support, and she got it." Basile cited her efforts to defeat the state antigay defense of marriage act and passage of gun control legislation.
Patrick Guerriero, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, worked with Jacques while he was a member of the Massachusetts state legislature. "Cheryl Jacques is a proven leader for a challenging time," he said. "She is a strong and experienced choice to lead the Human Rights Campaign."
Basile acknowledged that raising money is one of the executive director's principle responsibilities for the $20- million a year organization. It was a major concern for the committee. He said they were impressed by her ability to raise a million dollars during the eight weeks of her congressional campaign and thought that she could do even better for a cause. "I think she is going to connect with donors," he said.
Some concern was raised that Jacques has only been publicly out as a lesbian for three-and-a-half years. But, said Basile, "Her coming out experience [at the Millennium March and concert] was so emotional for her. That is when she wrote the Boston Globe piece. It was trial by fire for her, coming out to the world because you are in the camera's eye."
"I think she really gets now how important it is to be out. I think that there is a freshness still about her about that," he added.
Another concern is family. The job requires a lot of time on the road and one of the reasons that Elizabeth Birch cited in stepping down was to spend more time with her two young children. That also was a factor in Elizabeth Toledo's short stay as executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which ended in 2001. Jacques' partner gave birth to twin boys who are now toddlers.
"We were satisfied that she and her partner had talked a great deal about this," said Basile. He pointed out that she is a legislator, politician, law professor, and someone with her own private law practice. "This is a woman who spends lots of time away from home now and somehow they have found a way to balance it."
Jacques will resign from her state senate seat and will move to Washington by the end of the year. She already has begun the transition process with Birch.
"I've pretty much been an advocate my entire life," Cheryl Jacques said during a telephone news conference on November 4. As an assistant district attorney she "specialized in child abuse cases and protecting kids."
Those same concerns were the focus of her work in the Massachusetts Senate. She spoke at length "of reaching across the aisle" with "a lot of hard work and a lot of coalition building" to create legislative successes.
Jacques said she wants to continue HRC's leading role in "educating America and helping her to understand why it is important that America fulfill her promise of fairness and equality to each and every citizen." The expansion of civil rights has been one of the nation's greatest achievements, she said. "Our job is to make sure that America understands she is stronger when she includes everyone."
"The most important tool in our arsenal in appealing to the hearts and minds of Americans is living our lives openly and honestly," Jacques said. Yet when asked when she had realized she was a lesbian and how did she justify staying in the closet while gay rights were under assault, she wasn't very forthcoming.
Jacques argued that she had been "a fighter and an advocate for civil rights for all, including the GLBT career, long before I was living my life openly." She recounted an incident of homophobia during her first campaign. She praised HRC for not judging: "We accept people along their path in life and don't ask why or why not, we just greet them with an open hand."
She declined a request to discuss her compensation package, saying, "One of the things that I'm loving now is that I can have just a little corner of my life be private. My compensation is between my family, HRC and myself."
She seemed unaware that such matters must be filed on the organization's IRS 990 form, which is publicly available, albeit one to three years after the fact, depending on the filing schedule. She said, "We'll cross that bridge when we get there."
Jacques said that during the transition period she will establish her priorities for outreach. "I'm not going to give up on people who have written us off. I'm going to continue to extend olive branches and discussion because some people come around."