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HRC Already Has The Perfect Candidate, So Why Aren’t They Considering Her?

by Tanya Domi on August 31, 2011

in Civil Rights,History,Politics,Tanya Domi

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I remember Cathy Woolard for her tenacious courting of former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn during the military gay ban repeal fight in 1993. I nicknamed her “old iron ass” because she spent hours sitting in his office, waiting for the opportunity to speak to him. She walked the halls of the Senate with Nunn, always in pursuit, tenaciously relentless in never letting him forget that gays served in the military and deserved equality.

Last week, Pam Spaulding of Pam’s House Blend broke the story that Joe Solomonese was stepping down as President and CEO of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) after seven years leading the nation’s largest and wealthiest LGBT organization.

A widely mentioned possible candidate to replace Solmonese was Cathy Woolard (initially reported in Metro Weekly Chris Geidner). But HRC quickly confirmed she was not under active consideration for the post.



The outstanding question for the HRC’s Board of Directors is what direction will it seek during the second decade of the millennia? Do they have the courage to change course, to break free from their past that is steeped in maddening secrecy? Can they become more forthcoming and transparent with a community that hungers for equality? The “Millennials” will not be satisfied with perfunctory answers and enticements such as wine and cheese parties supported by the best marketing of an American non-profit.



My sources have confirmed Woolard is a current consultant to HRC and is presently not under active consideration for the leadership post. There is nothing suspicious or nefarious about Woolard consulting for HRC. She has not only been an HRC employee in the past, but has also been a consultant to them on numerous occasions over the years.

If it is true that Woolard is not under active consideration, then she should be and her name should go to the top of the list. I offer a strong endorsement of Woolard’s candidacy as a former colleague, a fellow public interest lobbyist, who worked shoulder-to-shoulder with her, pounding miles of Congressional pavement during our efforts to repeal the military gay ban in 1993. We later worked together on the original introduction of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in which she was instrumental in securing Coretta Scott King’s endorsement of the measure.

She is deadly smart, does not suffer fools gladly, she knows how to communicate with people, she is affable, fun, and like so many Americans, has lived most of her life in a state that has not supported LGBT rights. Cathy Woolard deeply understands the emotional scourge and sting of discrimination having experienced it herself.

A Woolard candidacy has a number of really good things going for it that should be strongly considered by the HRC Board of Directors:  1) She is a Southerner and is deeply familiar with the political landscape of the South and the difficult terrain of negotiating for LGBT rights, having worked with friend and foe alike on these issues; 2) She has worked for HRC in Washington, D.C. and understands “Inside the Beltway” politics, which will appeal to and reassure Washington insiders;  3) As a former elected official in the City of Atlanta, she understands the necessity for transparency and open governance—the Achilles heel of HRC, who has resisted transparency and the light of day, clinging to institutional secrecy and exclusivity.

Indeed, HRC actions during the latest round of gay politics in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) repeal effort elevated criticisms of the organization to a pinnacle level of disapproval by voices from all parts of the community. Woolard knows that winning is important, but how you win and bringing as many supporters with you, is vital too.

Another plus that is of inestimable value, as a person from the South, Woolard has a strong network of African-American colleagues and friends, having worked with people of color throughout her career. As an elected official in Atlanta, she has worked with some of America’s top African-American politicians. And because of this experience and exposure to people of color,  there is no doubt Woolard would address the diversity issues at HRC, which remains a tarnished  legacy of its predominantly white leadership team and Board of Directors.

With Woolard at the helm, there is no doubt HRC’s leadership style, along with its political and communications strategies would change. She could be the right medicine at the right time.

So, just who is Cathy Woolard?

Cathy Woolard is a Southerner, Atlanta-born, lesbian activist who became the first openly-gay elected official in the state of Georgia in 1997. Not satisfied with domestic politics and activism, Woolard is also an international humanitarian who got hooked on international development early in her life as a Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Micronesia for two years in 1980, after graduating from University of Georgia.

Bitten by the international bug as a Peace Corp Volunteer, Woolard has been an intrepid traveler all of her life, traveling to far-flung jaunts in India and New Zealand during recent years, to name just a few.

Cathy grew up in an Air Force family and became a gay activist initially as a member of the Atlanta committee for the 1987 March on Washington. Following the March, she was HRC’s Georgia field organizer and was promoted to a lobbyist position in 1992, moved to HRC’s Washington offices where she remained for seven years, advancing to the position of National Field Director in 1994.

During her organizer time in Atlanta, Woolard came of age as an activist, along with many others in the Georgia gay community who were galvanized by the 1991 firing of lesbian Cheryl Summerville, a cook in a Douglas, Georgia Cracker Barrel restaurant. In protest, Woolard was arrested along with other activists. A nation-wide boycott of the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain ensued and Summerville later testified before Congress in 1994 during the first set of Senate ENDA hearings presided over by the late Senator Edward Kennedy.

Woolard returned to Atlanta in 1996 to run for elected office and became the first openly-gay elected official in the State of Georgia in November 1997, when she was elected to the city council. She ran for re-election and became the first woman Speaker of the Atlanta City Council in 2002, one of the first openly-gay city council presidents of a major metropolitan city in the United States. Woolard chaired the council’s transportation committee and became an enthusiastic policy wonk on how to effectively transform Atlanta’s mass urban car and light rail systems hub during her tenure.


Woolard is married to Karen Geney, her partner of more than 23 years and they live in Atlanta’s Glenwood Park neighborhood. During her City Council tenure Woolard became a plaintiff in a legal action filed by the Atlanta City government in 1999 against John Oxendine, the now former State’s Insurance Commissioner, for refusing to permit domestic partner benefits to employers who wished to offer them.

Following her failed Congressional primary challenge to former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney in 2004, Woolard returned to consulting for progressive groups, including Planned Parenthood of Georgia, League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, and the Gill Foundation, as well as the HRC. While considered an up and coming politician in the Atlanta scene, she decided not to run for Mayor in 2008 and opted for a position with CARE, an Atlanta based non-profit that is a leader in international development as its Executive Vice-President for Global Advocacy and External Relations in 2008, returning to her first love of international development. Late last year, Woolard returned to her consultancy business after her sister died of cancer.

The outstanding question for the HRC’s Board of Directors is what direction will it seek during the second decade of the millennia? Do they have the courage to change course, to break free from their past that is steeped in maddening secrecy? Can they become more forthcoming and transparent with a community that hungers for equality? The “Millennials” will not be satisfied with perfunctory answers and enticements such as wine and cheese parties supported by the best marketing of an American non-profit.

The times have changed: LGBT blogs are ubiquitous, the news cycle never stops, the community is more diverse, younger and more progressive. We live in an age of instant globalization. Young LGBTQs will not be satisfied to wait for equality carried out by a leadership style of “take it or leave it” and “our way or the highway,” which has been the case with HRC more often than not.

Woolard knows this, but does the HRC Board of Directors?  Stay tuned.


Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, who teaches about human rights in Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom.

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{ 1 comment }

JayJonson August 31, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Thanks for the heads-up on Cathy Woolard. There is a blog posting at, "New Leadership at HRC, GLAAD, and ECQA," that calls for the new leaders at these important organizations be as impatient as the glbtq grassroots.

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