Lisa De Pasquale’s book, Finding Mr. Righteous, came out this week. Lisa is the former director of the American Conservative Union’s (ACU) Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). She’s also a good friend of mine.
Lisa’s book is about her search for love and her spiritual journey that lead her to Christianity. Much of the book takes place during the time that she ran CPAC. She shares a story in the book about a meeting that we both attended and speech I gave that day. It was April 13, 2011. I’ll never forget it.
The organization I co-founded and lead until last year, GOProud, was a sponsor of CPAC in 2010 & 2011. That sponsorship was one of the first things we did when we started GOProud in 2009. We emptied our bank account to write the sponsorship check to the ACU that fall.
From the moment that check arrived at the ACU offices, the anti-gay forces of intolerance on the ACU Board of Directors and in outside organizations mobilized to work to keep GOProud from sponsoring CPAC – because it’s a gay organization. For over two years we battled attacks and threats of boycotts, but ACU’s Chairman David Keene stood by GOProud and his commitment to grow the conservative movement.
Keene’s term as chairman came to an end at CPAC 2011, and GOProud’s run as a CPAC sponsor would soon end too. Al Cardenas became the new chairman. He had been against GOProud from the beginning.
After every CPAC there is a big meeting with all the co-sponsors to discuss how the conference went. The meeting usually is a big bitch session about there not being enough signage, the food, the schedule, and about seven thousand other complaints. In 2011, the meeting was about GOProud.
Keene and Grover Norquist both reached out to me earlier that day to make sure I was planning on attending the lunch meeting. I was there, and so was everyone else – including ACU board members and the heads of many national conservative organizations. Lunch was a buffet catered by Chick-fil-a in the big meeting room at the offices of Americans for Tax Reform, the organization Norquist leads.
The meeting was lead by David Keene. His successor, Al Cardenas, was sitting at the table next to him. Lisa was on the other side of Keene, and Millie Hallow, a National Rifle Association executive and ACU board member, was next to Cardenas and directly across the table from me.
We all sat there eating our Chick-fil-a while Lisa and the ACU staff went through their summary of the event – attendance numbers, website hits, etc. They talked about what worked and what didn’t work at the conference. It was the biggest, most financially successful CPAC ever. Donald Trump’s speech was heralded as the highlight of the event. (FYI – GOProud had arranged for Trump to speak, and we also made sure that the conference was financially successful.)
I remember eating my dessert, a brownie, when the discussion of GOProud started. I looked over at Millie, who was ‘smoking’ a chocolate flavored e-cigarette for her dessert, and she gave me a reassuring smile. I don’t think either of us knew what was coming.
Then, one by one, a half a dozen or so people rose to speak against GOProud’s inclusion in CPAC. Most of them accused us of being “uncivil” or “poorly behaved.” Over the course of two years, we endured countless attacks from them, and they found one thing we did to point to as our “bad behavior.”
Chris Barron, who started GOProud with me, and I did an interview with MetroWeekly, in which we gave a full-throated defense of the conservative movement. We said that very few conservatives fit the liberal narrative that all conservatives are anti-gay homophobes, and we said that the movement is inclusive of gays. We did, however, acknowledge that there are a few anti-gay bigots in the conservative movement. Chris cited Cleta Mitchell as an example, and referred to her as a “nasty bigot.” Apparently, that was “uncivil.”
Cleta is a Washington lawyer at the law firm of Foley and Lardner and an ACU board member. She is also a nasty bigot. She has made it her life’s mission to carry on a one-woman jihad against gay people, and she was the ringleader of the opposition against GOProud. For Cleta, it’s personal. Her first husband left her for a man and she never got over it.
Cleta mostly works behind the scenes to do her dirty work, rarely leaving her fingerprints or taking credit. She helped to coordinate the CPAC boycotts and lobbied other ACU board members to oppose GOProud. I have heard some stories about her tactics that would blow your mind. I’ve even seen some of her email rants where she says things like, “you just can’t trust gays” and “gays can’t be conservative.”
Cleta was at the meeting that day, and it was clear that she had again coordinated the opposition against GOProud. Most of those speaking against us were her clients or known allies. I just remember her sitting in the first row of chairs away from the table, eating her Chick-fil-a with her paper plate resting on her knees – every now and then piping up to say something negative about GOProud.
There came a point when I knew that I had to stand up and say something in our defense. I raised my hand and was given a microphone. I stood up and walked to the front of the room. Cleta was sitting directly to my right.
It was one of those moments when God just takes over. I still couldn’t tell you exactly what I said, but I started by saying, “All we did was sign up for CPAC, because that’s what conservatives do.” I told the group about me and my conservative principles and values. I told them about GOProud and our members’ desire to be a part of CPAC. All we wanted to do was to make CPAC better.
I said that we had done everything we could do to avoid the public fight over our sponsorship. I had not attended the planning meetings with all the sponsors to help craft the program. I didn’t request a speaking role for us, like all of the other sponsors got.
I told them that maybe my taking a step back in order to avoid the fight had been a mistake. Maybe if they had seen more of me then they would better know me and know GOProud, and know that we belonged at CPAC because we are conservatives. I spoke for few minutes, or it may have been an hour – I couldn’t tell you.
When I was finished I put the microphone down and returned to my seat. The room erupted with applause. Everyone except our detractors and the ACU staff and board was clapping – some were standing. My friend from the Competitive Enterprise Institute leaned over to me and said, “That was awesome! You didn’t even stutter!”
When the meeting was over, I ended up riding the elevator with Keene and Cardenas. David put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Good job today.” I exited the building and walked around the corner on the sidewalk in front of Macy’s. Then I burst into tears. I cried like a baby right there in the middle of downtown Washington.
The next morning I tweeted, “The best part about the whole thing yesterday was the Chick-fil-a for lunch. Love it.” I did love the irony of that.
When I read the part in Lisa’s book about the meeting, all the emotions and memories of that day came bubbling up. I often say that very few people can say that they have been as deep into the belly of the beast as I have. That day was one my most memorable moments of staring bigotry in the face and confronting it head on.