Moments after a raucous rally on the east steps of Denver City and County building came to a close, where supporters of the Colorado Civil Union Act urged a Republican controlled House committee to green light the relationship recognition bill, Brad Clark found a secluded tree and began to weep. He had learned about his grandmother’s death just 10 minutes before the rally began and it was the first time since hearing the news he allowed himself to react.
Clark, the executive director of One Colorado, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy organization, would go on to gather his emotions, march to the Old Supreme Court chambers at the Colorado Capitol and testify before the House Judiciary Committee on the contentious legislation. It would be hours before he would evoke his grandparent’s relationship as a model of how so many Colorado same-sex couples want to live their lives, with dignity and commitment to family.
Late into the May 3, 2012 evening, after all the testimony was completed on the proposed legislation (and another piece of legislation regarding marijuana regulation), Clark, his comrades and supporters would watch as Loveland Republican B.J. Nikkel, who just one year ago helped kill a similar bill, cast the deciding affirmative vote — the most transformative victory in the short-lived organization’s history.
Clark boarded a plane to Iowa, his home state, the next day to say goodbye to his grandmother. He was back in Colorado to continue the fight for the bill as quickly as he left.
And a fight is exactly what he got.
Despite the bill’s bipartisan support, a coalition of organizations representing more than 1 million Coloradans and a full throttle lobbying effort backed by the biggest progressive donor in the state, the bill died the most tumultuous death in recent state history after GOP leadership shut the House of Representatives down with only moments to pass the bill before the chamber was constitutionally mandated to adjourn for the session.
“It was really hard for me to go to supporters like Fran and Anna Simon and say we had lost,” Clark said in a recent interview. “It was not fair. The political system did not work that day.”
But Clark, the unflappable Iowan, dug deep and got back to work raising thousands of dollars to funnel into a political action committee that would seek to unseat Republicans who were instrumental in killing the bill two years in a row.
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It is that kind of story that makes the news of Clark’s departure from One Colorado all the more shocking.
In an Aug. 23 email to One Colorado supporters, the nonprofit’s board president Bobby Clark, no relation, announced Clark’s resignation and said, “We all owe a debt of gratitude to Brad. Under his extraordinary leadership, One Colorado has achieved phenomenal success in a very short period of time.”
At deadline, Clark announced he had taken a job at the Human Rights Campaign in Washington D.C.
As much as you might want to separate the individual from the job, respect the entire team of individuals who make One Colorado work and reason with yourself that the movement is bigger than the man — it’s like imagining the American Revolution without George Washington.
“Brad didn’t do it all by himself,” said One Colorado board member Nita Henry. “But he should get a lot of credit for the courage it took to take the risks he took. He stepped into a lot of uncharted territory.”
Clark’s exit comes nearly five months after Colorado became the ninth state to offer civil unions to same-sex couples and just as the organization is taking the lead on developing the state’s path toward full marriage equality.
“You will see marriage in your lifetime,” Clark told an audience at the McNichols Event Center, just a football field’s length from the Denver County Clerk’s office that opened at midnight May 1 to begin issuing civil union licenses.
In July, One Colorado conducted an online survey of supporters and launched a statewide listening tour this month to gauge the interest of LGBT Coloradans on the possibility of a ballot initiative. A steering committee made up of LGBT and allied Coloradans has also been established to help filter through the quantitative and qualitative data.
The tour was developed and will be executed as planned by the nonprofit’s field and communication teams, Clark said.
Colorado’s Constitution defines marriage between one man and one woman, preventing the legislature from enacting same-sex marriage. The constitution will either have to be amended again or Amendment 43, passed by voters in 2006, will have to be found unconstitutional by a court in order to establish same-sex marriage here. Either path is expected to take millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours.
One Colorado’s board expects to begin interviewing potential candidates in October and have its next executive director in place by the end of year, Henry said. And that person will be tasked with, among other things, keeping the forward momentum on marriage moving.
“The next executive director will have to be able to pick up the ball and finish the next step in relationship recognition,” said Roger Sherman, one of the organization’s biggest annual donors.
In the four years between the devastating double losses at the 2006 ballot box — since the same night Coloradans approved Amendment 43 they rejected Referendum I that would have established domestic partnerships — the LGBT community seemed not to know itself.
“There was good work being done,” Sherman said. “But it was siloed.”
Between 2007 and 2009, five laws that made up a patchwork of protections for LGBT families were passed by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, the GLBT Community Center of Colorado embarked on a capital campaign to fund and construct a permanent residence for LGBT Denverities, and a needs assessment of community stakeholders was completed that showed the state needed a single political apparatus to conduct statewide outreach and coalition-building.
“Prior to Brad, prior to One Colorado, there had been efforts to mobilize the state, but it never really clicked with the right funders, the right board and the right coalition partners,” said executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation Jason Marsden.
With seed money from the Gill Foundation, One Colorado was incorporated and a leader with superhuman networking skills and political prowess was sought.
“One Colorado was a bit of a concept,” Henry said. “Now we have a full blown organization that was led for three years by a rock star. We’re really looking to find someone who can follow in Brad Clark’s footsteps.”
When One Colorado’s board announced it hired Clark, then 29, Henry didn’t point to his involvement in the successful Iowa Supreme Court decision to extend full marriage equality to its residents, but rather toward his success in building coalitions.
“It was a feather in his cap but less prominent than his coalition-building efforts,” she told The Denver Post. “He reached people that hadn’t been reached before.”
And in less than a year, Clark replicated much of that success here creating a coalition of nearly 100 organization that represented almost 1 million Coloradans who stood with the LGBT nonprofit in its lobbying efforts to pass the Colorado Civil Union Act. The coalition now includes more than 150 organizations and 1.2 million Coloradans.
Under Clark’s guidance One Colorado opened field offices across the state and grew its staff from one full-time employee in a shared office space near the Capitol to a staff of seven (not including four additional part-time employees) that includes program directors for health care and safe schools. The nonprofit now leases its office at the intersection of Colfax and Lafayette.
Every policy initiative — including a bipartisan anti-bullying bill, the expansion of Medicaid and the inclusion of transgender individuals under health care protections — has been met, the social welfare group has a lobbying team on retainer and both a registered political action and small donor committee.
First funded almost entirely by LGBT philanthropist Tim Gill, One Colorado now has more than 100 members in it’s Centennial Club with 84 members giving at least $1,200 annually, according to the nonprofit’s website.
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Before Clark’s arrival, One Colorado commissioned an online survey, much like the survey it just completed, to gauge support for a marriage initiative, to find out what LGBT Coloradans wanted for its community. The top three priorities were relationship recognition, safe schools for LGBT youth and better access to health care.
Racism and transphobia were also listed as top concerns.
And as One Colorado and Clark garnered a fair share of headlines for its work on civil unions, the organization also went to work on the other issues.
The nonprofit helped establish more gay–straight alliances in Colorado schools and released the most comprehensive survey on LGBT health care in 2011.
Earlier this year, after lobbying by One Colorado, the state’s department that regulates insurance issued a bulletin reaffirming transgender Coloradans can’t be discriminated against in coverage. And after multiple conversations Colorado HealthOP, a new insurance provider a part of Colorado’s emerging health care insurance marketplace, will go beyond the state mandate and include transition related health care coverage.
One Colorado supporters also actively lobbied for stricter penalties for gender-biased employment discrimination and the Colorado ASSET bill that created a more affordable tuition level for undocumented students to attend Colorado colleges.
“Wherever there was a bridge to build, One Colorado and Brad Clark was there,” Marsden said. The Foundation’s executive director pointed to specifically to safe schools and trans health care.
Sherman, who admittedly decided to donate to the organization each year to fund relationship recognition work, said he has been impressed with the work One Colorado has done beyond civil unions.
“One Colorado, with Brad’s leadership — it’s indisputable they’ve been an amazing progressive organization to watch,” he said. “I’m still shocked every time I read an email or see a report about trans health care or how they’re making schools safer.”
Even Clark was caught off guard about how the organizations work in health care has panned out and how it impacted him.
“From a policy perspective, I always knew some of the problems,” Clark said. “But sitting across the table with the health care industry listening to some of their reasons to deny coverage just hits the gut. Denying people health care is the greatest injustice.”
In its early days, the nonprofit also hosted town hall meetings to specifically address and understand issues impacting LGBT people of color and transgender Coloradans. But it’s the organization’s failure to launch any major social justice programs to combat racism and transphobia that is, perhaps, the only chink in the armor that is Brad Clark’s and One Colorado’s sterling reputation.
Henry acknowledged how hard Clark and his team worked on the Transgender and People of Color Caucus program but said she hopes the next executive director will work on inclusion both outside and inside the organization. As chair of the search committee, she said candidates should be prepared to answer questions such as “how do we focus on inclusion? How do we bring people of color into the organization in an authentic way that isn’t merely checking a box?”
One former employee said social justice work, in and of itself, is difficult to implement.
Former One Colorado deputy director Jace Woodrum, who publically transitioned while at his post, said he can only point to one statewide LGBT organization that has mastered the work: Basic Rights Oregon.
“It took years for them to figure out,” he said.
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Clark, the LGBT activist — admittedly shy, a self-proclaimed road hazard with a thing for contemporary Christian rock music and practical jokester who considers April Fool’s Day among his favorite holidays — is resolute in his belief the march toward a more fair and just Colorado has only just begun.
Clark said his successor must be bold, keep an open mind for new partnerships and continue to listen to the community.
“I was surprised by all the different people who came forward to work with us,” he said, including Republican lawmakers like former state Sen. Jean White and former state Rep. B.J. Nikkel, who cast the deciding vote in 2012 to move the civil union bill out of committee and put it on a path toward the full House where it had enough votes to pass into law until GOP leadership put the House in recess killing the bill.
And despite all the advances there is still more work to be done to make schools safer, make health care more accessible to transgender Coloradans and full marriage equality, Clark said.
“Colorado families are still denied dozens of critical legal protections,” he said.