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Mission Drift at Gay Inc. 

Is the most powerful gay lobbying group in California becoming irrelevant?

Thursday, Jan 6 2011

Two weeks before Christmas, Geoff Kors lingers over the finishing touches to an op-ed piece he's writing for The Bottom Line, a gay magazine based in Palm Springs. Dressed in black jeans, a dark-gray sweater and black-leather shoes, he sits in his small, two-window office in San Francisco and stares intently at a wide screen. The founding executive director of Equality California wants people to know exactly what he has accomplished in nine years.

In the op-ed, Kors announces that in March he will step down as the leader of one of the most powerful gay rights groups in the nation. To many, it's a big surprise. Kors, an energetic, exceedingly smart 49-year-old, seemed wedded to his high-powered job.

"It has been a true honor and a privilege to lead Equality California and serve the state's LGBT community," Kors writes in the op-ed. "When you think back to how far we have come in less than a decade, it is breathtaking."

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY PATRICK RANGE MCDONALD - Geoff Kors, founding executive director of Equality California, says he is stepping down in March.

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Kors, a former attorney, is indeed leaving a legacy. As he writes, he and his staff have helped to elect gays and lesbians to public office, co-sponsored successful gay rights laws and helped build a social services network for the LGBT community.

During Kors' reign, the state has become one of the most gay-friendly in the country. Among its many pro-gay laws, California offers expansive domestic-partnership rights for gay and lesbian couples, hate-crimes protections and antidiscrimination protections in the workplace.

Supporters and even critics of Kors don't think it's a coincidence that these political victories happened on his watch. Both camps generally believe a statewide gay rights lobbying group was necessary, and many applaud Equality California's work in Sacramento.

As in his farewell op-ed in The Bottom Line, Kors has been quick to take credit, sending out a crush of press releases and e-mail blasts often accompanied by a plea to contribute money to Equality California — a Kors technique that has made the organization cash-rich.

Yet as he prepares to leave, Kors and the group are drawing criticism from surprising quarters. Former state senator Sheila Kuehl, the first openly gay person elected to the California State Legislature, who worked on many gay rights bills until she was termed out in 2008, tells L.A. Weekly, "Equality California never really convinced legislators on their own [to pass a bill], but inevitably something would pass — and they'd send out a press release taking all the credit. I never thought they were team players. They would take credit, and it was more credit than they earned."

Those press releases and e-mails touting Equality California as a supremely effective lobbying team have meant great riches for the group, whose efforts affect the rights and lives of some 850,000 gays and lesbians in California. Equality California receives millions of dollars from the gay community each year.

In April 2002, Kors was hired to lead a small operation with troubled finances, a handful of staff, a $384,282 annual budget and about 2,000 contributors. Equality California now has a $7 million budget, more than 20 paid staffers and a membership of 700,000 people — 143,200 of them monetary contributors.

Former Equality California board president John Duran says, "Geoff came in and fixed it. Not only that, he grew it — tenfold. He was the right person at the right time."

Kors built an impressive lobbying group that other U.S gay rights organizations try to emulate. "All of us turned to Equality California because it was so successful," says Marc Solomon, former executive director of Boston-based MassEquality, who later worked for Equality California.

But Kors has become a controversial figure. He played a key, and widely criticized, role in the failed campaign to stop Proposition 8, California's 2008 anti–gay marriage ballot measure. A top player on the No on 8 campaign's executive committee, Kors strongly influenced TV ads and field operations as polls showed the measure to block gay marriage was foundering. After voters turned tables and approved the gay marriage ban, the group's campaign decisions were roundly attacked for being created in isolation by Kors and other gay rights insiders.

In particular, they failed to detect or address strong anti–gay marriage sentiment among Latino and black voters in big, Southern California cities like Los Angeles, and in working-class inland counties such as San Bernardino and Riverside.

L.J. Carusone, a gay rights activist who worked with Kors at Equality California, describes the executive director as a "tyrant." "It's funny how strong and forceful he can be," Carusone says, "but when it comes to people, he lacks people skills."

Critics charge that Kors, intent on building an empire, makes a critical error by snubbing the smaller, grassroots gay rights organizations that bring new blood, ideas and contact with ordinary people. For critics, Equality California, instead of helping to create a stronger gay rights movement, is a key part of what some derisively call "Gay Inc." — a handful of gay rights groups that operate as self-focused money machines.

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