Breaking News: Geoff Kors leaving EQCA
by Seth Hemmelgarn
Two years after leading the unsuccessful campaign to defeat Proposition 8, California's ban on same-sex marriage, Geoff Kors is leaving the statewide LGBT advocacy group Equality California.
Kors joined EQCA in 2002 and quickly set about rebranding what had been known as the California Alliance for Pride and Equality, which formed in 1998. He announced this morning (Friday, December 3) that he's resigning from the group, effective March 31. The date marks the eve of his ninth anniversary with the state's biggest LGBT rights organization.
"I felt I'm ready to do some different things," Kors, 49, told the Bay Area Reporter , adding that nine years is a "long tenure" for the leader of a political organization like EQCA. He has yet to decide where he'll go next and has not applied yet for any other jobs.
Widely criticized for his leadership of the unsuccessful fight to defeat Prop 8 in the fall of 2008, Kors declined to talk about regrets or things he would've done differently. Instead, he talked about his accomplishments.
He said when he became executive director, there was a staff of two, there was no statewide LGBT political action committee, and California was "a state with very limited rights" for same-sex couples. At the time, couples had less than 15 legal rights and protections, and there are now more than 400. He also pointed to employment and housing protections for transgender people.
However, recent years have brought some criticism of Kors. Along with National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Kate Kendell, he was the public face of the No on 8 campaign in 2008, and many in the community had called for his resignation after 52 percent of the state's voters passed the measure. Each side in the Prop 8 battle had raised more than $40 million.
Asked why he hadn't resigned at that time, Kors said, "Why would I?"
He said he'd had the full support of EQCA's board and membership, and he noted that he was only one member of an executive committee that had 16 other people. He also said EQCA had been asked to raise $1 million for the campaign but gathered $15 million.
Two years later Kors said he is leaving the organization "in really strong shape."
For one thing, he said, EQCA just saw the most successful elections in its history. Every candidate that the group's Political Action Committee endorsed for statewide office won, including Democrats Governor-elect Jerry Brown and Attorney General-elect Kamala Harris.
EQCA boasts of only endorsing candidates "who are 100 percent for full equality." For the first time in decades, all of California's top state officeholders will be Democrats as of January.
The statewide elections could be especially critical in the federal lawsuit seeking to invalidate Prop 8. Brown, the current attorney general, has refused to defend Prop 8 in court, and Harris has said she won't join the case either. Their positions could be critical as backers of the measure are appealing a federal judge's ruling that Prop 8 is unconstitutional.
The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals is set to hear oral arguments in the case Monday, December 6, when a panel of three appellate justices will consider whether Prop 8's supporters have standing to bring forward the case. Kors and others are hopeful that without Brown and Harris's support, Prop 8 will become a thing of the past.
Additionally, EQCA just had the most successful legislative session in its history, said Kors. It recently saw termed-out Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sign several EQCA-sponsored bills.
Among the bills that the governor signed was state Senator Mark Leno's (D-San Francisco) Senate Bill 543, the Mental Health Services for At-Risk Youth Act. Among other provisions, the act will allow youth ages 12-17 to obtain counseling without parental consent if the attending professional believes the youth is mature enough to participate.
However, Schwarzenegger also vetoed some EQCA-backed bills, including SB 906, a Leno bill that would have clarified members of the clergy do not have to perform same-sex marriages.
EQCA leaders had nothing but praise for Kors.
EQCA Board President Cary Davidson told the B.A.R. that he's "disappointed" about Kors leaving and he'll be "tough to replace."
But he also said he understands Kors' desire to look for new opportunities.
"I'm grateful to him for his years of service to the LGBT community and California in particular," said Davidson. "Today, we have an incredible number of protections for LGBT people in all areas, which is just a testament to his vision and his talent. I think for LGBT people, California would be a very different place without Geoff."
Cathy Schwamberger, board president of the Equality California Institute, EQCA's educational branch, said what's made Kors so effective is "he works tirelessly, his commitment level is extremely high, and he always is thinking strategically about how to move the ball forward and how to get things accomplished. He thinks not just one step down the road, he thinks five steps ahead."
She said at this weekend's meeting, there will "probably be a lot of sadness and tears, and then we'll turn our attention to 2011."
Besides the electoral and legislative victories of 2010, Kors, whose salary is $180,000, said the group raised over $6 million this year and has more than $1.5 million in net assets. EQCA's total budget, including the Equality California Institute and other organizations, is roughly $6 million to $6.5 million.
"It's a really good time for a smooth transition for someone to take the organization and continue doing the critical work," said Kors.
He said his successor is ultimately up to the board of directors, but "I will of course give them any input I can."
Kors said he and the board are having a retreat this weekend to plan for 2011 and discuss the search for the group's next leader.
"There is a succession plan that is in place to do a national search, and I'm confident the organization will find a really terrific person to lead us as we work to really achieve the mission of full equality and acceptance," said Kors.
As contributions to EQCA have declined - in part because an anonymous donor who contributed $500,000 last year was absent this year - the group closed several field offices in November, after Election Day.
But Kors said, if the board approves it, EQCA would add staff in Sacramento. He said they'd also be looking to increase their presence in San Francisco. He said there are "opportunities both legislatively and administratively to make advancements based on the success of this past election."
He said, "We'll have a full package of legislation that will be introduced to the 2011 and 2012 session with a real focus on adding much stronger protections for LGBT youth."
Kors noted that Insurance Commissioner-elect Dave Jones supports full equality, and that's "something we haven't had for the past four years." He predicted Jones's election would be helpful in enforcing LGBT-friendly laws. One example is requiring health insurance companies to provide full, complete medical coverage to transgender people.
He said EQCA would also work with Tom Torlakson, the newly elected state superintendent of public instruction, "to get regulations to make sure our safe schools laws are enforced."
Kors said the organization is working on several bills with lawmakers, but he declined to provide many details until the bills are final. He did say they're drafting two bills related to LGBT youth and education.
"We'll be working with two amazing legislators from the LGBT caucus on those bills," he said.
He said bills would also include legislation previously vetoed by Schwarzenegger.
Asked if he'll continue living in San Francisco, Kors said, "Right now, I'm going to focus on this change and then really make a decision about what I want to do."
He said he's worked on civil rights and LGBT equality for over 20 years, and wants to continue "devoting my life to advancing social justice."
"I have been approached about other possibilities, and I will be considering that down the road," added Kors, but for now his main focus will continue to be his work with EQCA.