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Creating a New Voice

Ex-Staffers Look to Bring Economics Into Same-Sex Issues

In the midst of today’s fierce battles over the morality of gay and lesbian lifestyles and the constitutionality of same-sex marriages, one former GOP staffer and a one-time National Republican Congressional Committee aide have added a new and different voice to the ongoing debates.

Since leaving their Capitol Hill and Republican Party posts, Justin Nelson and Chance Mitchell have set out to put an economic face on what is usually considered a social issue. In creating the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, Nelson and Mitchell are seeking to put the economic power of America’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community — which will account for an estimated $513 billion in consumer spending power this year alone — behind issues like same-sex marriage rights.

In the 18 months since forming their organization, Mitchell and Nelson have amassed some 50 state and local gay and lesbian chamber of commerce organizations under their national umbrella and have begun to reach out to the estimated 800,000 to 1.2 million LGBT owned and operated businesses across the country. Earlier this month, the NGLCC brought more than 200 representatives from local affiliates to D.C. for the organization’s first National Business and Leadership Conference and awards dinner. And just last week, Nelson and Mitchell were on Capitol Hill lobbying their cause everywhere from the House Small Business Committee to the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“A lot of individuals and decision makers on Capitol Hill don’t look at us as an economic powerhouse,” said Nelson, who spent four years on the Hill as an aide to Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.). “Having worked on the Hill and working for a business-minded Senator we were well aware of what kind of clout business-minded organizations have on the Hill. … Our mission is to create an economic voice for this community on Capitol Hill, on Wall Street and on Main Street USA.”

And their efforts are being recognized as what could be the new direction of the gay rights movement. In December 2002 Mitchell and Nelson’s effort in forming the NGLCC was named to the “Top 100 Greatest Gay Success Stories of 2002” by Out magazine.

“The fact that in one year they have achieved this level of support and coordination from local chambers around the country is a phenomenal feat,” said Chuck Wolf, president of the Victory Fund, a leading national political organization that supports LGBT candidates. “In these days of gay and lesbian organizations struggling in some cases to focus on their mission, the fact that the chamber has gotten started in this time is no small feat.”

Mitchell came to Washington in the fall of 1996 to help create campaign strategies for the NRCC. Prior to starting the NGLCC he worked as an executive for a global business-to-business e-commerce company where he coordinated e-business initiatives and developed strategic market planning.

Nelson was a one-time campaign manager for statewide Republican races in Wyoming who said that in the time since he left his job on the Hill he has also left the Republican Party and now considers himself an independent — a decision he made in 1998 when his former boss, Thomas, and other Members of the Wyoming delegation did not attend a Capitol Hill vigil for University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, a gay student who was beaten to death.

The incident served as a wake-up call for Nelson, who was then working as the director of federal affairs and external relations for the American Academy of Ophthalmology in Washington, to use his talents to fill a void in the LGBT community that was “sorely lacking.” It was during this time that Nelson and Mitchell decided put their affinity for business and economic knowledge to work in a new way.

Calling their group an economic advocacy organization rather than a social advocacy organization, the two men don’t just argue same-sex marriage equality, for example, they argue “the economics of marriage equality.”

Mitchell can spin hypothetical “what-if” scenarios attempting to show how same-sex couples who may marry in Massachusetts but move to different states are unfairly burdened. He questions how the government will deal with family and medical leave, 401(k) and Social Security survivorship benefits, and a number of the other 1,138 federal marital benefits — as identified by a recent General Accounting Office report — that same-sex couples are still denied.

“If Member’s aren’t going to do this because it’s the right thing to do, then they should do it because it’s the smart business thing to do,” Nelson said.

“This movement has completely redefined the LGBT community,” Mitchell said. “With our consumer buying power we’re a community base that can no longer be ignored.”

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