Here, as promised, is a transcript of my interview with Roy Speckhardt, SCA Board Member and Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, about the process behind the hiring of longtime Republican operative Edwina Rogers as Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America.
The recording of the interview can be found in its entirety here. Here is the URL:
The transcription was done by TooManyJens. (I am hugely grateful to her for doing this — this has been a ridiculously busy week, even without this particular dust-up.) In a few places there was enough noise or distortion that she couldn’t quite make out what was being said (due to time and scheduling considerations, I had to do the interview in a cafe), but otherwise, but otherwise, as far as I can tell, she has transcribed the interview verbatim. I haven’t had a chance to check the transcription over to make sure it’s 100% accurate, but the places I have checked look right to me. If anyone spots any transcription errors, please let me know, and I’ll correct them ASAP.
GC: OK, so the call is recording, again, you know, going on the record, this is Greta Christina from Greta Christina’s blog. I’m recording this phone call … this is an on the record interview with – and you, please, your name, and who you’re with, etc.
RS: All right. I’m Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association.
GC: OK. And you were on the selection committee that selected Edwina Rogers as the Executive Director for the Secular Coalition for America?
RS: Right. I mean, we recommended her to the board of the Secular Coalition for America, which includes all of its member organizations, and that board made that selection, yes.
GC: OK. What can you tell me about the hiring process for Edwina Rogers?
RS: It was – I think it was quite thorough. There was an advertisement for candidates, then there was a search firm that was employed to help find the best candidates, and we had a number of very interesting ones that put forth their resumes and qualifications. But … and we interviewed a number of them.
GC: Oh, well, so, what made the committee that made the recommendation decide that she was the best person for the job, and similarly, what made the board decide that she was the best person for the job? What was the leading reason for hiring her?
RS: Edwina had exceeded other folks’, who had put forth their resumes, exceeded their qualifications in terms for the job, particularly related to her background in lobbying, connections and activity on the Hill, her experience in doing coalition building, all those things made her a very attractive candidate for us, and someone that fit the bill of what we were looking for.
GC: OK. Can you tell me who else you considered for this position, or if you can’t give me names, can you tell me roughly what the other candidates’ experience and qualifications were?
RS: Yeah, I can’t give names of other candidates. That would be in violation of our own policies about what we can give out regarding the candidate process. But we – the other candidates had some good skills, and brought some good qualifications as well; not the depth and the breadth of experience that Edwina has regarding all the various areas. Some might have had somebody who was, for instance, a very good lobbyist but had – didn’t have the nonprofit organization experience. Someone that had great management skills, but they didn’t have the ability to get out there and fundraise and things like that. Edwina uniquely had pretty much the whole – all the qualities we were looking for.
GC: Were some of the others – were there other candidates who you considered for this position who had more experience or familiarity with the atheist and secularist movement?
RS: Yes, there were a couple that were from within the movement. You know, Edwina I would think, admittedly, you know, hasn’t been part of our movement in recent years, and this is something that’s new to her, that she’s jumping into, although we’ve had the same experience in the last two people who ran the Secular Coalition as well, Sean Faircloth, and Lori Lipman Brown had a connection to the movement, being the daughter of Mel Lipman, who was the president of the American Humanist Association and involved in other groups, but was never really involved in the movement until she became the founding Executive Director of the Secular Coalition.
GC: Was Rogers the only Republican on the short list?
RS: We don’t ask, necessarily, their political identification, the candidates, that would be problematic for various reasons. But we – but my impression was that she was the only Republican. That’s just my best guess.
GC: What does success of this – what would success of this hiring strategy look like? You know, what exactly is it that you hope to accomplish by hiring her, and how will you know whether you’ve achieved it?
RS: Well, we really wanted to take the organization to the next level. You know, we’ve – the Secular Coalition for America’s had a great deal of success in reaching out and growing the organization – when we first formed the idea, we didn’t realize that it would have the kind of impact it would. For instance, you know, we said, “Well, we’re going to be doing lobbying. We don’t expect to actually influence the lobbying – the legislative process. We just hope that the idea of having an atheist involved in the process will wake up some people and shake up the system a bit.” And it turned out that it was a lot more effective than we’d thought. [laughs] And so, our sights were raised. And then, our sights continued to be raised as we have gone forward with this coalition, and now we’re looking to make a – quite an impact on the process, in stopping legislation and administrative actions that are faith-based initiative oriented and things like that, and in promoting the ones that’ll bring equality for atheists and agnostics.
GC: So again, [garbled] just sort of to repeat the question again a slightly different way, do you have specific goals that you’re hoping to achieve, and how will you know whether or not you’ve achieved them?
RS: Right. Well, there are – there is a strategic planning process that’s getting started now, and I don’t want to short-circuit that process, but you know, we do have expectations of growing our impact in various areas. For instance, you know, we’ve had a recent lobby day that was connected to the Reason Rally that had a couple of hundred people involved lobbying Capitol Hill, I think that was fantastic, obviously want to do more of the same, we want to increase the numbers, increase the impact, really flood the Hill with atheists and agnostics that are speaking up for our rights. So we want to do things like that, we want to do Congressional briefings and other ways of showing that impact. And if we see that kind of evidence, that she’s making these things happen, that she’s making the connections we want to see, she’s growing the group, then we know it’s going in the right way.
GC: OK. What do you think – and when I say “you,” I mean you personally, but also you, the committee and the board – what, what do you think the Secular Coalition was doing best before the hire, and doing worst before the hire, and how will this hire help – either help you do what you were doing best better, or help you improve what you were not succeeding at?
RS: Hmm. Well, first of all, I think that the SCA had been doing quite well in a number of areas. It’s not one thing in specific that I’d point to. I feel that, you know, the Secular Decade plan that had been put forth was really mobilizing and energizing people around our movement, you know, as Sean visited local groups and talked to them about these plans … wow, you know, standing ovation after standing ovation, people were really getting into it and getting involved. I think that’s wonderful. So we’d like to see that, but we’d also – I guess we’d like to get a little bit more involved in the media, having a stronger presence that will attract interest to our movement there, and we know that we’ve had some, some success there as well, but I think we could have a lot more.
GC: Were you expecting this to be a controversial hire?
RS: Was I expecting it to be a which kind of hire?
GC: Controversial. Were you expecting controversy?
RS: Oh, controversial. A little bit. I mean, you know…
GC: I’m sorry, could you repeat that? I’m sorry, I, I didn’t catch what you said. Could you repeat that?
RS: Oh, sure. A little bit. I mean, she is a Republican, or comes from a Republican background for sure, and that’s untraditional for our movement. And, as a result, it gives a really a jumpstart on that media opportunity [laughs] in that the media will be covering the fact that she’s – this is a bit of a “man bites dog” story: normally you’d expect a group like ours to hire a very liberal person for that job.
GC: So, it sounds like you were expecting – so you said you expected “a bit” of controversy from within the movement. Are you surprised at how much there’s been?
RS: No, it’s about what I expected, to be honest. I’m not – you know, some folks aren’t happy about it. Most people are interested to hear about it, and learning about the reasoning behind it. You know, we’re a skeptical group, but we’re also one that’s open to hearing the evidence, and evaluating it in a reasonable way. I think once people do that, they’ll get on board. Some more time.
GC: Well, OK, so, if you were expecting controversy within the movement and within the community, what did you do to prepare for that?
RS: The organization, [garbled] itself, had come up with some planning for that, and some talking points and things like that that they had prepared to reach out to the media with. And that through the media, we’d be getting that attention of folks in the movement as well. So that – some of that had been planned in advance, and I know that in the coming months, Edwina is planning to do calls and other types of outreach to get people access to her in a way that they might not normally have for somebody in her position, but it’ll also get a chance for her to connect with people and get over any problems or questions or skepticism that might exist out there.
GC: Do you think – how do you think that’s going?
RS: How do I think it’s going so far? [crosstalk]
GC: How do you think it’s going so far? In terms of, you know, people’s, you know, response to what they’ve heard from her so far.
RS: So far, I think it’s going all right. I mean, it’s a little early – it’s just been, you know, gosh, I guess it’s just days now. But, but this is the sort of process that I expect to take weeks or even a few months before people either become used to it, as one would hope, or, or there’s, or there’s – or decide that there’s a problem.
GC: Well, what do you think – I realize that she hasn’t been on the job for very long, but what do you think of her performance in the job so far?
RS: I, I think she’s handling it well, in that, you know, she stepped on the job and worked very closely with staff in a very cooperative way that was leadership-oriented, you know, she didn’t – my, my impression is that she wasn’t laying down the law so much as seeking advice and support from that staff, which is exactly what you want a manager to do, and she’s been handling calls and media efforts, I think, quite well.
GC: So, do you – and again, by “you” I mean you personally but also you the hiring committee – do you think that her values and priorities are consistent with the values and priorities of most of the people in this movement?
RS: I think where it’s relevant for the Secular Coalition for America, that her values are consistent with the movement as a whole, and with the Secular Coalition for America in specific.
GC: Do you – were there any concerns raised during the hiring process having to do with the fact that, you know, frankly, for several years, she’s been working for a party that has been working very much against the values of most people in the secular and atheist movement, you know, not just in terms of the separation of church and state, but on issues such as gay rights, issues such as, you know, abortion rights, birth control rights, etc.
GC: Were there any concerns that she has been, again, frankly, working for a party, and to advance the agenda of a party, that’s been very directly and very adamantly opposed to our core values?
RS: Definitely. There was definitely concerns raised and discussed around those issues. I mean, groups like the American Humanist Association, that I represent, and the American Ethical Union particularly, are, you know, we’re very far left of center politically. [laughs] We – you know, our members are, you know – having someone with the background she has, with the Republican and the, you know, connections with the White – with a Republican White House, and everything like that, these are things that would not quality someone necessarily well for my job or other – a job at the Ethical Culture Societies. However, the unique mission of the Secular Coalition for America is specific. It deals with church-state issues, with equality for atheists and agnostics, it’s narrowly defined toward those goals. And I think that that’s something she can do quite well.
GC: OK, well, so, I – as I’m sure you’re aware, I did an interview with her on – I guess, days ago, posted to my blog yesterday, and in that interview, I actually asked her this question several times, you know, I asked her the question several times: given that her position on many important issues are directly opposed to those by the Republican Party, and indeed they are fervently opposed by the Republican Party, I asked her, why is she a Republican? This was the question she was really unwilling to answer and that she very consistently dodged. Are you, you know, what’s your response to that? You know, what’s your response to her unwillingness to answer that question?
RS: So, I think she did her best to answer the question in a way that’s consistent. I don’t think that …
GC: I’m sorry, could you repeat that? I didn’t catch what you said.
RS: I think she did her best to answer the question in a way that, that makes sense, that connects the dots in a way that works. The Republican Party, you know, is, obviously, parts of the platform and parts of what they do goes against some humanist values. That’s – a lot of what we do in our work is thwarted by people who are Republican leadership. But that doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily partisan in what we do, and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t folks in the Republican Party who we’d love to reach out to. Because let’s face it, you know, we can’t get what we want accomplished if we just speak to Democrats. We don’t have enough of them to win on the issues that matter to us. We need to convince some of those Republicans to come to our side and Edwina, actually, may be our ticket to success for a lot of the issues we care about deeply, including issues like choice and gay rights and things like that.
GC: Do you think that in 2012, that the reaching across the aisle strategy is going to be effective? I mean, the Republican Party doesn’t seem to have shown very much interest in reaching across the aisle, it doesn’t seem to have shown any bipartisanship or coalition building for many, many years now. Do you actually think that this is an effective and plausible strategy, as opposed to a strategy that many people have proposed of trying to work with people who are already more or less aligned with us and, you know, or at least are more likely to be receptive to our message?
RS: This Republican Party – I mean, if we want to get both – I mean, think about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, recently successful, right? That would not have been possible without Republican Senator Collins’ efforts to support it. We have to reach across the aisle. There’s really no possibility of success without doing that, on the issues that matter to us. The liberal ones, the church-state separation ones, all of them. So this, so this is not even an option as far as I’m concerned as to whether or not we have to reach across the aisle sometimes in order to get the things that we want accomplished.
RS: [crosstalk] And that’s even from a humanist point of view.
GC: I’m sorry, say that again?
RS: And that’s even from a humanist point of view, where we are very liberal, left of center, of course. You know, even, even if we want to get success for issues around end-of-life choices and things like that, you know, we can’t do it without trying to find support from wherever we can find it. You know, when we – when I lobbied on, against the federal marriage amendment, for instance, on Capitol Hill, one of the most successful parts of that strategy was actually pointing out the need for states’ rights among Republicans who eventually helped defeat the effort to have a federal marriage amendment.
GC: Wow. OK, moving on, again, going back to the interview that I did with Rogers, Rogers seemed very unaware and unfamiliar with, not only with the issues that concern the atheist and secularist community most passionately, but even of the realities of the Republican Party that she’s been working with. You know, she was not – she was either, well, let’s be generous and say that she was unaware of the fact that the Republican Party is adamantly anti-choice and it’s adamantly anti-gay, that it does support the fusion of religion and government in many important ways. She seemed really unaware of that. Do you have any issues with that? [crosstalk]
RS: I don’t mean to be – I don’t mean to be in your face about that, but I could say that, that you’re unaware that there are Republicans out there who take a different view than the monolithic one.
GC: Yes, but that’s not the question. The issue isn’t whether there are some individual Republicans who disagree with the Republican Party’s position on these things, the question is: what is the Republican Party’s official platform, and what is the Republican Party as a whole overwhelmingly in favor of? At first, she seemed very unaware of even the Republican Party’s 2008 platform positions on these issues.
RS: Well, you say that she seems unaware, but, but I disagree. I think, when I heard her answers to the questions, that she was talking about Republican rank and file members taking a different view, perhaps, from some of those items that may or may not appear on the platform itself. So I think that, I don’t think so much that she’s unaware, I mean, she’s been in the thick of these things for a long time. She’s more aware than any of us about how these Republican Party insiders do things. I mean, she’s been – she’s participated in a couple of those CPAC meetings, I think. She’s, she’s been inside some of these meetings, and I think, like, what we, what I discovered on Capitol Hill, and I think what you discovered too, when we do media interviews with certain people, and when the Clergy Project’s work, that [garbled], is that there are atheists behind a lot of these doors. And if we can just get to these folks, we can change the political sphere from where it is right now. I mean, she really provides a fantastic potential to be an agent for change within the Republican Party, who a lot of people recognize has been taken over by the Religious Right, and without.
GC: OK, so you’re saying that you think she is aware of the Republican Party’s positions? Because she did not actually pivot in the interview. She didn’t just say, she wasn’t just talking about rank and file positions. She was talking about official Republican Party positions, and she was claiming that it doesn’t have a position on – that the official position isn’t anti-choice, that it isn’t anti-gay. She said that in the interview.
GC: And I think it was very disturbing to a lot of people, they felt that either she was ignorant of the realities of the party that she’s been a member of, or that she’s trying to misrepresent that party to the movement that she’s representing. And now a lot of people have real, serious concerns about that. Is this something that you discussed with her during the hiring process, and at this point, do you have concerns about this?
RS: Well, I’m not sure. I mean, I think that she’s thinking, “Look, I just got hired. I’m going to be reaching across to Republicans to try to bring them into this movement to support church-state separation and rights for atheists and agnostics. I want to paint them in a way that I can reach out to them and bring them, bring them along.” So it doesn’t make sense to demonize them from the start. So I don’t blame her from – for being hesitant to take the bait that you offered, and demonize the Republican Party that she comes from, that she wants to reach out to. That just doesn’t make any sense.
GC: OK, but, you know, I feel like this is being contentious, and I want to move on from it. I don’t want this to be an argument. [crosstalk]
GC: And actually, there’s one more thing I wanted to talk about having to do with the interview, and then I’ll move on. Was it – frankly, during the interview she was extremely evasive, there were several questions, she dodged direct questions, I would repeat questions several times and she didn’t answer them. And these were questions that are serious questions, they’re pertinent questions, these are questions that people in the community have been asking about her and that are very much relevant to her position as Executive Director of the SCA. And I think, obviously, one of the things that this community values is honesty and directness and caring about evidence and reality. Do you have any issues with this evasiveness? Do you have a sense of how she’s going to be with the press and the media, [garbled] people within her own movement?
RS: Again, unfortunately, I don’t take your characterization as accurate that she was being evasive. I listened to her interview, and actually, the first thing I thought of was, “Gosh, you know, I’ve done a lot of media interviews, and if you do media interviews, you learn how to get your talking points across and not worry, necessarily, all the time about the questions being asked. If you want to get your own message across, this is a technique that you’ve got to learn, to get out there and put across your viewpoint. And I felt like she was being very careful and even reiterating over and over and over again, if necessary, to address the questions that you kept asking and re-asking her. And, so I don’t, I don’t think she was being evasive at all, In fact, I think, in some ways, she could have gone on to more talking points, not sticking to the questions that were being asked as much.
GC: OK, actually, what you just said contradicted itself. I’m sorry to be this way, but what you said was on the one hand, she wasn’t being evasive, on the other hand, she was hitting talking points and not answering the questions that I asked.
RS: No, no, no. I think you misheard me. I said she – I would have liked it had she done a little more of that, is what I said. But the fact is, she was sticking very much, in my opinion at least, to the questions you were asking her.
GC: So you don’t agree that she was being evasive.
RS: Not – I didn’t see evasiveness, no.
GC: All right. Just a couple more quick questions, and I think we’re done here. What is going to happen if the atheist community and the secularist community just does not accept her? What’s going to happen in the coming weeks and the coming months, if people just do not accept her as a leader in this movement, and people continue to have serious issues with her? What is – what is going to happen then, if that happens?
RS: Well, I think that her work, primarily of course, is, as we discussed when you asked me about what I was expecting her to accomplish, things like that, you know, this is work on the Hill, this is work with the media, this is work with the staff that she’s trying to run and make things happen. To a degree she does need to go out in the community and give talks and get our community on board in the direction of the SCA, so I think that that is an aspect of her job, although it is just an aspect of her job. And I think that she will, she will bring people around. I think when people get to meet her face to face, they’ll realize that she’s actually quite knowledgeable about these issues and that she can be quite a bit of help.
GC: OK, well, first of all… OK, couple of things. First of all, I think people’s concerns – partly, people’s concerns are that she’s not as knowledgeable with these issues as you claim she is. But people also have concerns about whether she represents this community’s values, and whether she shares them. So it’s not just about effectiveness, it’s about, you know, frankly, her integrity.
GC: So, I guess I’m going to repeat the question: you’re saying you think people will come around, what if they don’t?
RS: What if they don’t, right. Hmm. Well, I’d hate to have to deal with that eventuality. As a Board of Directors, we are charged in supervising her in her work, and certainly that’s not something that would be all on my shoulders, thankfully. [Laughs] But, so if that eventuality came up, we’d have to figure out what to do. Now, I don’t think – I don’t, I don’t see that coming, I don’t see much sign of that, in fact the, the critique that I’m hearing, when I do hear some, of course – it is something that’s a surprise to some folks – but I’m not hearing it as vociferous even as I thought it might be at first. And I’ll bet you, you know, a few weeks from now, it’ll be less, couple months from now, people will be getting used to it.
GC: OK. Well, my last question is: if the Board decides, after all, that Rogers is not the best person for this job, either because she’s not accomplishing the goals that [garbled] for her, or because the atheist and secular community just doesn’t accept her, what’s, what’s Plan B?
RS: Well, of course, you know, the District of Columbia is a hire-at-will [garbled], which means that people can come and go. And I think she cares enough about this movement and of what we want to have accomplished, that she would be very cooperative, and if the writing really was on the wall, she’d be right there to help us find someone who could take the lead in a way that she wasn’t able to. If that happens. But I don’t see that happening.
GC: OK, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.
RS: Thanks very much.