A leading gay and lesbian business group that was set to honor Governor Charlie Baker at a gala dinner in Washington, D.C., this month has abruptly pulled its invitation after learning Baker will speak at a GOP conference in Las Vegas this weekend with top conservatives.
The National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce said Thursday night it has dropped its plan to celebrate Baker at its “Best of the Best Awards Dinner” on April 26 unless he decides to avoid the Las Vegas gathering and also embrace a bill that would protect transgender people in Massachusetts from discrimination in malls, restaurants, and other public accommodations.
The announcement came after US Representative Joe Kennedy III, a Massachusetts Democrat, balked at being an honorary co-host of the gala because of Baker’s refusal to take a stand on the transgender bill, which Kennedy strongly backs.
The episode underscores the difficulty Baker faces in attempting to both build bridges to national Republicans and also maintain his moderate image back home. A popular figure who supports gay marriage and abortion rights, Baker has repeatedly emphasized that his Massachusetts brand of Republicanism is different from the national GOP’s.
The Globe reported Wednesday that Baker is planning to speak at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s spring leadership meeting in Las Vegas, along with conservatives such as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and controversial pastor John Hagee, who vociferously opposes gay marriage.
A spokesman Thursday night said Baker will still attend the Las Vegas confab. Baker issued a statement blaming the decision to disinvite him from the gay and lesbian chamber event on “partisan politics.’’
Baker and his administration have worked closely with the chamber on an initiative to boost gay and lesbian businesses that was trumpeted as groundbreaking by both groups.
In November, Baker announced the expansion of a program that helps businesses owned by minorities, women, and veterans gain better access to a portion of an estimated $4 billion a year the state spends buying goods and services. The changes are poised to aid state vendors that contract with businesses certified as being owned by lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people.
And chamber officials say they’ve been quietly pushing the Baker administration to support the transgender bill.
But Thursday, the two top officials at the chamber, president Justin Nelson and chief executive Chance Mitchell, issued a sharp statement.
They said they were not previously aware he planned to attend the Las Vegas conference, and that the gathering has “speakers whose values and positions” on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, community, are “antithetical to everything for which the Best-of-the-Best awards, the NGLCC, and our partners stand.”
The officials said their group informed the governor Thursday that “until he pulls out from this conference and publicly commits to full LGBT inclusion in Massachusetts, he will not receive the previously announced recognition, which would have allowed him to be present alongside our esteemed partners committed to dignity and respect for all Americans.”
Kennedy was originally a co-host for the chamber event, which is also slated to include House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.
But after the Globe reported that Baker was going to be honored as well, Kennedy balked because the governor has not gotten behind the transgender public accommodations bill.
“Congressman Kennedy is proud to consider himself a friend to the NGLCC,” Kennedy spokeswoman Emily Kaufman said in a statement before the group’s announcement. “However he has respectfully asked the organization to remove his name from the list of honorary co-hosts for this event, given his strong support for transgender rights and Governor Baker’s refusal to support the public accommodations legislation currently before the State House.”
Late Thursday, Kaufman said Kennedy will now, once again, be an honorary co-host of the gala.
Baker portrayed the chamber’s decision as partisan.
“As the only governor in the country to recognize gay- and lesbian-owned businesses and as the only sitting Republican governor in the nation to sign the Supreme Court amicus [friend of the court] brief endorsing marriage equality, I am disappointed that some are putting partisan politics ahead of the sound public policy of treating gay and lesbian business owners with dignity and respect,” Baker said in a lengthy written statement.
The governor, who has a cordial relationship with the heavily Democratic Legislature, said he takes pride in making efforts to “reach across the partisan divide to find common ground with people who may not always agree with me and believe some elected officials’ reluctance to do the same is what ails our political system and does a disservice to the people we work for.”
And, in reference to the pending transgender legislation, Baker said he continues to “believe no one should be discriminated against based on gender identity, which is why I supported the transgender protections enacted in 2011 and look forward to reviewing further proposals should they reach my desk.”
Thursday marked a shift from the November announcement of the new state vendor program, heralded by both the chamber and Baker as a first-in-the-nation accomplishment.
At the time, Nelson, the cofounder and president of the chamber, lavished praise on Baker, thanking him for his “commitment to the LGBT community in Massachusetts.”