INTERVIEW: A conversation with Joe Tarver: ESPA’s Interim Executive Director

Photo of Joe TarverBy Ove Overmyer

In a varied career that includes several major victories for the LGBT community, Joe Tarver brings to his new position as Interim Executive Director of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) a proven track record of accomplishment and a management style that has won him praise from his peers.

Many colleagues say that Joe has garnered a keen marketing acumen from both the public and private sectors, and has rubbed elbows with countless rough and tumble political operatives who have been rolling in and out of Washington D.C. since 1986.  His ability to lead the organization through its transition period was never questioned.

Joe became the Interim Executive Director on March 1, when Alan Van Capelle left ESPA after seven prosperous years. Van Capelle now works for the Comptroller’s office in New York City. Tarver says Van Capelle is now one of the highest paid openly gay government employees in New York City. Many new laws and changes in government policies benefiting the LGBT community occurred under Van Capelle’s leadership, and Tarver thinks the most critical impact Alan had on the Pride Agenda was his strong organizational skills.

Tarver began his employment with ESPA back in 2001, just before the Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act (SONDA) became law in New York State. Joe served as Managing Director of Operations, responsible for the day-to-day work of the Pride Agenda. Earlier, Joe was the Pride Agenda’s Communications Director, playing key roles in the Agenda’s groundbreaking work with gay and lesbian survivors of 9/11 victims, building bipartisan support that resulted in the passage of SONDA in 2002 and furthering the organization’s current public policy and legislative priorities.

In Washington, D.C., Joe was Director of the Office of White House Liaison at the Department of State during the first Clinton Administration and was one of a group of first-ever openly gay political appointees by any Presidential administration. Before that, he was a senior aide to Presidential Transition Committee Deputy Director Mark Gearan and assistant to Treasurer Robert Farmer on the 1992 Clinton for President Campaign, and part of the Campaign’s senior finance staff. From 1986-1990 he was in the private sector, first with the public affairs company Arnold and Porter Consultants and then with Cassidy and Associates. He was also a Legislative Aide in the U.S. House of Representatives for Texas Congressman Solomon Ortiz.

The Empty Closet caught up with Joe a few weeks ago. He said, “My first priority is to keep the Pride Agenda strong and to make progress on the important work that must be done for our community while a new Executive Director is being hired. I have to say, however, that I am very fortunate, because we have an incredibly talented staff here at the Pride Agenda, a solid work plan in place for 2010 and a Board that is committed to seeing that we move forward without a hiccup during this transition period. I want the new Executive Director to take over an organization that is already poised to win this year and next in Albany on marriage equality, GENDA and Dignity.”

Tarver says hiring the new Executive Director is a Board-driven process that includes input from many LGBT leaders and allies from across the state, including some from the Rochester area. He added, “The Board has indicated its goal of having the new person in place by the spring and perhaps even by the Rochester Spring Dinner on May 22. If not then, I feel sure it will be soon thereafter.” The Spring Dinner in Rochester is one of the largest annual fundraisers for the nonprofit organization.

Tarver added that he is not a candidate for the position and this was a decision he communicated to the Board at the same time he was asked to step up to become the Interim Executive Director.

Many ESPA Board members, and Tarver, quickly admit that Rochester has always been a fundamental part of achieving LGBT equality and justice in New York State. Historically, Rochester has led the state in victories for our community, even ahead of seemingly more progressive places like New York City. Tarver added, “Because it is such a population center — both for LGBT people and for deeply committed allies — the Pride Agenda recognizes that both the institutional support and community activism of Rochester are essential for legislative and social progress statewide on LGBT issues.”

On March 13, Tarver traveled to a cold and rainy Rochester to hear what local activists had to say. He told The Empty Closet after his visit, “We’re all New Yorkers, but we do approach LGBT issues differently. There’s a great deal of value in the viewpoints that I may not hear, living downstate in NYC. When I first started with ESPA, my first trip outside NYC as the then-Communications Director was to Rochester to meet the community. So it was entirely appropriate that my first trip as the Interim Executive Director was again to Rochester to hear the concerns and viewpoints of those who are doing the day-to-day local work that’s necessary to win statewide equality.”

Asked point-blank why Rochesterians should support ESPA, Tarver said, “We can’t win statewide equality without the work of our allies across the state. Rochesterians’ powerful advocacy and contributions don’t just help us win our statewide legislative priorities — they also make a huge difference directly in your community.”

Tarver added, “Critical funds raised from events like the Spring Dinner go directly to the work we are doing in and around Monroe County, including trainings for local Marriage Ambassadors, organizing local union members and staff, and strengthening relationships with faith leaders through work with the Rochester Interfaith Alliance. Rochester’s support also helps us secure millions of dollars in state funding for the members of our LGBT Health and Human Services Network, including local organizations like GAGV, MOCHA, AIDS Care and Rainbow SAGE.”

Tarver sounds convinced that ESPA will continue as a leader in the fight for full equality for all New Yorkers. Looking forward to the Spring Dinner later this month, he added, “What stands out is how much the LGBT community in Rochester is an integral part of the fabric of the political and social life of the city. I don’t see this anywhere else in New York State and it’s a really special experience.”

Asked about the long-term vision for the Pride Agenda, Tarver said, “The Pride Agenda exists to achieve equality under the law for LGBT people, with the larger goal of justice for all. Winning legislation is just one step — we also need to make sure that these laws, once passed, are implemented fully and that LGBT New Yorkers have every opportunity to live full lives. Our relationships with allies who care about our issues will continue to be important as we work toward the larger vision of racial, economic and social justice for all people.”