Pennsylvania's first elected openly-gay state rep finds that bridging the political divide is slow work—but he's determined.
Four pieces of legislation hang on Cutler’s office wall. He was the prime sponsor of each, and all four passed with the help of Democrats. Cutler says he and Sims share a similar legislative method: “I approach the legislative process with the idea that you find whatever common ground you have and you work from that point, and the friendships kind of grow naturally out of that,” he says. “[Merit selection] was an issue we were equally passionate about, and we just struck up a general friendship, and we’re looking for the issues we can look at from there.”
When describing how he can let things like Cutler’s stances on unions, taxes and the rest, go to the wayside, he points to the people in his office at that moment—staffers Anna Aagenes and Mason Lane, himself and a reporter—pausing while Ella Fitzgerald softy sings over speakers plugged into his desktop computer. (Sims keeps a Pandora radio rotation of Fitzgerald, Etta James and Louis Armstrong playing constantly in his office; he can’t stand silence). “The four of us in this room, I’m sure I can name 10 major issues at least one of us disagrees with,” he says. “We’ve got so accustomed to thinking that politicians don’t think like real people. Every place you’ve ever been—from a family to a workplace to a team—everybody disagrees about things. The human condition is based on finding things we agree on enough to co-exist together … We describe politics too much in the terminology of war, and it creates that environment. Especially when you’re always talking about battles and body counts and scars and all that. It takes on a life of its own.”
His meeting with Cutler soon led to others. At the Pennsylvania Progressive Summit in early March, Sims told a small gathering of liberals that he had begun setting up meetings with as many of the 40 legislators who supported state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe’s ban on gay marriage last legislative session as he could. His goal was to sit down, face-to-face, and ask a question: Why do I not deserve the same rights as you?
“I can talk to people to a certain extent, but Brian just brings a new aspect to it by being a colleague,” says Ted Martin of Equality PA. “It’s really easy to [reject] an abstract concept; it’s much harder when your colleague is sitting in front of you. And that’s not only Brian—that’s what any LGBT person could do as a legislator. It’s really hard for [opponents] to say crazy, mean-spirited, outrageous things. That’s absolutely the difference.”
Of course, we’re still talking about politicians here. And some just won’t be moved by trivialities like humanity.
The same day the new anti-discrimination bills were announced, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe announced his own bill: a constitutional amendment to explicitly ban gay marriage. He did so alongside 26 co-sponsors—including Bryan Cutler—down from 40 in 2011 for a similar bill (and 87 in 2006). And while Sims noted he didn’t expect the legislation to get through this year, he was forced to admit that confronting a veteran legislator about a deeply held belief, and winning, is easier said than done.
Metcalfe, based out of Cranberry, in Western Pennsylvania, is regularly called the most conservative member of the House, and has the voting record to back it up. But he’s not conservative in the way people think of Ronald Reagan or Pat Toomey being conservative. Rather, he takes right-wing stances to an almost comical, trollish level. On guns, he introduced House Bill 357—named after the .357 Magnum—that would allow the state to block all federal gun laws, which is unconstitutional. On LGBT issues, he’s not just the prime sponsor of the would-be anti-gay marriage amendment: He once said he wants to start a “heterosexual caucus” to counter the LGBT Equality caucus. On women’s rights, he was a co-sponsor of 2011’s trans-vaginal ultrasound bill. The list goes on, and it’s long. He’s a hero to the state’s hard right—the guy who holds a yearly gun rights rally in Harrisburg, wielding Tea Party rhetoric using the claim that he’s dedicated to fighting liberal fascism.
Legislative aides and staff around the Capitol regularly note that Metcalfe is seen as an extreme ideologue by Democrats and Republicans alike. And while Harrisburg’s sect of radically conservative politicians and activists may be gradually dwindling, they’re as loud as ever—and Metcalfe, as the chairman of the House’s state government committee, through which the nondiscrimination bill may have to pass, is often the one holding down the fort.
The Tea Party Republican had an extremely poor relationship with Sims’ predecessor, Josephs, who also sat on the state government committee and regularly got into verbal spats with the Republican over social issues. (Metcalfe once even attempted to have her ushered out by security.) But it wasn’t until the final week of the House session in June that Metcalfe publicly bared his teeth, so to speak, at Sims.
The last week of the session had coincided with the Supreme Court’s historic rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 in California, both of which were huge wins for LGBT rights—possibly, Sims notes, the biggest news in LGBT civil rights in his lifetime. So he asked Speaker of the House Sam Smith (R-Jefferson) if he could say a few words on the topic from the House floor.
“I promised him that I was going to be very respectful,” Sims told me over the phone that day. “I wasn’t going to talk about how far Pennsylvania has to go or that the Republican caucus is an obstacle to equality. I really was just going to speak as a civil-rights attorney about a major civil-rights case.”
But only about “three or four words” into Sims’ speech, Smith cut him off, citing another legislator’s wishes—which had just been registered anonymously, as House rules allow.
Several members of the Democratic caucus then began grabbing microphones to speak about the DOMA verdict themselves—and each was similarly shut down in turn. Ultimately, the speaker gaveled out and ended the session before anyone was able to say anything of substance.
The Democrats on the floor wanted to know who’d been objecting. Smith wouldn’t say. After a bit of ruckus, Daryl Metcalfe began shouting at Sims and the Democrats to quit it. As Sims tells it, Metcalfe yelled out: “If you need a name, use my name.”
Soon afterward, several members of both the Democratic and Republican caucuses came up to Sims and spoke quietly; virtually all of them, he says, were extremely apologetic for what happened. “I was really overwhelmed by the response on both sides of the aisle,” Sims told PW later that day. “That, to me, was the most important part of this. Instantly, Republicans were down on the floor apologizing. All day, Republicans have been coming up to me one by one to apologize to me for the breakdown and lack of decorum. And to let me know that they are not in the Daryl Metcalfe sort of school.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Maria Donatucci (D-Philadelphia) took to Twitter: “Suppression of speech should have never happened in the Chamber of the House—the very institution that protects our rights.” And Rep. Mike Schlossberg (D-Lehigh) sent out a message to supporters detailing the brouhaha, calling Sims an “incredible fighter for equality” who “has more guts in his pinky than every Republican who tries to shut him up.”
Then Metcalfe raised the stakes, giving WHYY an interview in which he said it was against “God’s law” for Sims to speak on DOMA. “I did not believe,” Metcalfe said, “that, as a member of that body, that I should allow someone to make comments such as he was preparing to make that ultimately were just open rebellion against what the word of God has said, what God has said, and just open rebellion against God’s law.”
The response was quick—albeit, at first, quiet: The LGBT Equality caucus began a new push for co-sponsors of the anti-discrimination bills in the House and Senate; and Sims announced he would be introducing an LGBT marriage equality bill alongside state Rep. Stephen McCarter (D-Montgomery), whom he had met for the first time last year at a fundraiser at Woody’s bar in Philly’s Gayborhood. “Rather than just be pissed off … we empowered members of the LGBT equality caucus to go out and get as much more support behind HB 300 as we could as a result of this,” Sims says.
That’s precisely what’s been happening. On the Thursday after the tussle, Rep. Rob Matzie (D-Beaver) became the 84th House member to co-sponsor the bill. As this story goes to press, there are 90 sponsors of the House bill, up from 77 when it was first announced. Sims’ and McCarter’s marriage equality bill will act as the House supplement to state Sen. Daylin Leach’s (D-Montgomery) legislation in the Senate.