Pennsylvania's first elected openly-gay state rep finds that bridging the political divide is slow work—but he's determined.
In many ways, Sims is the archetypal political success story: an attorney by trade; well connected in the community; young, handsome and dynamic. His passion to discuss any given issue is as intense as the eye contact he’ll make with you—whether or not it’s a topic he’s got a track record with. And yet: Unlike most politicians, his speech pattern doesn’t slow to a drawl when he’s discussing policy or giving a speech to constituents or on the House floor. He doesn’t dumb down for audiences or the camera. He maintains a wonky vocabulary and quick, pungent sentences from vocal tenor vocal chords and lips that never sit still—something MSNBC host Chris Matthews joked to him about during a Hardball appearance in March.
The fact that Sims’ election was a historic one in Pennsylvania—and that he’s come into Harrisburg at a time when LGBT issues have begun sweeping the nation—has sort of hidden the fact that his political philosophy is about much more than being gay.
During a late-spring town hall meeting at the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia, residents didn’t seem to care much about his sexual orientation as they were worried about school funding, gun rights issues and liquor stores. The 182nd’s constituents often talked back to and interrupted their state representative, who sat in a chair onstage, holding nothing but a microphone. Though a few heated moments occurred throughout the evening, the event ended with applause, and none of the participants had anything negative to say to this reporter afterwards.
Sims made national headlines (and became a Facebook meme) in April when he opposed nonpartisan legislation that would ban Pennsylvanians from buying insurance plans on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act-set up exchanges in 2014, which provide coverage for abortions.
In a video from the House floor, which went viral the same afternoon, Sims argued that the legislation was “about advancing an ideology of oppression and suppression,” then said: “Each of us put our hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. We did not place our hands on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.”
Unfortunately, he notes today, many of those who voted for the restrictive bill were Democrats. “Thirty-six [House] Democrats voted to ban private insurance companies from offering insurance coverage,” he says. “It was a good lesson in the dichotomy of Harrisburg. We lost a vote that we shouldn’t have lost in 1982, and we lost it in 2013.”
That sort of legislation is where Sims often does draw a line in the sand. “There are still men in this world who don’t consider women to be the equal sex,” he says. “Could I form a close relationship with somebody like that? No, I don’t think I could. It would make me question their logic on so many other things. But I think especially when my job is to suspend my frustration on so many other things in order to accomplish things, the truth is, we should be asking legislators who feel otherwise why they feel otherwise. Why is it that you can’t sit in a room with somebody? That’s certainly in opposition to the job description.”
He also maintains a controversial stance against privatizing the liquor stores in Pennsylvania, saying that doing so would eliminate 5,000 “great union jobs, with benefits.” And he argues that the LGBT community could be negatively affected by privatization, as state employees already cannot be discriminated against for sexual orientation or identity, though private workers can. But here’s the thing: when the time came, Sims didn’t actually record a vote on privatization. “It’s not the world’s easiest vote in this district,” notes his predecessor, former Rep. Babette Josephs. “So, I wonder what he would have done had he been there, and I wonder why he wasn’t there.” Sims says he doesn’t remember exactly why he missed the vote, but had checked with party leadership beforehand, who told him it wasn’t going to come down to one vote, or even a handful of them.
“The point that really needs to be underscored, and Brian would agree, is that the LGBT community is not a one-issue constituency,” says state Sen. Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia), whose senatorial district overlaps with Sims’ House district. “They care about all the same issues that each and everyone one of us in Pennsylvania does. It’s not just about marriage equality or civil unions. They want what everyone wants, and that’s fair treatment across the board… I think that’s something that the representative articulates really well.”
In the wake of the DOMA dustup with Metcalfe on the House floor, Sims called on Speaker Smith to reprimand Metcalfe for the “God’s will” remarks he made to WHYY. Smith responded that if Sims wants to seek any sort of justice against Metcalfe, he would need to draft a resolution or bring the issue to the Ethics Committee.
“The fact that these people will fight tooth and nail for the Second Amendment and yet fully dismiss my First Amendment rights is a problem,” Sims says. “Republicans and Democrats wanted to let me know that it was horrible form, most of them had never seen anything like that happen on the House floor ever before, and that it was directed at me because of who I am.”
Meanwhile, Metcalfe has been almost universally panned for his behavior in the incident—not that he seems to care. On his Facebook page, he recently changed his avatar to a drawing of universal symbols for a man and woman with their hands held, and even posted a link to an Associated Press story about his and Sims’ ordeal, with the following message to his supporters: “excerpts below are from an Associated Press story about a gay trying to have me censured.”
Sims says now that justice has already been served: Metcalfe’s remarks have made him a laughingstock around the state. That may be true—but trolls live to be fed. And when the Assembly reconvenes in the fall, Sims and the LGBT Equality caucus will still have to deal with the potential reality of Metcalfe holding the nondiscrimination bill hostage in the Republican-controlled state government committee, in a Republican-controlled House, where the Senate and governorship are also held by the GOP.
While Republicans like Cutler are willing to sit down and find common ground with Sims on technical legal issues, it’s still hard to imagine that a majority of small-town Pennsylvania legislators will overcome their political inertia quickly enough to get behind the nondiscrimination act—let alone gay marriage—within the next year. Even more to the point: Gov. Corbett’s signing either into law is unlikely.
Nonetheless, Sims says, when the legislative session begins in two months, his plan remains the same: Sit down in the same room with his would-be political enemies, and figure out how to make something work.
Follow the legislative doings of the Pennsylvania General Assembly online: www.legis.state.pa.us
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4