State Rep. Babette Josephs' electoral success has long been bound up with the rainbow vote. This year, her challenger, Brian Sims, is openly gay.
The hottest race in the city for a seat in the state Legislature is going down in the 182nd District, which comprises a chunk of Center City, Logan Square and sections of Fairmount, Washington Square West, Bella Vista, Gray’s Ferry and—where the campaign rhetoric is at its most intense—the Gayborhood.
The incumbent, 71-year-old Babette Josephs, has represented the district for 27 years. Often spotted walking around town with her signature backpack, Josephs is the senior female Democrat in the House, minority chair of the State Government Committee, co-founder of the LGBT caucus and convener of the Women’s Caucus. She’s well-known as a feisty rabble-rouser for progressive issues such as LGBT civil rights and women’s reproductive freedom. Fans—and “the lady from Philadelphia,” as they call her on the House floor, definitely has fans, not just constituents—praise Josephs for the colorful prose she employs while delivering impassioned speeches on the floor.
With female politicians making up only 17 percent of the Legislature—more than half of whom are Republicans—Josephs regularly reams out conservative legislators over feminist issues. Recently, she called the Republican women in Legislature—which ranks 42nd for gender equality—who voted for the controversial mandatory-ultrasound bill “men with breasts,” which pissed off a few people, and was called “a sour note” by the website PoliticsPA.
Joseph’s electoral success has long been bound up with the district’s rainbow vote. The 182nd has the highest number of LGBT residents of any district in the state; that fact is so important to any election there that in 2010, Josephs made national headlines for accusing challenger Gregg Kravitz, who publicly identified as bisexual, of being a closet heterosexual pandering for the LBGT vote. Kravitz lost—but not by much, scoring 39 percent of the vote.
That bodes for a tight race with this year’s challenger, 33-year-old policy attorney Brian Sims, one of five openly gay candidates currently running to become one of the first openly gay legislators in Pennsylvania history. While he’s a first-time political candidate, Sims has some interesting experience despite being less than half of Josephs’ age. He’s done stints as president of the LGBT nonprofit advocacy organization Equality PA, lawyer for the Bar Association, and treasurer of Joseph’s 2010 campaign, before he broke with her to run for her seat himself.
Unsurprisingly, that political apostasy has greatly defined the shape of the race between them.“What’s the real difference between [Sims’] stance and positions and mine?” asks Josephs. “When I hear him talk or look at his mailings, it looks like he took them off of our website. This man has no real reason to be dissatisfied with me.”Indeed, there are no fundamental policy differences to debate in this race; both candidates are progressives. They’re both pro-choice, concerned with LGBT civil rights, against school vouchers, and for green jobs. Sure, they have a couple minor disagreements: Sims vocally favors a city sex-offender registry while Joseph cites studies showing that they’re ineffective. Sims favors a bill to reduce the size of the Legislature while Josephs points out that it doesn’t reduce the cost of the Legislature. But ultimately, Sims casts the major distinction as one of political effectiveness. “I, like most people, knew [Josephs] by reputation” before going to work for her, he says, “and I liked that we were sending this tough woman to Harrisburg to talk about all these issues. What I didn’t know is that being aggressive can get you pretty far—if your aggression is tempered by integrity and you’re effective.”
He says Josephs is “statistically, mathematically incapable” of passing legislation: “She hasn’t passed legislation where she is the primary sponsor since 1996,” says Sims, arguing that calling Republican women “men with breasts” doesn’t help you get votes. “Believing the right things makes you a progressive but … it’s the job to move forward the political ideology agenda, not just be a billboard for them.”
Of course, sponsoring one’s own bills isn’t the only measure—or even the primary measure—of a legislator’s effectiveness, particularly a senior legislator who holds leadership roles. “My opponent has taken a very mechanistic and bean counter, cruncher kind of approach,” says the Representative. Josephs points to accomplishments such as helping increase the number of minority, women and veteran-owned business contracts with the Department of General Services and procuring grants for small businesses in her district as accomplishments that did not require passing a bill.
Coffee-shop talk about the race has been largely philosophical, asking whether it’s better to vote for a seasoned, hardcore woman, or the gay newcomer. District resident Chris Pinto calls Josephs “a pro-female, pro-choice, pro-GLBTQ candidate—and that’s a good representation of the district,” acknowledging that openly LGBT elected officials are indeed hugely important, “but we keep cutting off our feet and then try to run a marathon, and it never works. Of all the seats [for Sims] to try and get, why this one? Why take on the one person who's been fighting for us before he was even born?”
One longtime Josephs supporter, an elderly gent who’s decided to vote instead for Sims this year and requested anonymity, suggests: “She has been very effective in past representation, but it appears that she’s lost a certain amount of prestige on the floor in Harrisburg. I think that Brian Sims is going to bring a fresh approach … it’s hard for us in the gay community, because she’s been such a vocal and avid supporter, and I believe many of us … appreciate that.” He adds: “The one disadvantage that youth has when looking at politics is they try to be too politically correct. I’m sure if you talk to men under a certain age, none are going to bring up the fact that a male in Harrisburg can be much more effective than any female.”
Josephs is dismissive of the idea that Sims represents a more pragmatic approach, that he’d be able to get more done in Harrisburg with a can-do, cooperative attitude. “We don’t get a vote from a Republican unless you give a vote to a Republican,” she says. “What issue is Brian Sims willing to compromise to work with Republicans? I don’t compromise any Philadelphia issues, any poverty issues, any civil rights issues… What is he going to give up, whose civil rights is he going to give away, when he reaches across the aisle and compromises himself with Republicans?”
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