Brian Sims Wants to Fix Pennsylvania

AP Photo

Representative Brian Sims, a Democrat, is blocked from speaking on the floor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by a colleague citing "God's law."

Since he beat longtime incumbent Babette Josephs in the race to represent Philadelphia’s Center City, Brian Sims has made a name for himself as a strong supporter of LGBT rights. As one of the first openly gay representatives in the state—shortly after he was elected to office, Republican Mike Fleck also came out—he has introduced legislation to legalize same-sex marriage as well as an employment nondiscrimination bill protecting LGBT workers in the state. But Sims is also a strong progressive across the board: He’s voted against privatizing the state’s liquor industry, which he says would kill “good union jobs,” spoken against Republican efforts to restrict access to abortion, and fiercely criticized current Governor Tom Corbett’s massive cuts to education spending.

He most recently made headlines after a scuffle on the Pennsylvania state house floor in which he was blocked from speaking about the Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act, which a Republican colleague said would violate “God’s law.” The Prospect recently sat down with Sims to talk about where things are headed in Pennsylvania.

You were recently in the news after House Speaker Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican, blocked your speaking on the House floor about the Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act, saying it was "open rebelling against God's law."

I told the speaker I wanted just to reference the enormity of the decisions as a civil-rights attorney. I wanted to talk about their impact. I wasn’t going to talk about Pennsylvania. I wasn’t going to talk about the [same-sex marriage] bills that are out there. I just wanted to reference the historical nature of the cases. The chairman who objected to me speaking said that my speaking would be against the will of God. There are countries all over the world founded expressly on some faith—we are not one of them. People say because our founding fathers were men of faith the institution are therefore faith-based institutions. That is sort of like saying McDonald’s is a faith-based institution because its founder was a Christian. 

You've developed a reputation for reaching out to your colleagues across the aisle, but how do you work with someone as extreme as Daryl Metcalfe? Do you think he's a nice guy? 

I don’t, and I don’t mind saying that. I don’t think he thinks I should be able to have the job that I do. But I find him to be very useful. As a progressive, there are times that I get very frustrated with the extreme, far left of the party. I not only think that they can detract from the greater good of the ideology, but give ammunition to our opponents. That’s what Chairman Metcalfe does for Democrats. He offers us an opportunity to see what the other side would, could, and wants to do if given the chance.

Are you religious? 

My faith is in mankind. I am not a recovering Catholic. I am fully recovered. I have a lot of respect for the anthropology of people’s faith. I know too many people with deep and abiding faith for me to take an issue with it. I would never force my beliefs or lack of beliefs on anybody else. I expect that same treatment. 

Many people are surprised the politics of Pennsylvania are so conservative. Republicans control both houses of the legislature and the governorship, but polling shows the electorate skews left. What would you say to them? 

Years ago I was a fellow of the Center for Progressive Leadership, which originated here in Pennsylvania. One of the things that I recognized then about Philadelphia I am now learning to be true of the progressive political class as well: Everybody who was doing good, solid progressive work on everything from housing security to nutritional justice was between the ages of 25 and 40. We were everybody’s deputy. We were everybody’s assistant. We were in all these places of influence doing all this work, but we were always second in command. As some of our kingmakers have gone away, the politics of the city have started to clear up. It presented an opportunity for somebody like me to get involved.

How much of the problem do you think is gerrymandering and other attempts to stop minority voters from casting a ballot?

We are just getting out of redrawing our districts. Republicans controlled it and did such an overzealous job that it got held up in the courts. That should surprise nobody. We’ve seen over the last eight to ten years a nationwide dismantling of voting rights in what you would call mixed districts. For one of the longest times we had the most gerrymandering district in our country here in Pennsylvania. But as we’ve seen from our presidential elections, it’s not insurmountable. We aren’t a purple state when it comes to the presidency anymore; we are a blue state.

As for Pennsylvania’s voter-ID law, it has been held up in the courts. It really is intended to keep Democrats from voting. Do I expect it to become law? I think I do. I think this is going to be something that we have to work to repeal. I don’t think that the courts are going to do it.

Pennsylvania has recently become another battleground in the “war on women.” 

Two or three years ago when I began to think about running for office, I wasn’t thinking that I’d be debating issues that I thought our Supreme Court resolved 20 and 30 years ago. In April we had to vote on House Bill 818, which would ban private insurance companies from offering insurance to women to cover abortions, which they have a constitutional right to. Not only did we vote to enact the ban, but 36 Democrats in the state House voted for it. I simply don’t understand any political ideology that says that it supports free markets, that says that it supports that Constitution to then does something like this. So I took to the floor and said so

Philadelphia schools are facing a serious shortfall. The city recently had to borrow $50 million in order to open them on time this fall.

When the current governor took office two years ago, he cut the education budget by a billion dollars. This year he gave back $100 million in his budget and called it the largest expansion of education funding in Pennsylvania’s history. That is just insane. As one of my colleagues said, we are begging for money and here our governor is building a $400 million prison right outside of Philadelphia. A private company—one that is not even based in Pennsylvania—will be running the prison. By underfunding the schools, you are creating customers for them [the private prison company]. It’s a fiscal issue, too: It costs $15,000 to educate someone and $37,000 to imprison them.

On which issues do you think progressives are about to make headway?

I’m hoping that fracking is one of them. As much as I would love for us to ban all fracking, it is not going to happen anytime soon. What we need to do in the meantime is have a severance tax. Right now the corporations drilling in Pennsylvania are paying less than they do to drill in any other state in the country. What our leadership would have us believe is that if we charge them the going rate, they would leave. That just isn’t true. Part of the reason that we need to charge this severance tax is to literally insure them against what they are doing—if there is massive ecological damage, they should have those bases covered.

You get a lot of attention from the gay community. When you post something on Facebook, someone will invariably respond with a “woof!” Do you find it flattering? Does it get old?

It just depends on my mood. But I can tell you now I understand when a women walks by a construction site and gets catcalls, how she feels afterward. You can’t think that could be flattering or would work. You know that woman has never walked back to the construction site and said, “Hey, take me out to dinner!” One of the big problems—certainly in politics, and it lends itself to all debate—is just a lack of respect, a lack of decorum. If you wouldn’t sit down at a table with me and openly woof at everyone who knows me, why would you do it on a Facebook page? I could post that I just discovered the cure for cancer and someone would post “woof” in response. 

Pennsylvania is one of the few states left in the region that neither recognizes nor performs same-sex marriages. You introduced a same-sex-marriage bill in June, but with Republicans in control of both chambers of the Pennsylvania legislature and the governorship, getting marriage equality through the legislature seems highly unlikely. 

Not under this governor—how’s that? If somehow we were able to convince this Republican-controlled legislature to pass a marriage-equality bill, I’m pretty sure that this governor wouldn’t sign it. So we are working hard to get our governor replaced. All of the Democratic candidates support marriage equality. I’ve backed Congresswoman Allison Schwartz, who has made it clear that she is a full supporter of LGBT civil rights. Changing the top of our representative pyramid would be the most powerful thing that we do in the next two or three years toward equality. 

Pennsylvania bans same-sex marriage by statute, but Lambda Legal has recently filed a lawsuit challenging it. How confident are you that it will succeed?

The ban is actually not just an expression of support for heterosexual marriage; it is an overt statement against equality. That makes it more susceptible to a legal challenge. What’s more, our attorney general, Kathleen Kane, refused to defend it in court. That wasn’t a political decision that she made because she is a Democrat and likes gay people. Her job is to wake up every morning and look at the legal landscape and make sure that Pennsylvania law still falls within the bounds of constitutionality. Our top lawyer tells us that a law that is on our books is in violation of the U.S. Constitution. That’s a good position to be going into.

What do you totally hate about being a politician? 

A totally honest answer is that I find it nearly impossible to date. Honey, I’ll be home at 6:30, 8:30, I mean tomorrow, next Wednesday. My priority is 100 percent is this job. Yes, it is more important than you. That’s a lousy thing to say to somebody, so I’m finding myself just not dating. I don’t see my schedule getting lighter or things slowing down so that is an internal struggle. Am I being foolish because I can’t view myself at 10,000 feet and know that I need to get out there? I am struggling with that. 

Do you imagine wanting to shift the balance and work less in the future? 

I’m supposed to say yes, like of course I want to balance my life more. But no. 

Russia recently passed an anti-LGBT “propaganda” law, which outlaws public expressions of support for gay right. How do you feel about the calls from some American gay-rights activists to boycott the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia?

I don’t at all believe in a boycott. We are at our best when we are physically there. Having the world’s eyes on an event provides a good opportunity to express support for civil rights. Let’s take a rainbow glove into the air from atop a podium to draw attention to the issue. Civil disobedience is not new to the LGBT community and I think that us being there presents so many more opportunities for us to divide the Russian people from Putin. I think this is going to be a huge case of the emperor not having any clothes and the emperor is Putin.

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