Here in Pennsylvania, where we have rapidly fallen behind neighboring states New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware in recent years when it comes it LGBT rights, we have zero out legislators, and zero statewide LGBT civil rights. Equality Pennsylvania has had policy wins such as working with PennDOT to make gender marker changes on driver’s licensees and photo ID’s far less invasive for transgender Pennsylvanians. Equality PA has also played a major role in passing over twenty five local non-discrimination ordinances. But, despite having some wonderful allies in Harrisburg, our best chance to finally achieve state-wide LGBT civil rights will come from electing out candidates. We have not one or two, but six chances to do that this year. In 2013, Pennsylvania could have six out, proud, qualified Representatives in our state House.
All six out candidates (that I’m currently aware of via various endorsements) are running as Democrats and all six are running in different districts for the Pennsylvania State House. Three of the candidates face primary challenges on April 24th; the other three are the only Democrats running in their districts and will run against Republicans, incumbent or otherwise, in the November general election. Pennsylvania is the second largest state to have never elected an out legislator, and each of these candidates have received various endorsements, from both LGBT and other organizations, based not on their identities but their values, abilities, and campaign platforms.
Among the six out candidates, four are gay men, all white, and two are lesbian women; one is white and one is a Muslim woman of color. To have even a third of the out candidates be women is almost twice as strong a showing as the current makeup of the Pennsylvania General Assembly (GA). According to the Center for American Women and Politics, Pennsylvania comes in at a lowly 42nd place in the nation for gender parity in legislative bodies, with only 17% of legislators being women. By comparison, Colorado leads the nation with 41%.
THREE CANDIDATES WITH APRIL 24th PRIMARIES
Roy Christ is running in a field of four other Democrats to fill the seat of retiring Democratic Representative Ronald I. Buxton. While he was won the endorsement of the statewide LGBT advocacy group Equality Pennsylvania, he did not win the endorsement of the Pittsburgh LGBT Democratic group Capitol Region Stonewall Democrats. Having served six years on Harrisburg’s school board, including two terms as president, Christ has proven political experience. Additionally, his eight years as a public school teacher has made education one of his top priorities, along with the economy and the environment. Should he succeed in the primary race, Christ would likely see a win in November, with Democrats holding the district since 1975.
Fatimah Muhammed is challenging James R. Roebuck, Jr., a twenty-seven Democratic year incumbent in her district. While Muhammed did not seek Equality PA’s endorsement, she sought and won the endorsement of Philadelphia’s LGBT Democratic club, the Liberty City Democrats. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) does not indicate that the General Assembly has any Muslim legislators, nor do I believe it has in the past, so this has the potential to be an historical victory several times over. Muhammed has a remarkable story of living through poverty and homelessness and — with the exception of her support of school vouchers, which concern many in LGBTQ communities as they may support religious schools with bigoted views — she racks up the usual progressive stances such as supporting women’s access to healthcare choices, green jobs, and reducing gun violence.
Brian Sims, whose candidacy I covered previously and who was profiled here in an “On Our Radar” column, is, like Muhammed, challenging a twenty-seven year Democratic incumbent. Endorsed by Equality PA and The Victory Fund, his Liberty City Democrats endorsement is perhaps most notable, as the organization has historically supported his opponent. While some have criticized his challenging a senior female legislator, Sims has a history of supporting gender parity in leadership, including recruiting the only woman to represent Pennsylvania to the Victory Fund’s Victory Campaign Board after he stepped down from the position to run for office. Additionally, during his time at the Philadelphia Bar Association, he worked on a team to amend the organization’s charter, the oldest such charter in the United States, to make the document gender neutral. While this is Sims’ first run for public office, he has a proven, statewide record of advocacy for LGBT and progressive issues, including his tenure as Board President of Equality Pennsylvania. Indeed, he has built and led the organizations that other out LGBT candidates now look to for support.
THREE CANDIDATES WITH UNCONTESTED PRIMARIES, SEEKING ELECTION IN NOVEMBER
Note: With the exception of this piece, I will primarily focus further reporting on candidates facing primary challenges until that primary date is past.
Jeff Dahlander will challenge 17-year Republican incumbent Sandra Major in the November election. He has begun raising funds and has secured the endorsement of Equality PA, but does not (yet) have a campaign website to spell out the issues he will be running on.
Chris Dietz, whose candidacy I’ve also previously covered, must wait for the April 24th primary results to know which Republican he will be running against. The Republican incumbent, only first elected in 2010 by a very narrow margin, has a primary challenger in the district who has won the endorsement of her party. Whether he ultimately faces an unpopular incumbent not strong enough to hold her own party’s endorsement after one term, or a candidate who has not yet held a legislative office, this is one less (or at least smaller) obstacle in the path towards a victorious campaign. Chris has served the Millersburg Borough Council since his appointment there as Chair of the Parks and Recreation Committee in 2006, and has since been elected vice president and subsequently president, the office which he currently holds. He is currently endorsed by Equality PA and the Victory Fund, as well as numerous elected officials, Democratic party committee persons, and community leaders.
Kelly McEntee will challenge Ron Marsico, a Republican incumbent of 23 years, and does so with the endorsement of Equality PA. This district has been held by Republicans since its creation in 1969, prior to which Representatives were appointed by country rather than elected under the current district system. While a district with such history presents an uphill battle to any Democratic challenger, Marsico’s history makes any progressive root all the much harder for McEntee to score a win. His voting record includes supporting a bill to constitutionally ban marriage equality in the state, and with 0% ratings from groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, his total disrespect for women’s right to make their own health choices is clear. A partnered mother of adult sons, McEntee lists education as a top priority, as well as jobs and the economy; infrastructure, and government reform.
In a state where LGBT people can still be tossed out of their homes and fired from their jobs with no legal recourse, it couldn’t be any more thrilling to have such a vibrant and qualified field of LGBT candidates seeking to become Representatives in our legislature.
Author’s note: My earlier piece “No LGBT Legislators Means No Equality” received constructive feedback from readers concerned that, in a field of six out LGBT candidates for legislature (though at that writing I had only been aware of five), I preferentially covered white, male candidates. To be clear, I focused the piece on Chris Dietz and Brian Sims because of their Victory Fund endorsements. This marks them as especially strong candidates given the historically high success rate of candidates endorsed by the Victory Fund. In this piece I will briefly explore all six candidates, and will follow up with more in-depth reporting as the campaigns progress.
J. Rudy Flesher, a Philadelphia based actor and author, holds a B.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies from The College of New Jersey, and is an award-winning feminist scholar. Ze blogs here and at The Pistol in Bed Thirteen, works with PhinLi Bookings to connect LGBTQ and sex positive talent with audiences, and is currently writing hir first book, an essay collection on the daily experiences of a genderqueer life. Ze will also be published in the forthcoming anthology “Beyond Masculinity.”
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