- Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims was first elected in 2012, defeating a 28-year incumbent.
- He was the Pennsylvania Legislature’s first openly gay lawmaker.
- Sims is now campaigning to be the state’s next lieutenant governor.
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Sen. Ted Cruz once declared him to be “hateful” and “angry,” but as Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims sees it, he’s only defending popular liberal values in a state where extreme gerrymandering – aided by some Democrats – has advantaged a minority of social conservatives.
In an interview with Insider, Sims said he also took it personally: Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast without a law expressly prohibiting employment and housing discrimination on the basis of someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation – and Sims, in 2012, became the state’s first openly gay lawmaker. (There are now three.)
“There is no question that there are a number of issues for which I feel a degree of righteous indignation,” Sims, who represents Center City in Philadelphia, said over the phone. “But my job is to pursue policies and make changes in all the ways that I know how to do it.”
That has at times caused this firebrand Democrat to go viral. In 2019, he livestreamed a confrontation with an anti-abortion activist in his district. “Who would have thought that an old white lady would be out in front of a Planned Parenthood telling people what’s right for their bodies?” he said.
That earned him both national attention and the ire of people like Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas. Pennsylvania’s GOP wanted him criminally charged with harassment.
There’s no love lost.
During a floor debate in Harrisburg earlier in June, Sims went off on the Republican caucus, which was pushing through a bill that would require hospitals to provide for the burial or cremation of fetal remains; critics saw it as a soft way of pushing an anti-abortion-rights agenda. Several Democratic women rebuked the measure and detailed their own experiences with lost pregnancies.
When it was Sims’ turn to speak, he described the GOP agenda as “grossly, predictably misogynistic” – a natural consequence, he argued, of a party whose lawmakers were disproportionately men and “100% white.” Republican leaders cut his mic while the rank-and-file jeered, which prompted a kicker from Sims: “Your boos mean nothing to me. I’ve seen what you cheer for.”
Sims is a lawyer by training. Before entering politics, he served as a staff attorney with the Philadelphia Bar Association. Before that, he played football. In 2002, his Bloomsburg University team, of which he was the captain, made it to the Division II national-championship game. Sims came out as gay immediately after. Fewer than two dozen football players at the college or professional level have come out – this week, Carl Nassib, a Las Vegas Raiders defensive end, became the latest to do so.
Sims never really wanted to become a politician. “This is not the fulfillment of a lifelong dream,” he said, adding that running in 2012 “was a very utilitarian act.” States’ legislative efforts to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people had typically been led by openly LGBTQ members – and there were still none of those in Pennsylvania.
In an often parochial city where coming from the suburbs can be a political liability, he unseated a 28-year incumbent, winning the Democratic primary by a couple of hundred votes. He now has his eyes on the lieutenant governor’s office, being vacated by John Fetterman, another outspoken progressive who has showcased how the office can be used as a platform for espousing center-left rhetoric on everything from LGBTQ rights to cannabis.
That’s part of the attraction, Sims said. Democrats have rarely controlled the state’s legislative chambers, but they fare better in statewide contests. “Pennsylvanians do not believe in this extreme, radical approach of divisive Republican politics,” he argued, pointing to the state GOP’s focus on the culture war – lately, fears about transgender athletes participating in high-school sports. Most of the party also sought to block the certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.
His pitch is also that, as a legislator, he can help what he hopes will be the state’s next Democratic governor work with Republicans on issues like funding education and reducing the cost of healthcare.
Would that entail toning down his attacks on the GOP? Not a chance. “I am authentic about what I support and why I support it,” he said. “And Pennsylvanians need to know about the bad actors in our government and how it’s impacting them.”
And Sims is no fan of a tendency in politics to look at two sides of an argument and decide that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, between the two “extremes.”
“That sort of performative, fake-ass bullshit,” he said, “of treating all of this stuff as if it’s just two sides of one coin and not attaching the real serious values, ethics, and morals to it that it’s due? That’s not my game. And it’s never going to be.”