Metro Weekly

Congressional Wisdom: An interview with Wisconsin Representative Mark Pocan

Mark Pocan has some ideas on how Democrats can win back Congress, starting with actually listening to voters.

Rep. Mark Pocan – Photo: Todd Franson

“You’ve got to understand,” says Representative Mark Pocan, “Madison has always been a kind of Shangri-La for people [in Wisconsin] who are gay or lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. That’s why we had all the gay elected officials back in the early and mid-eighties. Interestingly, at that period of time, there were more ‘out’ elected officials in Dane County, Wisconsin, than the entire state of California.”

The Wisconsin congressman’s sexuality has never been a hurdle during his years in political office — hardly surprising, given his seat in liberal Madison. But Wisconsin was also the first state in the country to pass a law in 1982 prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, housing, credit, education, and public accommodations.

Across his state, Pocan has seen a change in the attitudes toward LGBTQ elected officials over the years. Just over a decade ago, voters backed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Now, polls show a majority support marriage equality.

“When I first was on the county board, or even running for office, I would get articles with ‘Dead Faggot’ over my face sent to me,” Pocan says. “That was in Madison.”

In June 1995, while serving on the Dane County Board of Supervisors, Pocan was invited to the Clinton White House as part of a contingent of 40 openly gay elected officials. When they arrived, a few members of the Secret Service had donned rubber gloves for fear of contracting HIV through casual contact with LGBTQ people. Vice President Al Gore was so incensed by the snub, he made a point of shaking hands with all of the elected officials. President Bill Clinton later apologized, both through a spokeswoman and in a letter sent to members of the delegation. Pocan has the apology — along with a copy of the invitation and a pair of green rubber gloves — framed and mounted in his congressional office.

Pocan grew up in a lower-middle class household, where he would help out after school in his father’s specialty printing shop. Ever the showman, Mark began performing magic tricks at age eight, eventually winning a junior magician contest in his home state. It was a skill he’d later rely on to help put himself through college. These days, Pocan performs tricks on camera and posts a video to his official Facebook page as part of a “Magic Monday” series that highlights broader political issues.

Pocan’s earliest political involvement stretches back to his childhood in Kenosha, where his father served on the city council. He remembers knocking on doors, attending various meetings, watching his dad in action. In high school and college, Pocan volunteered for gubernatorial candidate Tony Earl’s successful 1982 campaign, as well as for local state races. After earning a bachelor’s in journalism, he followed in his father’s footsteps, opening his own specialty printing business, which is still operating under the watchful eye of his husband of 14-and-a-half years, Philip Frank.

At the encouragement of a high-ranking official within the state Democratic Party, Pocan pursued a seat on the board of supervisors. He served alongside Tammy Baldwin, now the first out U.S. senator. Pocan would later succeed Baldwin as both a member of the Wisconsin Assembly and, subsequently, as U.S. Representative for Wisconsin’s 2nd District.

Despite his party’s struggles with voters in recent years, including its almost complete disappearance at the local level in large swaths of the country, Pocan believes Democrats can rebound from their current low point. But that will require addressing people’s concerns, as well as being organized enough to oppose the more unpopular parts of President Trump’s agenda.

“We had millions of people getting out there the day after the inauguration and around the country,” he says. “I think our job is to make sure that we’re listening to what the people want, and not being too ‘inside the Beltway’ about our approach.”

METRO WEEKLY: When did you first know you were gay?

MARK POCAN: Probably in high school. You probably always know it. Growing up in Kenosha, I didn’t have a lot of other gay people to look to as examples.

MW: When did you first come out?

POCAN: After college, during my first couple years of having a business.

MW: How did your family react when you first came out?

POCAN: They were fine, very supportive, and it never was an issue. It was actually funny, because my brother’s also gay. I remember my mom said to me, “Well, we always assumed you were, but you know, your brother’s the one that was the surprise.”

MW: Did you ever experience any problems as a gay man?

POCAN: I was leaving one of the gay bars in Madison, and two people followed me. And right on the side of State Street, the main drag in Madison, between the Capitol and the university, they beat me with a baseball bat, called me “faggot,” all those things. I was knocked unconscious and had to be taken to the hospital to get some stitches.

It’s kind of hard to be in the closet and experience things like that. But that helped me get active with LGBT organizations in my area. It was the spark of some activism.

MW: What’s it like being one of six openly LGBTQ congressmen in the House, and how has that changed since you were elected?

POCAN: Well, first of all, we have the Equality Caucus. We’ve got 106 members. A good chunk of the Democratic Caucus are members, and people vie to be co-chairs or vice-chairs of the caucus. But occasionally you need someone who has lived through a certain experience to be that spokesperson. For a while, I was the only married gay member. Now, Sean Patrick Maloney and Randy are married. That provides a unique perspective. To me, it’s important to have the various members with their unique experiences out there talking about it.

For example, when I got elected, they weren’t going to give Phil the spousal ID, even though we had been married, at that time, for six years. We had to fight to get it. Instead, he was going to be my “designee.” It’s very romantic: “This is my designee, Phil.” We decided to fight it. Nancy Pelosi helped us. It took a couple of months, and I finally got a call that said, “You know what? If you’ve got to go to the press or do whatever you’re going to do, do it. Because it doesn’t look like they’re going to budge.” And then we got another call. “Wait, wait, wait. There’s movement.” John Boehner had said it’s not really up to him, it’s up to the Sergeant at Arms. And at that point, they said they’d give it to Phil. And so we had him fly out right away to get the ID before they changed their minds.

MW: Have other congresspersons ever asked you a personal question about being LGBTQ?

POCAN: I’ve never had anyone ask me a real personal question about it or try to understand it. But I like to make people — especially those who may not be the most equality-friendly — start to understand.

One of my projects has been Jim Jordan from Ohio, who used to be the head of the Freedom Caucus, and signs on to most of the anti-LGBT legislation in Congress. He just happened to go to UW-Madison during the exact same four years I did. And so he and I have been very friendly because we’ve got the Badger connection. Three of his kids went to Madison and one wrestled for UW. And one time he was coming in for a wrestling match and there was a really bad snowstorm. And my husband was picking me up, and he was going to miss his kids’ match. And I’m thinking, “This is my chance to give him a ride with a gay couple. He’s going to have this conversation. It’s going to be great.” He was going to get a ride with us. Unfortunately, they lost my luggage that day, so he wound up taking a cab.

Chairman Aderholt [of Alabama], on the Agriculture Subcommittee, is someone who, again, has been a loud supporter of the Family Research Council and others. He and I have become very friendly working on the committee. One day I was talking to him and his daughter was in his office. And somehow I mentioned my husband, and I could see there was a partial second of a thing. But then it was nothing. So even if you’re just helping people to understand at that point, that matters, and can be helpful.

Rep. Mark Pocan – Photo: Todd Franson

MW: Donald Trump has tried to sell himself as an ally to the LGBTQ community. As a gay man, where do you think this administration actually stands on LGBTQ issues?

POCAN: I think what Trump probably meant to say was, “I have a gay friend.” Beyond that, I think maybe Ivanka and Jared are probably okay on issues. Trump has pretty much showed us that he’s letting Steve Bannon run the White House. And, you know, unless you’re a white nationalist and happen to be gay, you’re probably not going to get a lot of access to this White House.

MW: Have you met with the president or the vice president?

POCAN: No. Pence came before a committee before he was vice president, but that’s the closest I’ve gotten.

MW: If you did meet with them, what would you discuss?

POCAN: If it was the Equality Caucus meeting — which is one of the things that we are trying to get done so that we can get a chance to raise those issues — I’d just say, “Look, during the campaign you were pretty clear on where you were, and we appreciate that stance. And it was important to have an openly gay person on the floor of the Republican Convention during primetime.” And give him the proper kudos where it should be.

But then I’d make sure that that’s something that’s a living promise — it didn’t just end when the election happened. Because there have been enough slow regression moves we’ve seen since he’s come in, whether it be the census, or certain people getting appointments. Then we just have concerns. We didn’t see that executive order yet on religious liberty — if that would happen, certainly that would be a very big step backwards.

MW: What can Democrats do to stop the president’s agenda and how can they rally public opinion to their side?

POCAN: I know it’s a bumper sticker, but I repeat it a lot because I think it’s true: “If the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow.” People are leading right now. They are reaching out to our offices like never before. We had 7,300 contacts last week against the Trumpcare proposal and only 54 for it. That’s a large number of constituents on any individual issue. Most offices got 2,000 to 3,000.

I think a lot of people who have been here for a very long time see politics as a dance that everyone does, and that there’s certain rules to the theater. I don’t belong to that school. I think that things like impeachment have to be mentioned as part of your recourse if they would do things like peel back the sanctions on Russia, given what I know from reading classified reports on Russian involvement. That’s the wrong direction. And that’s why we want these independent commissions. I think we have to be listening — and 46 percent of the people want impeachment. We just have to keep every option open and make sure we’re doing our jobs, because the public wants us to be more aggressive.

MW: What needs to happen for impeachment to be considered?

POCAN: If you actually read the legal threshold, it sounds like you’ve had several dozen things that would be impeachable. But the problem is that’s just the very loose language they have. I think it’s important to keep it as an option when we see things that are happening that we think are either illegal or improper. We need to keep saying, look, there’s plenty of different ways. We have resolutions of disapproval leading up to, potentially, impeachment. But we’ve got to keep all options open.

I do have great concern over not separating the business interests. Because every decision he makes, you’ve got that Emoluments Clause issue. You know, is that why he’s doing something? Is it in the best interest of the country or the best interest for the Trump company? And there’s certain things that he just has to do to make it right.

And if it turns out that there is collusion between his campaign and the Russians, then that would certainly be something that people would look at along the lines of potential impeachment. Because the intelligence community has said publicly that the Russians influenced our elections and wanted Donald Trump to win. We all know that. Those are now truisms. The question is did the Trump campaign know about it and did they at all do anything to aid in the timing and abetting?

I tell people back home — and I’ve had people, literally since the first week after the election, wanting me to introduce articles of impeachment — “Look, like any prosecutor, you wait until you have a case that not only is compelling but completely convincing, given you need Republican votes for it.” So it would be premature to have anything introduced at this point. But I think we have to keep it available to, quite honestly, keep the White House in check so that they don’t keep bending the system. We just have to understand this is a very different administration and White House. And we just can’t give up our power during the process.

MW: How do you respond to the president when he tweets?

POCAN: Well it’s hard, because it’s how he’s decided to communicate. He started this false narrative of fake news being real news. He started alternative facts, which used to be lies. And now, we’ve got him basically using his own channel of communication to put out his own propaganda. So it’s different, right?

MW: You must read some of his tweets and just get irate.

POCAN: Especially when it’s the 4:30 in the morning on Saturday, where you guarantee there’s no staffer there when he did it. Those are the ones where you’re like, “D’oh!” You know, it’s like, “Why did you do that again?”

One that drove me especially crazy recently was when he went after John Lewis. That one was [behind] my decision not to go to the Inaugural. John Lewis is a national hero and icon for the Civil Rights Movement and the nicest person in Washington. And to say that he’s all talk and no action when he had his head beaten in fighting for civil rights, it’s like, “Dude, you’ve got to stop using Twitter.”

And then when he accused President Obama of tapping his wires and called him a bad, sick person. Not only is it some manifestation of his fantasy or he got it from Breitbart or one of those fake news sources, the fact that he did say that about a former president puts our relationships internationally in jeopardy.

Those are the things that make me very concerned. And while I do think there are checks and balances for many domestic issues with what he does, and we do have a legal system, I worry about that five in the morning tweet that Kim Jong-un decides he gets pissed off at and does something stupid. And then we’ve got an international incident. That’s the part I worry about most.

MW: How can Democrats win back voters, particularly white working-class voters?

POCAN: I serve as the first vice-chair of the Progressive Caucus. A lot of our messaging is around this. I think they’re right that the Democratic Party recently has often been too associated with being a party of the elite and not of the working class.

In Wisconsin, we had 200,000 fewer Democrats turn out this election cycle. Where I grew up in Kenosha County, 14,000 people used to make cars and were union members — UAW, United Auto Workers. That still is a blue-collar town. The problem is no one makes cars anymore in that town. Now, there’s an Amazon distribution center that advertises up to $12.75 an hour. If your kids are making less than the parents did three decades ago, they feel like no one’s had their back. So who do they vote for? No one. They chose not to even come out to vote. And that’s the real problem.

I think we have to get back to our core economic message, because most people don’t think about the finer details of public policy that we debate around here. What they care about is: Can they pay their mortgage? Can they send their kids to college? Can they take a vacation that year? Can they maybe get that one extra luxury? You know, can you get a camper or snowmobile? I grew up in a lower-middle class family, and that was the sign of success. That was the one purchase you had above and beyond. But that’s what people talk about. And if you’re not talking about those issues, quite honestly, you’re not talking to voters.

I think we just really have to have the backs of the middle class and those aspiring to be in the middle class. If you do that, we are back to a majority party. But sometimes it’s more difficult than you think to really get that idea across. But our everyday thought on any issue should be based on how it affects the middle class and those aspiring to be there.

MW: Has the Democratic party, in openly embracing LGBTQ issues, gone a little too fast for Middle America?

POCAN: No. Some people are trying to spin that in civil rights and issues like that. I would argue it’s the economic elitism that’s turned people off. You know, when you are busy cozying up and raising big, big dollars from either uber-rich people or from corporations like pharmaceutical companies that don’t generally seem to have the backs of the middle class, that’s the stuff that’s turned people off. Because you’re not listening to real people. And quite honestly, Hillary Clinton had a lot of that perception.

Are there folks’ votes we didn’t get that are working class who also happen to be racist and xenophobic? Yes. But we’re probably never going to get those votes. So I’m not going to go out and figure out how to try to get them into the coalition. But I am going to try to bring back the people who’ve backs we’ve always had.

Republicans aren’t looking out for people economically. Trump gave easy answers, but no solutions on things around trade and stuff like that. Look at how he’s governing now. It’s not what he promised voters. We have to make sure people realize that and talk about what they want to talk about. But I don’t think LGBT issues or civil rights or other issues like that were what separated us. I think it was an economic elitism that really created the separation.

MW: If you listen to talk radio, it’s the social issues they bring up, even if they’re mad about the economic issues.

POCAN: Because that’s what the right wing has told them [to be mad about]. It’s what the echo chamber tells them. But the reality is the right wing is never going to throw pharmaceutical companies and oil companies under the bus. Those are their buds. That’s the people they hang out with at Mar-a-Lago.

So they throw someone else. I mean, think about it. Ten years ago, it was marriage equality that was the big, evil issue. And once people realized they knew someone who was gay or lesbian, we had marriage equality across the country. Then after that, they went after immigration, immigrants. And now — even though there’s a large part that want a wall — general public opinion understands we need a path to citizenship. You’ve had progression.

Right now, I would argue public employees and unions are in the same place the LGBT movement was a decade ago. They’re actually at the rock bottom. They’re getting all the abuses. They’re losing their members. Laws are going after them. But I would argue if we’ve seen what’s happened with the LGBT movement, I think we’re seeing that happen with immigration, and hopefully that’ll happen with labor.

MW: Do you think more people from underrepresented groups, either minorities or women or LGBTQ people, will react by getting involved politically?

POCAN: I hope so. I mean, part of stepping up on this is that people can [do it on] different levels. You can call your reps if you didn’t call your elected officials before, you can get involved with groups that are doing activism locally and nationally, things to magnify your voice. We encourage people to do that.

But you could also run for office. One of the things the Victory Fund does especially well, at least in the LGBT community, is trying to get people out. When they have training I can attend or a function or a national conference, I usually try to get to it, because we want to encourage people to do just that. It’s the Ann Richards statement that Tammy Baldwin and everyone in the world always says: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re likely on the menu.” It’s true, you know. And when you are able to be a part of where the conversations are made, where the laws are made, you can impact that.

When you look at the floor of Congress, it’s especially telling. On the Democratic side of the room, you’ve got men and women of all different races. On the other side, you’ve got a bunch of white men in dark suits, all over 55 or so. It’s such a contrast. That’s not representative of the country. We really need to get people making sure that everyone has a voice.

MW: How can Democrats harness opposition to Trump during coming elections?

POCAN: From my Wisconsin experience with Act 10 — which are the collective bargaining changes — we had 10,000 to 40,000 people a day at the Capitol Monday through Friday, and on the weekend 100,000 people would show up. One of the difficulties was there’s a statutory amount of time until you get to a recall election. And if you didn’t have something for people to constantly do, they could lose [interest]. You’ve got to keep giving them things to do and, quite honestly, victories.

One of the great things that Donald Trump has done for us is that he’s giving us lots of things to do. And we’ve had lots of victories. Whether it be defeating Trumpcare, or defeating the Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder, who thinks robots are better than people and is a violator of labor law, or defeating the gutting of the ethics laws for members of Congress. There have been a whole lot of things that people are winning on.

So when I go back home, I try to spread that. Because I think people realize there is a connection to what they’re doing, and they are having victories. It gives them the strength and energy to go that next step and do more. And we just have to sustain it into the next election cycle.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com