A Pennsylvania Republican lawmaker has claimed that fellow State Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) called him on the phone, shouted at him in a profanity-laced rant, and threatened him for proposing a pro-LGBTQ piece of legislation last week.
At first blush, the charge seems odd, given Sims' status as one of only three LGBTQ lawmakers in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, and his advocacy on behalf of the community, but Rep. Thomas Murt (R-Hatboro) insists it's true.
“Before I called him, he sent me a text message that was angry, enraged, wrathful, accusing me of treating LGBTQ+ rights as a joke or a political football,” Murt told Metro Weekly in an interview.
“I immediately called him, and as soon as he picked up the phone, he launched into a verbal, hostile, and threatening attack on me personally,” Murt said. “He used the F-word. He screamed at me, he threatened me, and used God's name in vain. His threats were both valid and direct: ‘I will ruin you,' ‘You're finished,' ‘I'm going to get you for this,' ‘I'm not done with you.'
“I never knew why he was calling, because he just launched into an attack,” added Murt. “I never found out until the next day when he put up a social media post that he later took down. I could not get him to calm down and stop yelling and screaming at me…. My wife looked at me and mouthed, ‘What's going on?' She heard every word coming through the phone. I walked outside because I didn't want my family to hear the F-word anymore…. I told him before I ended the call, ‘I'm getting up early for Mass tomorrow, and I'm going to pray for you at church.'”
Murt said he then called Upper Moreland Township Police to report the threats, claiming he was worried about his family, his staff at his district office, and his constituents. He said that it is up to police to consider what charges they may file against Sims, and has declined to say whether he intended to pursue further legal action, saying only that he had a very long conversation with police.
Asked whether he would pursue a motion to censure Sims, Murt dodged the question, saying: “Right now, my concern is more the safety of my family, the safety of my staff, the safety of my constituents, and to make sure that my district office in Hatboro continues to be fully functional every day. Our office in Hatboro is the busiest in the entire state. We do more constituent work than any other office. We're very, very busy. That office needs to be open.
“In the past. Brian Sims has shut offices down and so forth — or has attempted to — and we are fearful of that, of him creating a public inconvenience and attempting to shut down the office…. He made both veiled threats and direct threats. And we are taking this threat seriously.”
Sims dismissed Murt's allegations in a since-deleted tweet, writing: “Lol in my entire life I’ve never said these things to Tom or anyone else. I did make it abundantly clear to him that killing the effort to advance LGBTQ legislation in Pennsylvania with his weird campaign effort is something that I'd make sure advocates knew about. And they do.”
Often serving as a bogeyman of sorts for Pennsylvania Republicans, Sims is known for being quick to criticize Republicans in the General Assembly for their anti-democratic antics when the press and the public largely aren't watching. But Pennsylvania and national Republicans have also sought to cast him as unhinged and irrational, particularly after he posted a video of himself heckling anti-abortion protesters outside a clinic in his district, and offering viewers money if they were able to successfully identify the protesters, including three teenage girls.
Almost half of Sims' House Republican colleagues signed onto a measure to censure him following that incident, but the measure died after he apologized to the mother of two of the girls, who had accompanied them to the protest and was subjected to his tirade.
What appears to have sparked Murt's allegation against Sims was the former's decision to circulate a memo among the members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives indicating that he intends to write and introduce an “LGBTQ Bill of Rights” that would protect LGBTQ people from various forms of discrimination in the commonwealth. Such memos are generally circulated in the hope of encouraging others to sign on in support of the bill.
Murt, who is in his seventh two-year term and is not running for re-election, says he has long supported legislation promoting LGBTQ rights and is trying to push the bill through before leaving office at the end of this year.
In the memo, Murt, joined by his fellow co-sponsors — Reps. Wendi Thomas (R-Northampton Township), Pam DeLissio (D-Philadelphia) and Kevin Boyle (D-Philadelphia) — laid forth his proposal, writing: “At the current time, members of the [LGBTQ+] community are not protected under state statute with regard to their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. This legislation does not propose special or preferential treatment to the LGBTQ+ community, only fair and equitable treatment.”
But in a series of tweets, Sims and another openly gay lawmaker, Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia), claimed that Murt's announcement of the proposed legislation was “performative” because it is not likely to pass the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
It is also viewed by some LGBTQ advocates as a way to allow Republicans to appear “moderate” on social issues ahead of an election where former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, is currently polling significantly ahead of President Donald Trump in the Pennsylvania, sparking fears of down-ticket retribution for some Republicans.
“When people circulate bills about your rights without ever speaking to you or any stakeholders,” Kenyatta wrote, tagging Sims in his Twitter post, which Sims then retweeted.
When people circulate bills about your rights without ever speaking to you or any stakeholders.
— Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta 🧼👏🏽🥁 (@malcolmkenyatta) August 4, 2020
In another tweet, Sims wrote: “I'm glad our colleagues that actually support Equality are responding with frustration as well. Authentic efforts will receive authentic success. Shadow efforts and campaign-driven efforts get the boot! No more time for performative allyship.”
Kenyatta responded with a series of “clapping hands” emoji, punctuating every word: “Don't put queer folks on your mailers while doing nothing to help queer folks.”
Don’t 👏🏽put 👏🏽queer 👏🏽folks👏🏽 on 👏🏽your 👏🏽mailers 👏🏽while 👏🏽doing 👏🏽nothing 👏🏽to 👏🏽help 👏🏽queer 👏🏽folks.
— Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta 🧼👏🏽🥁 (@malcolmkenyatta) August 4, 2020
In that thread, Sims responded to a commenter: “Things are easier when it’s clear that everyone is on the same team and has the same goals in mind. @malcolmkenyatta and I are experts at spotting performative ‘support' for LGBTQ+ rights and it's a handy skill to have when election season draws close.”
Neither Kenyatta nor Sims responded to requests for comment, although Sims did pen a piece for The Advocate in which he condemned performative allyship and accused Pennsylvania Republicans of engaging in a pattern where they introduce controversial right-wing legislation during session, only to dial back their efforts when election season comes around.
“Whether it was Republicans suddenly (but somehow unsuccessfully) supporting Equal Pay for Women the first time in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania just before Hillary Clinton was on the ballot, or pretending to provide adequate education funding after hundreds of millions of dollars in Republican cuts, just before the last gubernatorial election, they have no shame in ‘finding' an effort that is progressive just in time to send out campaign mailers, and without time to actually advance the policy,” he wrote. “And then it dies.”
He added: “Every two years our legislature essentially starts over, as it will in January. All new bills, all new efforts, sometimes even new leadership. But the ‘support' we saw at the end of the term, just before the election, is gone. It always is.
“What is left though is worse than what we startled with. The residue of failure after the fake ‘bipartisan' effort leaves a stain on the authentic effort. Always an effort that has involved countless thousands of hours of advocacy and activism, hundreds of volunteer and professional hours of work, years of collaboration, and planning.”
Asked about Sims and Kenyatta's allegations that the bill is simply an election year ploy to shore up support for Republicans, Murt told Metro Weekly that when he was serving in combat with the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq from 2003-2004, he became an Equal Opportunity Officer, where he attempted to ensure that LGBTQ+ soldiers were treated with “respect and dignity.” (Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which prevented LGBTQ soldiers from serving openly, was still in force at the time.)
“Good policy is good policy, regardless of who who proposes it, whose idea it is. If it's a good idea and it's going to make the world a better place, I think it needs to move, and it's as simple as that,” he said. “And there is no no political connection here or anything like that. I'm not running for re-election…. I've been working on these issues for a long time.”
He also claimed he has spoken to stakeholders on the bill, but did not provide names of specific people or organizations backing the proposed measure.
When asked about the timing of the LGBTQ Rights Bill, Murt pushed back against charges that his actions are politically motivated, saying that it took a “long time” — he estimates several months — to do the research into other states' laws governing LGBTQ rights to see what the best practices were.
He said, at this time, his proposed bill would contain no exemptions, and expects to have a finalized version of the legislation in about two weeks.
“The better states — California, Illinois, Hawaii, Connecticut, Maryland — we've looked at what they do, and we're going to try and emulate some of the good things they've done, some of the specific provisions that need to be addressed, relative to the LGBTQ+ community,” he said.
But critics who embrace Sims' and Kenyatta's interpretation of the legislation as “performative” note that while Murt isn't running for re-election, several potentially vulnerable Republicans are, including Thomas, currently in her first full term in office, who represents a district that includes the town of New Hope, known for its large LGBTQ population.
In addition, the Pennsylvania Capital-Star reports that Boyle has since withdrawn his name from the bill, citing the lack of collaboration with LGBTQ advocacy groups. However, DeLissio and Thomas remain listed as co-sponsors.
Calls to Thomas and DeLissio's offices seeking comment went unreturned.
Asked whether he had spoken to Republican leaders about his proposal, or whether he thought an LGBTQ Bill of Rights could receive a floor vote, Murt noted that the bill would have to go through the regular committee process, be vetted and voted on by a House committee.
After being pressed further about whether the mid-session departure of former Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Marshall Township), a known LGBTQ opponent, might make Republicans more amenable to allowing a committee vote on an LGBTQ rights bill, Murt replied: “I think that we should be discussing that. I think these are issues that need to be discerned.”
But other critics note that unless Murt's bill can receive more Republican support, it's likely dead on arrival, which is why they see it as a PR move more than a genuine effort to pass a bill, no matter how pro-LGBTQ Murt's record has been during the 14 years he's served in the House.
In a statement to the Capital-Star, Anne Wakabayashi, a Democratic political consultant and chair of Gov. Tom Wolf’s LGBTQ Commission, said that she understood Sims' frustration.
“LGBTQ protections have been floundering in the Legislature for decades and we would welcome any allies with open arms into our fight to pass comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ citizens,” she said, adding that she would “encourage” Murt to actively recruit more support for pro-LGBTQ measures.
But Mark Segal, the founder and publisher of the Gay Philadelphia News, wrote an editorial (which was subsequently re-published in the Capital-Star) in which he upbraided Sims for his behavior towards Murt, and for encouraging fellow members of the state's LGBTQ Equality Caucus not to sign onto Murt's bill. He also alleged that it is Sims who is playing political football with LGBTQ rights, noting that the lawmaker is supporting a Democrat running against Thomas in a swing district.
“Each time we introduce pro-LGBTQ legislation, we need to gain support and allies from both sides of the aisle. We shouldn't attack those allies,” Segal wrote. “Simple fact here, Sims attacked an ally who has introduced and voted for LGBTQ rights in the past.
“With Sims' failure to deliver LGBTQ non-discrimination legislation in his eight years in office, you'd think he'd support any positive LGBTQ movement in Harrisburg. Or is it because his name was not front and center this time?” questioned Segal. “Unwillingness to work with allies, no matter what party they happen to be in, might be why we have arrived at this point…. Behavior like Sims' creates enemies rather than allies. Behavior like Sims' is partly why we don’t have a non-discrimination bill in Pennsylvania…. It begs the question: how many Republican state reps will hesitate to support LGBTQ legislation after this?”
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