The campaign for Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia), running to be the Keystone State’s next lieutenant governor, is claiming that one of his rivals — State Rep. Austin Davis (D-McKeesport) — misrepresented the level of support he’s receiving from LGBTQ community leaders as he seeks the Democratic Party’s nomination.
On March 3, Davis appeared with Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for governor in this November’s midterm elections, at the William Way LGBT Community Center to announce that the pair had been jointly endorsed by a group of approximately 40 LGBTQ leaders from around the commonwealth. But only seven people actually attended and spoke at the event — at least three of whom had either endorsed Sims or have taken a neutral stance in the lieutenant governor’s race.
The event, and the decision to endorse Davis over Sims, was cast by some media outlets as a stinging rebuke of Sims, the first openly gay person elected to the Pennsylvania legislature and one of only three out LGBTQ elected officials serving in the House of Representatives. Media outlets, including the Philadelphia Gay News, then reported on the endorsements, portraying Sims as unable to garner support among LGBTQ leaders, despite having established a “brand” as an LGBTQ advocate.
But Anne Wakabayashi, a spokesperson for the Sims campaign, told Metro Weekly that some of its own supporters had been lured to the event under false pretenses, under the assumption that they’d be talking about the importance of pro-LGBTQ legislation, particularly a statewide nondiscrimination law.
Wakabayashi further asserted that the event was deliberately staged by outside organizers as a way to attack Sims in order to settle personal grudges.
“We think folks are more than welcome to support whoever they think will be best suited to forward and advance LGBTQ legislation,” Wakabayashi said. “There are folks that have endorsed our opponent, and we fully understand that. However, the deceitful attempts to fill a room and imply an endorsement from a marginalized group, to have them show up to try and forward legislation,…and to be used as pawns in an endorsement event for a candidate that they don’t even support and who hasn’t been there on our issues at all, is quite frankly, not the behavior of an ally.”
One speaker at the event who has endorsed Sims’ bid for lieutenant governor was Tyler Titus, a former candidate for Erie County Executive who sought to become the first out transgender county executive in the United States. Another speaker was Kendall Stephens, a transgender woman and LGBTQ rights activist whom the Sims camp counts among its supporters.
The LGBTQ Victory Fund, an organization seeking to elect more LGBTQ individuals to public office, decried the alleged misrepresentation of the Shapiro event.
“Truth is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy and political process,” the organization, which has endorsed Sims’ candidacy, said in a statement. “The notion that LGBTQ leaders and community groups may have been invited to an event under false pretenses to imply their endorsement is unacceptable. In the face of the barrage of anti-LGBTQ attacks our community is actively fighting today, we owe it to ourselves to always treat each other with respect and honesty.”
The Shapiro campaign pushed back against “incorrect” allegations that the number of LGBTQ leaders endorsing the Shapiro-Davis ticket was inflated, providing Metro Weekly with a list of 42 names from across the commonwealth. That spokesperson also asserted that it was obvious in pre-event email correspondence that the press conference was intended to serve as an endorsement of both Shapiro and Davis.
“Throughout their careers, Josh Shapiro and Austin Davis have built broad coalitions and brought people together to get things done,” said Will Simons, a spokesperson for the Shapiro for Pennsylvania campaign, in a statement. “As a governing team, and as Pennsylvania’s next Governor and Lieutenant Governor, that’s the approach they’ll bring to Harrisburg — and they will fully exercise their political capital to finally pass nondiscrimination legislation and advance equality.”
An email chain obtained by Metro Weekly showed some individuals talking about the “Shapiro-Davis” campaign. One of the emails in the chain contains attachments touting the positions of Shapiro and Davis on LGBTQ rights. In another email, confirming the event location, Titus responded, saying they are “looking forward to connecting, elevating and empowering.”
But Titus told Metro Weekly that, at the time, they were engaged in communication though multiple email chains and phone calls, both with people from the Shapiro-Davis campaign and LGBTQ activists who are unaffiliated with the campaign but played a major role in planning the event.
Titus said they were first invited to participate by a person unaffiliated with the Shapiro-Davis campaign, and had phone and email conversations with that person and a second organizer, also unaffiliated with the Shapiro-Davis campaign.
“It was presented to me that it was going to be a meeting to talk about these issues,” Titus said. “And then the Monday before, I received an email from that person who invited me, saying, ‘We are having a letter that is going out to show you are joining on the Shapiro-Davis ticket. Will you sign on, name only?’ To which I responded, ‘No, I can’t sign on endorsing Austin Davis, as I’ve already said my pick, my candidate was Brian Sims in the primary. But I will proudly still endorse Josh Shapiro.’
“There was another set of emails that came out talking about the lay of the land, so to speak, for the press conference,” Titus said, noting that he was driving from Erie, on the other side of the state, to Philadelphia, while these back-and-forth email exchanges were being sent.
“We received the layout the night before. I was driving and had said, ‘Yes, I will be there, and again, on the phone, clarified, ‘I’m coming, but only in support of Josh Shapiro. Do you still want me to attend?’ It was relayed to me, ‘Yes, still come, still show up. This is important that, as the queer community, we still show up for Josh Shapiro. You can direct your comments to be about Josh Shapiro.’ I had already sent the email that said ‘Do not use my name for the double sign-on.'”
Upon arriving, Titus was handed an article, printed prior to the conference, containing their name in the list of endorsers. They objected, and quickly discovered that the organizer — who was supposed to serve as a “middle man” between Titus and the Shapiro-Davis campaign — had failed to communicate his reservations about endorsing Davis.
Additionally, Titus said, the attachments referencing the “Shapiro-Davis” ticket were sent out after they had responded to the email confirming the time and place — and provided Metro Weekly with a copy of an email registering his objections. But organizers stopped corresponding via email and called Titus on his phone instead.
“The minute that the attachments came out is when everything switched over to phone calls,” Titus said.
“I was, and still am, proud to support Jeff Shapiro, and will knock 100 doors any day for Josh Shapiro,” they continued. “And if Austin Davis gets through, will do the exact same thing for him after the primary. But the beauty of democracy is you get to pick the candidates that most align with you and your values up until the primary. And so that’s that’s where I am.”
Titus said they believe they were used as a pawn in a “power play” by individuals set on embarrassing Sims by trying to undermine his support within the LGBTQ community — although they place the blame squarely on the activists, not on the Shapiro-Davis campaign itself.
“I think this is the side of politics that people get frustrated with,” they said. “It’s a power play. And I think what is the most disheartening about all of this is: this was a meeting about empowering queer people, yet this process has done nothing but disempower queer voices.
“I feel very used by the organizers to carry out their own personal agendas. But I was trying to be a voice for my community and in being a voice that said, ‘Okay, you actually can’t use my voice in ways that I didn’t agree to.’ Now there’s this attempt to try to silence it again, and that’s the very reason this meeting was supposed to be happening — to not silence queer voices.”
The Sims campaign has also accused Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News and one of the leaders endorsing the Shapiro-Davis ticket, of using coverage of the event and hyping its significance to attack Sims.
Segal has previously been critical of Sims for having an abrasive personality and for failing to work with fellow lawmakers to pass a comprehensive LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill in his 10 years in Harrisburg. In 2020, Segal wrote an editorial eviscerating Sims for alienating Republican lawmakers, who hold the majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Segal was referring to allegations made by former State Rep. Thomas Murt (R-Hatboro) that Sims threatened him for introducing a nondiscrimination bill and pressured members of the Pennsylvania LGBTQ Equality Caucus, a bipartisan group made up of pro-LGBTQ allies, not to sign onto Murt’s bill.
But Sims and another gay lawmaker, Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia) — who is currently running for the U.S. Senate — had implied in a tweet thread that Murt’s legislation was “performative” and an attempt to help bolster the election chances of moderate Republican lawmakers who claim to be pro-LGBTQ but who have failed to do the legwork to help get nondiscrimination protections passed.
Prior to last week’s event, Segal penned another editorial attacking Sims, accusing him of failing to deliver on campaign promises and using his position in politics to create a “national brand” while failing to do the work to build the necessary coalitions to ensure passage of pro-LGBTQ legislation.
“Sims may be great as a speaker on LGBT issues, and he has taken his position in politics and built it into a national brand. But this is a race about Pennsylvania,” Segal wrote. “Sims simply has not delivered what he first promised to Pennsylvanians 10 years ago, the passage of the Equality Bill. Maybe it’s because he has more supporters outside his district than he does inside his district….
“We find ourselves in this situation due in part to Sims’ actions. What we expected to get in Harrisburg was a full-time out representative, not a tourist looking for the next camera opportunity. Sims has used our fight for LGBT equality to create a brand. Rather than take the time to learn the legislative process and diplomacy and actually get something done, he had outbursts on the floor of the House. While the opposition deserved his outburst, they also found him an easy target to bait, and he took it. It created a situation that the bills introduced simply evaporated into thin air.
“The fact is there are the votes to get the bill passed, but it takes diplomacy to get the other party to move it through the committees. There are those who could do that, but Sims’ name on it does not help. Add to that that he actually stopped a bipartisan LGBTQ+ bill from being introduced,” Segal concluded, citing Sims’ altercation with Murt.
Wakabayashi said Segal’s comments are a “complete misrepresentation” of Sims’ career.
“Brian has been at the forefront of forwarding LGBTQ and generally progressive legislation for the better part of 10 years, since he’s been in office,” she said. “I think it is really hard in Pennsylvania to be a progressive Democrat. [The state] has a legislature controlled by a majority party that has no interest in protecting LGBTQ folks. We’ve made a lot of progress over the last few years, but at the end of the day, one man alone cannot move a body of 203 people to get something done on his own without support, without support from leadership, without support from the opposing party. It is completely unfair to blame Brian and Brian alone for the lack of LGBTQ protections in the state.”
She argued that while Sims has gained a national profile, it has been because he has done the work on advocating for LGBTQ rights and progressive causes, adding, “I think the ‘brand’ came as a result of the work he’s been doing for a decade in office.”
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