Rookie lawmaker sets his own course

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     Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims Tuesday announced he's running to unseat 11-term U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah.He's the third person to challenge the 58-year-old Fattah in next year's Democrat primary. (AP file photo)

    Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims Tuesday announced he's running to unseat 11-term U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah.He's the third person to challenge the 58-year-old Fattah in next year's Democrat primary. (AP file photo)

    It’s always fascinating when you see a politician who defies convention and thumbs his nose at the rules of the game.

    It’s a lot of what made Chris Christie such an appealing character before that whole you-know-what thing.

    Take Brian Sims, the lawyer who two years ago won a tough race to become the first openly gay candidate to win a seat in the Pennsylvania legislature. He’s charting an interesting course for a rookie lawmaker.

    State legislatures are places where power comes with longevity, and the typical freshman legislator in his mid-30s knows he’ll have to warm a back bench and pay some dues. Larry Ceisler, the publisher of Politics Pa said the rules of behavior are pretty simple.

    “You basically avoid controversy, you get involved in issues that you know your constituents are going to support, and you don’t take chances,” Ceisler, said. “You just try to make friends and not enemies.”

    “Nobody told me that,” Sims said I when offered that bit of wisdom in an interview in his office.

    “What I’d always heard is that these seats are incredibly valuable, that we have no time to waste,” Sims said, “that there are not opportunities for these seats to be inert. They’re just simply too important, especially coming out of Philadelphia.”

    A cardinal rule for a Democratic officer-holder in Philadelphia is that you back other incumbents. It’s another rule nobody seems to have told Sims.

    He’s actively supporting primary challenges to two lawmakers from his party — State Rep. Margo Davidson from Delaware County, who’s voted for school vouchers and abortion restrictions, and State Rep. Mark Cohen of Northeast Philadelphia, the longest-serving member of the General Assembly.

    Cohen is known for sometimes eccentric behavior, and Sims made news with a recent Facebook post which said in part, “Virtually every single person in the Capital has a story about Mark being lost in a bathroom, or arguing with the plants or with the pictures on the wall.”

    When I asked Sims about that, he said might have chosen better words, but stands by the content of the post.

    “Absolutely, one-hundred percent,” Sims said. “I certainly suffered from an emotionally immature moment. What I said was perhaps crass, but it wasn’t dishonest.”

    One of the Democrats who is not amused by Sims’ unorthodox approach is Babette Josephs, the longtime lawmaker who narrowly lost to Sims two years ago.

    “I think what he’s doing is handicapping, disabling his own team,” Josephs said, explaining that the legislature is full of people determined to undermine Philadelphia’s interests, and that the city’s delegation has to stick together.

    “So when you distract and disable people like [House State Government Democratic Committee] chairman Mark Cohen, you are hurting not only your own district but the entire city of Philadelphia,” Josephs said in a phone interview.

    Sims said he’s supporting challenger Jared Solomon against Cohen and Billy Smith against Davidson because he wants a more effective delegation in Harrisburg and he thinks they’re the kind of strong and hungry candidates the region needs. 

    One reason Sims can strike such an independent course is that he has national fundraising base — gay and lesbian rights advocates who view him as a groundbreaking candidate.

    Josephs has filed for a rematch against Sims in the May primary, so he’ll have to spend more time defending his own turf and less helping his allies. She said he’s offered poor constituent service and missed votes, both charges he sharply disputes.

    I’ll take a closer look at those issues and the primary battle between the two later. But first, Josephs has to survive a court challenge to the nominating petitions she submitted to run.

    Blogger Duncan Black is among those who filed the challenge. He said his name was forged on one of her petitions. Josephs said she knows nothing about that, but thinks she has enough good signatures to put her name before voters May 20th.

    The dispute goes before a judge on April 3rd.

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