Micah Sims grew up in West Philadelphia's Wynnefield neighborhood, attended city public schools, played basketball at William Penn High School, graduated from Villanova (Class of 1991), and earned a master's degree in divinity from Lancaster Theological Seminary. He's a fifth-generation minister.
He's also the new executive director of Common Cause Pa., based in Harrisburg. He replaced Barry Kauffman as head of the non-partisan, good-government organization. Kauffman held the post for 30 years.
Sims, 49, was working in the ministry in Philly in the 1990s when he started to get involved in politics. He helped local candidates with filing petitions, volunteered for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, and was a statewide faith outreach deputy director for the president's 2012 reelection campaign. After the 2008 elections, Sims did a Philly radio show for two years, New Day With Micah Sims, on WNWR-AM (1540).
He even briefly was a Democratic candidate for Congress in central Pennsylvania — in 2014, looking to run against incumbent Republican Lou Barletta (now a U.S. Senate candidate) after Sims had moved to Harrisburg to pastor that city's Bethel A.M.E. Church. He dropped out of the race before the Democratic primary.
Sims is married with five children aged 12 to 19. He maintains a home in Philly and a townhouse in Harrisburg. He talked with the Inquirer and Daily News at Common Cause headquarters. The interview has been edited and condensed.
How has your start-up at Common Cause been?
The one great thing is that the history here left by Barry Kauffman is substantial. His are big shoes to step into, but there was lots of work already established by him. And Barry's been there to guide and assist me.
What have you been initially focused on?
Primarily on redistricting and gerrymandering. Common Cause has been on the forefront of that for more than two decades. I've been working with other groups such as Fair Districts PA and groups looking at racial equity in reference to redistricting. I've been talking with elected officials and everyday people who call the office, and getting caught up on all the legal aspects. It's been almost like law school.
What's your first impression of your new gig?
My first impression, honestly, is that Common Cause has a great history but is very much an older, white organization that really cares about the commonwealth. My hope is to broaden its base, to diversify not only ethnically but also geographically. It's been heavily tilted to the southeast. I'm looking to make it more of a statewide organization.
What do you see as your biggest challenges?
I don't think I view anything as a challenge, more of an opportunity. An opportunity to seize what's taking place with these various redistricting court cases, and reset. Reset, to say it's the process that's broken. We need a reset to values of fairness, competition, and racial equality that would be not just for now but long-lasting.
How does being a minister affect or influence your work for Common Cause, if it does?
I am a person of faith. That helps, because I always believe there is hope. I always believe there is opportunity for things to get better. I believe everyone should have an opportunity to succeed. That's what God wants. That's what democracy is all about.
You've got Democratic politics in your background. Will that help or hinder dealing with a Republican-controlled legislature in Harrisburg?
Some will view it as a negative. I view it as a positive. Politics is difficult. When we put politics above values, we lose a lot. I hope people see me as a nonpartisan organization, not as a political operative.
Common Cause has had political leadership. The late Bob Edgar, a former Democratic Pennsylvania congressman, who also had a divinity degree, headed the national organization for several years. So some might say, maybe Common Cause isn't always open to all sides. A problem?
I am more than open. I'm not here in a political way. I'm here in a people way. For all people, whether rural or urban. There's a reason you have two ears and one mouth. Because you should listen twice as much as you talk. In this position, my job is to listen.
Do you see yourself ever running for public office again?
I don't say no to anything, but it is not a focus. In this position, I get to impact 12.7 million people in a positive way without putting my name on a ballot. I'm happy where I am.