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Gay community applauds Brian Sims' win for state House

Brian Sims, a 33-year-old lawyer, appears to have defeated Center City's longtime representative in the state House, setting himself up to become the first openly-gay state lawmaker in Pennsylvania.

Brian Sims, a 33-year-old lawyer, appears to have defeated Center City's longtime representative in the state House, setting himself up to become the first openly-gay state lawmaker in Pennsylvania.

Sims held a 233-vote lead over his fellow Democratic opponent Babette Josephs, with 51.6 percent of the vote, according to unofficial returns.

Returns from seven voting divisions in the 182d District were still described as incomplete, but Philadelphia election officials said Wednesday that this was likely the result of blank cartridges from voting machines that were not used on primary day. The election results in the Sims-Josephs race are unlikely to change, they said.

Sims served as Josephs' campaign treasurer when she won reelection two years ago. He will be unopposed in November unless an independent candidate gets into the race.

"It's because of the work Babette has done over the years that I was able to run and win in a district like this," Sims said Wednesday. "The campaign was about ideas and who could do the best job going forward, not a referendum on the past 27 years."

Josephs, 71, has been a strong advocate for liberal and progressive causes since she was first elected to the House in 1984, representing Center City and some neighborhoods in South Philadelphia. She did not return calls for comment on her defeat for a 15th term.

The Josephs campaign was behind one of the strangest fliers of the 2012 political season that landed in Center City mailboxes. At first blush, it appeared to be a promotion for a science-fiction thriller called "Lost in Compromise," starring Gov. Corbett, a bright red robot, and Sims.

"Danger Philadelphia, Danger!" warned the leaflet, paid for by Josephs. "Brian Sims says he will work with Harrisburg Republicans!"

Bright headlines suggested this would mean "Disenfranchising Minority Voters," "Drastic Cuts to Public Education," and "Mandatory Ultrasounds Before Abortion."

Inside, the flier praised Josephs for fighting Corbett on these fronts - not mentioning that Corbett has been winning the battles, with a new voter ID law, funding cuts for Pennsylvania schools and colleges, and tighter income limits for food stamps.

Sims, who is also a motivational speaker, had said during the campaign that he was willing to "work across the aisle" with Republicans who control the state House and the state Senate, as well as the governor's office.

Sims is the son of two military parents and a former football star. He captained his team at Downingtown High School when it won a state title in 1996, and led his Bloomsburg University team to the Division 2 national finals in 2000.

He could join the legislature contemporaneously with another gay House candidate, Chris Dietz, a Democrat running in the Harrisburg area.

"This is a long overdue victory for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Pennsylvanians," said a statement from Equality Pennsylvania Wednesday about Sims' win. Sims once led the LGBT rights organization.

"No longer will we have to embarrassingly admit that the place that gave birth to the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution has no openly gay members serving in its highest governing body. This is a relief and it gives us hope."

"It's very important," said Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Equality Forum, an international LGBT civil rights organization, because it will put a human face on gay-rights issues that have fared poorly in Harrisburg - such as hate-crime protection, antidiscrimination laws in the workplace, civil unions, and same-sex marriage.

"In order to move forward on these issues, it's important to humanize them," Lazin said. It's easier for opponents to oppose civil rights for gays when the issues are abstract, he said, but more difficult when lawmakers are facing a gay colleague, perhaps a friend, on the House floor.

Lazin's own political career includes unsuccessful runs as a Republican for City Council and district attorney.

Current Pennsylvania law provides no protection for gays against hate crimes or antigay discrimination in the workplace, putting the state "in the lowest tier for LGBT equality in the country, akin to Mississippi and Alabama," Lazin said. "This is an important step in turning that around."

Sims' thrust during his campaign for House of Representatives was that he would be a more effective lawmaker going forward. But he typically credited Josephs' record, and when he faced his supporters on Tuesday night, the first thing he sought was a round of applause for Josephs' career.

Equality Pennsylvania paid tribute to Josephs on Wednesday while praising her successor.

"Rep. Babette Josephs has been a longtime fighter for LGBT civil rights and progressive causes and we have nothing but respect for her service and legacy. Equality Pennsylvania knows that a cadre of truly committed and often fearless elected state officials have been watching the backs of the LGBT community for some time now, and our gratitude will always be deep." While running for office this spring, Josephs was clearly rankled that Sims had previously served as her campaign treasurer and then sought to oppose her for the state House seat.

She repeatedly told campaign audiences it was time to put an openly gay person in the legislature - and recommended they send checks to the Dietz campaign in central Pennsylvania.