By Sunnivie Brydum and Michelle Garcia
Originally published on Advocate.com June 26 2014 4:30 AM ET
While good news for LGBT Americans and their families continues to make headlines from the White House to the Department of Justice to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, one arena has been conspicuously quiet in announcing any progress toward LGBT equality: the U.S. House of Representatives.
While the Republican-led chamber might not be the most likely place to expect advancements toward the equal rights of LGBT Americans, advocacy group Freedom to Work is placing its focus on the contentious chamber this summer, looking to build majority support for the long-languishing Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The legislation would make it illegal to discriminate against employees because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and has been introduced in every Congress except one since 1996. Last year a trans-inclusive ENDA passed the U.S. Senate for the first time in history, earning bipartisan, majority support — including "aye" votes from 10 Republican senators.
But with the legislation stalled in the House — and Speaker John Boehner insisting there is "no way" ENDA will come to the floor for a vote this year — advocates are looking for other ways to build support for the critical legislation. One tactic hopes to demonstrate broad, bipartisan support by securing a majority of House members to sign on as cosponsors of the legislation — looking to reach 218 cosponsors, where the current count is 205.
That's where Freedom to Work's newest campaign, the 218 Project, comes in to play. Throughout the summer, Freedom to Work will make weekly announcements identifying groups of five potential ENDA sponsors who are as yet uncommitted to voting for or cosponsoring the legislation. Using shareable graphics hosted on the 218 Project's website, Freedom to Work will encourage constituents to contact their lawmakers and those in other districts through Facebook, Twitter, email, and phone, urging uncommitted representatives to add their names to the growing list of ENDA cosponsors in the House.
Last week Freedom to Work announced its first five targets — lawmakers from Florida, New York, and Texas. Today the organization announces five more lawmakers who its contends may be sympathetic to the cause of ENDA, and possibly be willing to cosponsor the legislation.
"This week the 218 Project is focusing on two Democrats from congressional districts covering big cities who should have no political problem whatsoever in sponsoring LGBT legislation," Christian Berle, legislative director for Freedom to Work, tells The Advocate. "In fact, for these two Democrats, there comes a point where refusal to sponsor a bill as simple as ENDA begins to look conspicuous to voters. The 218 Project is also focusing on three moderate Republicans from suburban, toss-up congressional districts in suburban Philadelphia. These three congressional Republicans can look to Republican senator Pat Toomey, who voted in favor of ENDA last fall, and their own Republican governor, who has endorsed Pennsylvania’s proposed LGBT workplace protections bill. I think there is only political upside if Representatives Gerlach, Fitzpatrick, and Meehan cosponsor ENDA — and of course it’s also the right thing to do."
Meet the lawmakers below.
Rep. Dan Lipinski
“Of the eight holdout Democrats who has not yet cosponsored ENDA, Representative Lipinski’s congressional district in Chicago is probably the most liberal, having overwhelmingly backed President Obama in 2008 and 2012, and his constituents already have city-level and state-level LGBT workplace protections enacted into law," Freedom to Work's Berle tells The Advocate. "Thanks to [the Human Rights Campaign’s] field organizers who have been working in his district for the past few months, Lipinski has been hearing from many constituents calling for LGBT workplace protections, and we hope the 218 Project will add even more voices to strong call for Lipinski to finally become an ENDA cosponsor.”
Beyond being from a generally liberal district, Lipinski has a history of voting for LGBT-inclusive legislation. He voted for the first piece of federal legislation to explicitly protect LGBT people — the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act — in 2009 and supported the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in 2010. Last year,he cast his vote for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which includes enumerated protections for LGBT people as well. And he's already a cosponsor of the LGBT Safe Schools Improvement Act, so he's demonstrated a penchant for protecting LGBT people of all ages against violence — now it's time he extends that protection to employment discrimination as well.
Rep. Jim Gerlach
Gerlach supported ENDA in 2007, though notably that year the legislation didn't include gender identity protections. Still, Freedom to Work believes Gerlach is a part of the movable middle, a number of moderate Republicans who can see the conservative values in ending workplace discrimination.
“Representative Gerlach voted yes on ENDA in 2007, and now that he’s announced his retirement for later this year, he’s got a shot to continue being on the right side of history by agreeing to cosponsor LGBT workplace protections before he leaves Congress," says Berle. "By adding his name to the growing list of prominent Republican supporters of non-discrimination legislation — including Gov. Tom Corbett and Sen. Pat Toomey — he will continue to be recognized as a representative who's on the right side of history."
In addition to his 2007 vote for ENDA, Gerlach supported the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009 and voted for the reauthorization of an LGBT-inclusive Violence Against Women Act last year. Two townships in his district, West Chester and Lower Merion, have already enacted municipal employment protections for LGBT workers, and the state's Republican governor has endorsed a bill seeking to enshrine those protections statewide — indicating that it's likely a politically safe move for Gerlach to come out and support ENDA during his final session in Congress.
Rep. Patrick Meehan
“As a newer member of Congress, Representative Meehan is in a prime position to represent the growing majority of Pennsylvanians, including a majority of Republicans, who support LGBT workplace protections," says Berle.
And as a representative from one of the newest marriage equality states — whose Republican governor declined to appeal the federal court ruling that established the freedom to marry in Pennsylvania — Meehan could be a prime candidate to support ENDA. That same Republican governor also supports a statewide version of ENDA, lending more political coverage for the freshman legislator to take a stand against workplace discrimination.
As a junior member of the House, Meehan hasn't had the chance to vote on many LGBT-inclusive bills, but he did support the reauthorization of VAWA last year, and the town of Swarthmore, within his district, has already enacted an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance.
Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick is already a cosponsor of several LGBT-inclusive bills, specifically those that look to protect LGBT students and help balance the inequity caused by a nationwide patchwork of equal marriage recognition. In addition to voting for the LGBT-inclusive VAWA reauthorization last year, Fitzpatrick cosponsors the LGBT Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Tax Parity for Health Beneficiaries Act, which eliminates tax penalties imposed on companies that provide health care benefits to their employees’ same-sex partners.
"Representative Fitzpatrick currently cosponsors other pro-LGBT legislation so it makes sense that he also add his name to the long list of ENDA cosponsors," says Berle. "Fitzpatrick is a close colleague with Republican congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who is one of ENDA’s most enthusiastic cosponsors, and we’re hoping that with more constituent contacts, Fitzpatrick will follow Dent’s lead."
Rep. Henry Cuellar
One of the few other Democrats yet to cosponsor ENDA, Cuellar voted in favor of the 2007 version of ENDA, though that year's bill did not cover gender identity. Nevertheless, he's also a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which endorsed the trans-inclusive version of ENDA in 2013, and he represents San Antonio, a liberal enclave in Texas that adopted workplace protections for LGBT people within the city last year.
In 2009, Cuellar voted for the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and he voted to repeal DADT in 2010. He also voted in favor of the LGBT-inclusive VAWA last year.
"Many of Representative Cuellar’s constituents gained city-level LGBT workplace protections when the San Antonio City Council passed a fully inclusive LGBT ordinance last year, and it’s time for the congressman to follow the lead of these local leaders," says Berle. "Cuellar voted for ENDA in 2007, and we would like to get him to put his pen to paper and become the latest Democrat to cosponsor this bill creating LGBT workplace protections."