(*This story was updated at 10:52 a.m. on Wednesday, 3/30/22 to add attribution to comments made by House candidate Deja Lynn Alvarez)
By Michele Zipkin
PHILADELPHIA — Three of the four Democratic hopefuls looking to succeed retiring state Rep. Brian Sims faced the votes during a recent public forum, taking questions on such issues as how they’d win passage of a long-delayed LGBTQ civil rights bill and making Pennsylvania’s largest city more attractive to business.
The online forum for Philadelphia’s 182nd House District, sponsored by the Liberty City LGBTQ Democratic Club, took place on March 24. The seat’s incumbent, Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, is vacating the seat to seek the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.
In a round-robin style fashion, Liberty City board member Ted Bordelon asked member-submitted and board-curated questions to three of the candidates running to represent the Gayborhood in the state House.
The candidates are: Deja Lynn Alvarez, director of community engagement for World Healthcare Infrastructures and as LGBTQ care coordinator for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health; Jonathan Lovitz, special advisor and former senior vice president at the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC); and Ben Waxman, former director of communications for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office.
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The order of responses was drawn at random. The fourth candidate in the race, Will Gross, did not attend and submitted a prerecorded video.
The first question asked was “What would you do if elected to finally get Pennsylvania’s equality bill over the finish line? Please be specific and mindful that Democrats may not take back the state House or Senate.”
“In the minority in particular there is a lot of leverage during the budget process,” Waxman said. “What we need is a group of lawmakers that are willing to stand and say that they will not vote for any state budget agreement that does not include major components or all of the components of an LGBTQ+ agenda. That means enshrining marriage equality in the Pennsylvania constitution; it means protecting folks against employment discrimination; it means beating back all of these anti-trans bills that are popping up as well as making sure that our healthcare system is particularly affirming to folks who are in the middle of transition. So for me, we need a group of lawmakers that simply won’t support a budget agreement unless those bills are passed, to put pressure on leadership in both parties to get it done.”
“It’s all about building relationships. It’s about building those relationships, nurturing those relationships and utilizing those relationships to move the needle forward,” Alvarez said. “To be quite honest, the equality bill, unless we do take over the house, doesn’t have much of a chance to get passed. But what we can do is we can fight the other individual bills that do pop up, to make sure that we’re not allowing them to get through while we are pushing for the equality bill. One of the other things I think we can do is use our platforms to help get some other Democrats elected in those Republican strongholds.”
“I think it’s analogous to something like voting rights,” Lovitz said. “If we don’t secure the most basic principles of equality, of opportunity, of existence, of healthcare, you name it, then we’re going to be continually pushing a boulder uphill. I agree with several of the comments made by my colleagues that there is room for negotiation. I think that’s why it’s so important to send someone who has a proven track record of making sure that we can build across the aisle and get to the yes. It’s wonderful to get a thousand likes on an Instagram post, but if you can’t get ten votes from the other side of the aisle, you’re not an effective legislator.”
Philadelphia’s economic recovery
The second question focused on economic recovery in Philadelphia, and how the city is not faring as well as many other similar U.S. cities when it comes to crime rates, cleanliness and the cost of doing business. “How will you help businesses, specifically LGBTQ-owned businesses in the 182nd [District] survive and thrive over the next pivotal two years?” Bordelon asked.
“This is at the heart of my experience and why I know I’m going to be so effective in this role for our city and our whole Commonwealth,” Lovitz said. “The first piece of state-wide legislation I helped my advocacy team write and pass was Gov. Wolf’s 2016 executive order that added LGBTQ and disability-owned businesses to Pennsylvania state contracts. The reason we got that done is exactly why we’re going to be able to replicate that here in Philadelphia, as I’m currently working with several members of the City Council on.”
Helping transgender people navigate the state’s bureaucracy
Another question asked was what the candidates would do to ameliorate processes that trans folks have to navigate on a state level, such as getting one’s name changed on a driver’s license.
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“This is something that I have some experience with, and it’s something that I do on a regular basis,” Alvarez said. “I was part of that campaign to get SEPTA to stop [the gender marker policy.] I’ve also been working tirelessly for years to get rid of the policy that you have to publish your name change request in the newspapers. We found a workaround. What we’ve been able to do is write up a letter of safety concerns.”
She pointed out that there are programs to help trans folks with the costs of getting their names changed on their state ID. She also noted that it’s not always necessary to hire a lawyer, that the process of filing the paperwork is not as complicated as it once was.
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“Being realistic here, getting a state-wide policy change on this issue, when right now we’re fighting just to allow trans girls to be able to go to a locker room or a bathroom, is not something realistically I see as [happening] within the next couple of years,” Alvarez said. “But it is all the more reason why we need effective representation in Harrisburg.”
How would they be different from Sims?
Another question, posed by one of the Liberty City members, was “If you are [Rep. Brian Sims’] successor, what can constituents of the 182nd expect to be different?”
“I am not going to run to social media every time I have something to say,” Waxman said. “In particular, I obviously am going to have many differences with my Democratic colleagues, but I am not going to attack my fellow colleagues, especially my fellow House members, publicly, pretty much ever.” Waxman continued, “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve respected the need for compromise. Not just compromise on issues, but if I’m not going to get something I want, I’m okay with that, and that doesn’t mean that a relationship is going to be destroyed or I’m going to criticize people publicly.”
*“Politics is a lot of marketing,” Alvarez said. “It’s not only marketing yourself, but it should be marketing the issues that you’re fighting for, the issues that are on the table. Every bill that you’re trying to pass, larger conversations that are going to affect your constituents, all of that should be communicated effectively, not just thrown up on your social media, but you should be holding meetings, you should be reaching out to them. There should be a direct line between you and your constituents.”
“I think there’s a lot of folks,” Lovitz said, “that think the role of your legislator is to help push paperwork around and go to Harrisburg and vote, as opposed to being your champion, your ally, your agent for your own success. I want to see my Center City office have a job board, and training programs, and community engagement opportunities. Every nonprofit should be able to drop in to our office and be able to engage with the community.”
Other questions included asking the candidates to debunk the biggest misconception about them or their platform, why representation in government matters, and why each candidate thinks they deserve the LGBTQ vote.
“LGBT people, we are women, we are people of color, we are veterans, we are immigrants,” Lovitz said in response to the final question. “Being able to leverage my seat at the center of that hub from an LGBT perspective and working with all of those communities is only going to make me strong as an advocate.”
“For the last 20 plus years, I have been at the forefront of almost every LGBTQ fight that there’s been in this city,” Alvarez said. “Not only for LGBTQ individuals but for other marginalized populations. That all comes out of my lived experience. I think what’s missing in politics today is the actual lived experience, the voices of the most marginalized.”
“I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I have lived experience that the other two candidates who are on this Zoom have,” Waxman said. “What I can promise is this: when we get through this primary and we get to May, whoever wins, I will be there, just like I have been for the last 20 years.”
Liberty City will host two more candidate forums, on April 5 and 7, where state and federal political candidates can make the case for why they deserve the Philly LGBTQ vote. The Liberty City team is also recruiting new board members “so that it looks more like Philly,” Bordelon said. Those interested in becoming a board member can email [email protected]
“I think there was a lot of energy leading up to passing marriage equality,” Bordelon said. “But I think that what we’re seeing now with ‘don’t say gay’ bills, with legislation against trans athletes in schools – I think the fight for LGBTQ rights is still really important and [Liberty City] is trying to present a safe venue for folks in Philly who want to do work on those issues.”
Michele Zipkin is a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News, where this story first appeared.