Brian Sims was right, defending abortion rights is a critical fight. His tactics were all wrong | Wednesday Morning Coffee

May 8, 2019 7:22 am

State Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia (screen capture)

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

So we have some thoughts about state Rep. Brian Sims’ most recent star turn in the national media spotlight after he posted a Twitter video of himself haranguing some protesters who’d gathered outside the offices of a Philly Planned Parenthood office last week.

First up, we’ll stipulate, as our pal Victor Fiorillo, at PhillyMag, observed Monday, that Sims had an absolute First Amendment right to bother the women, who were exercising their First Amendment rights, by standing silently on the sidewalk outside the clinic.

And we’ll stipulate that his argument that Planned Parenthood protesters, who were in this instance, older and white, come to the table with a perspective that’s inevitably classist, is also correct. That’s because Planned Parenthood overwhelmingly serves people of color, people with low incomes, and rural communities. In other words, those who can least afford to – or have the time to – picket outside a Planned Parenthood clinic.

The larger question is his choice of target and tactics.

If there’s a more textbook way to feed into the stereotype that all progressives are elitist nincompoops who look down their collective noses at people of faith and the regular guy than by firing up your Periscope video and getting up in the faces of some conservative ladies who were praying the Rosary, we are hard pressed to come up with one.

That’s different from the other kinds of anti-abortion rights protesters, the ones who actively try to interfere, or yell at women walking into clinics, or worse … descend into horrific violence. They should be confronted at every turn. The women Sims accosted do not appear to fall into that camp.

But here’s the thing, though, as we’ve noted more than once: abortion rights are under systemic assault in Pennsylvania and across the nation. Just this week, a state House committee advanced an abortion ban bill that bears the unique distinction of being both likely unconstitutional and practically unenforceable.

The Trump White House, meanwhile, is dead set on taking away family planning money for the most vulnerable Americans. Thankfully, that’s tied up in the courts for the time being.

The stakes could not be higher. So while we do not condone Sims’ behavior, we do understand the place from which it originates.

But the bottom line is that it doesn’t help. Because Sims made himself — not the issue he was trying to defend — the story.

On Tuesday afternoon, as the No. 3 Republican in the state House called for an ethics investigation; the state Republican chairman called for a criminal investigation, and as conservative Twitter lost its collective mind, Sims walked back his remarks:

It was the right thing to do.

But we’d humbly submit that if Sims is in earnest about protecting reproductive rights, and we’ve every reason to think he is, we’d urge him to use the actual power of his office to investigate a far greater threat to abortion rights than a couple of women peacefully protesting outside a Planned Parenthood clinic.

And that’s this:

Sims can press for transparency and accountability on the $83 million in taxpayer money that Real Alternatives, the group that administers Pennsylvania’s crisis pregnancy program, has received from state taxpayers since fiscal 2003-04.

Real Alternatives is currently in the middle of a Commonwealth Court fight over access to its financial records with a reproductive rights group known as Equity Forward, which believes Real Alternatives has used a portion of the taxpayer money it receives to improperly expand its operations into other states.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, an audit by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services “flagged a practice in which Real Alternatives withheld 3 percent of all payments to service providers under a side deal they called a ‘program development and advancement agreement.’ Auditors ultimately estimated Alternatives had collected more than $800,000 over the last five years through this deal.”

Real Alternatives has faced similar scrutiny in Michigan, where the organization has received about $2.6 million in public funds to administer anti-abortion programs, according to published reports. The state’s new Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has been pressured to cut off that funding stream.

(As a matter of full disclosure, Equity Forward is a project of the Hopewell Fund, a Washington D.C.-based progressive 501(c)(3), as is North Carolina-based The Newsroom, which supports the Capital-Star. There is no coordination or relationship of any kind between the Capital-Star and Equity Forward.)

Sims, who is a senior Democratic member of the House Human Services Committee, could use the clout and knowledge of Harrisburg he’s accrued during his nearly seven-year tenure to press for increased transparency and accountability from Real Alternatives.

Sims could appeal to Rep. Matt Bradford, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, to make an issue during budget talks out of the millions of dollars that Real Alternatives receives from the taxpayers.

Now. granted, that won’t get Sims 500,000 views on Periscope. Nor will it net him national headlines. But it would be a real, measurable way to advocate for reproductive rights and protect vulnerable women at the same time.

And that’s an actual win.

Our Stuff.
Stephen Caruso
 has a look at the reaction among House Republicans to Brian Sims’ Twitter moment in the sun.
Caruso also runs down a state House voting to expand the popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit program.
Elizabeth Hardison has a look at a bipartisan push for a lead-free Pennsylvania.
And here’s everything you need to know about a legislative effort to criminalize ‘sexual extortion’ in Pennsylvania.

Thousands of American Muslims — including right here in Pennsylvania — began the month-long observance of Ramadan on Sunday. From a Michigan State University scholar, here are the six things you need to know about this most sacred of times.

University of Pittsburgh law professor Philip Hackney returns to our Commentary Pagewith a look at whether the National Rifle Association is at risk of losing its nonprofit status.

And long-serving Cumberland County Commissioner Jim Hertzler, who will retire at year’s end, makes the case for both an infrastructure deal in D.C., and Gov. Tom Wolf’s Restore PA program here in Harrisburg.

The Inquirer looks at the controversy around Brian Sims.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans are looking for a federal advisory council to help gun violence victims, The Post-Gazette reports.
State lawmakers are looking at getting rid of auto emissions testing in Westmoreland County,The Tribune-Review reports.
PPL not only paid no federal taxes last year, it also got a $19 million rebate — because, yeah, that’s fair. The Morning Call has the story.

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:

A key group of black clergy are picking Tony Williams over Jim Kenney in the Philly mayoral race, WHYY-FM reports.
Pittsburgh saw a drop in crime during Q1 of 2019, WESA-FM reports.
This May, Philly voters will be asked to decide whether the title is ‘Councilman’ or ‘Council member,’ BillyPenn reports. 
In Pittsburgh, a blast furnace is the setting for a new staging of ‘King Lear,’ The Inclinereports. 
So it turns out that if you improve ballot access, people turn out to vote. Whod’a thunk it? has the story.
A new Politico/Morning Consult poll finds little support for Bill Barr’s handling of the Mueller Report.
Kamala Harris is pushing for pay hikes for public defenders, who traditionally lag prosecutors, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On. 
The House and Senate both gavel in at 11 a.m. for their final voting day of the week.
Meanwhile …
9 a.m., 302 Irvis Office Building: The Mental Health Caucus and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale talk about the confluence of gun violence and mental illness.
9:30 a.m., Media Center: Several House Democrats discuss ‘Beyond Safe Schools’ legislation. So we don’t know if that means they want, like, super-safe schools, or if they’re trying to move past talk about safe schools.
11 a.m., Main Rotunda: Teachers Who Teach Teachers Day at the Capitol.
12 p.m., Main Rotunda: National Charter School Week observance
12:30 p.m. East Rotunda: Farming First Legislative package (and then … lunch?)
1:30 p.m., Main Rotunda: Pa. Youth Build Coalition does … something? … build stuff?

At 10:50 a.m. (the real time, not a typo), Gov. Tom Wolf gives nurses a big up for National Nursing Week at an event at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey.
At 11:30 a.m., Wolf scoots across the street to the Hershey Lodge to hit a workforce development conference, where he’ll talk about themes of love and time and death in Joyce’sUlysses,’ because, after all, why should Mayor Pete have all the fun? No … not really. He’s talking about workforce development. But can’t you just see Wolf lecturing on Joyce?

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
The session week may be ending, but fund-raising, not unlike the final seasons of ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ endureth forever.
7:30 am.: Breakfast for state House candidate* Marci Mustello
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Leanne Krueger
8 am..: Breakfast for Sen. Wayne Langerholc
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Maria Donatucci
Ride the circuit, and give at the max, and you’re out a mere $7,000 today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to our former PennLive colleague, now House Democrats’ comms guy, Nick Malawskey, who celebrates today. Congrats and enjoy the day, sir. Got a birthday you want observed? Hit us up on [email protected].

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s one requested by our own Stephen Caruso, it’s Lizzo, and ‘Cuz I Love You.’

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
The Blues beat the Stars in double OT on Tuesday night, securing their spot in the Western Conference final.

And now you’re up to date.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.