Anti-abortion protester harassed by Brian Sims says lawmaker deserves censure

By: - June 18, 2019 6:30 am

Ashley Garecht outside of a Philadelphia Planned Parenthood in a social media video from Democratic Rep. Brian Sims.

A woman harassed on video by state Rep. Brian Sims outside a Philadelphia Planned Parenthood clinic was in the Capitol Monday trying to garner support for a measure to censure the Democratic lawmaker.

Ashley Garecht, of Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County, spent the day meeting with lawmakers, including Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, and House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, asking for their backing to formally condemn Sims and strip him of his committee assignments.

“If [the House does] walk away and say it is acceptable for an elected state representative to declare himself as such, and then attack the First Amendment rights of minors and female citizens, then they are not doing their job,” Garecht, 41, told the Capital-Star.

This spring, Sims, D-Philadelphia, posted two videos of himself to social media harassing anti-abortion access protesters. He recorded himself calling them racist and offering money for the identities of teenaged protesters.

Garecht is featured in the second of the two videos to go viral after they were picked up by Live Action, an anti-abortion rights groups. She, her two daughters, and their friend were outside the Planned Parenthood on Locust Street, praying as part of their preparation for Easter.

Sims approached the trio twice, according to Garecht — the first encounter was not recorded. He returned wielding a smart phone, and then asked for someone to identify the three teens.

“[Sims] needs to be held accountable,” Garecht said. “He needs to make a public, specific, genuine apology for what he did to them.”

Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill, introduced the measure to censure Sims earlier this month. It now has the support of 49 Republican lawmakers — more than 40 percent of the GOP caucus.

A censure typically involves a majority of lawmakers voting to approve a resolution to formally condemn an action. While a censure doesn’t necessarily carry consequences, Knowles’ memo also calls for Sims to be stripped of his committee assignments for the remainder of the session.

Knowles previously said he wants Sims to publicly apologize to Garecht and the other women in the videos. While Sims promised to “do better” in a brief social media video and apologized to House leadership, he has not publicly made amends with the women.

After a week of intense national media attention and strong denouncements from GOP leadership, outrage over the incident seemed to die down. Rep. Stephen Barrar, R-Chester, thinks the anger should not have ebbed.

“If the shoe was on a Republican foot, the outrage wouldn’t have died down by now,” Barrar, one of the measure’s initial sponsors, told the Capital-Star.

He also asked why women vocal about the #MeToo movement weren’t leading the charge against Sims for harassing and asking for the identities of the three young women in the video.

Barrar told the Capital-Star he doubts the censure motion will be acted upon swiftly.

Turzai’s office referred a request for comment to Cutler’s. Spokesperson Mike Straub said the bill is not a June priority for the House. He did not say if Cutler has a stance on the issue.

Democrats meanwhile pushed back, arguing that any attempt to police Sims’ personal behavior should be matched with formal censures of Republicans for objectionable behavior.

“I think it’s hypocritical,” Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Luzerne, said, ticking off a list of GOP offenses including sexual assault allegations against former Rep. Nick Miccarelli and Turzai comparing abortion-rights advocates to Nazis.

Miccarelli was stripped of his committee assignments after a House GOP investigation found the allegations to be credible, but was not censured or expelled by the House.

Mullery also mentioned the prayer Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton, delivered before Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, D-Philadelphia, was sworn in as the Legislature’s first female Muslim lawmaker.

House invocations are supposed to be non-denominational, but Borowicz frequently referenced Jesus while also asking for God to bless President Donald Trump for allying with Israel.

Johnson-Harrell called Borowicz’s prayer Islamophobic. On Monday, she wasn’t sold on censuring Sims for his behavior if Republicans wouldn’t critique their own side.

“Behavior modification has to be a bipartisan issue,” Johnson-Harrell told the Capital-Star.

The closest House leadership came to publicly addressing the matter was a bipartisan plea for civility by both Cutler and House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, on the floor. The men did not name names. 

Bill Patton, a spokesperson for the House Democrats, said the Sims’ incident was addressed more than a month ago when the Philadelphia lawmaker met with both parties’ leadership.

“It’s not our place to tell Rep. Knowles how to spend his time, but his obsession with this unfortunate incident is odd and misplaced,” Patton said in an email.

Sims, who was not in the Capitol Monday, did not immediately respond to a text seeking comment.

Garecht isn’t convinced that just because there is bipartisan misbehavior, Sims’ actions should go unremarked on by the chamber as a whole.

“I am not standing in the way of anybody doing anything else they need to do to hold other representatives to account,” Garecht said. “That is absolutely their purview and responsibility. I’m here to advocate for my daughters. That’s my job.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.