LGBT issues are emerging as a key factor in the challenge to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s bid for House Speaker, becoming a major source of distinction between the California Democrat and her prime competitor, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio).
After having once wielded the gavel under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama and helping to usher into law the Affordable Care Act, the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, Pelosi’s claim to the gavel in the 116th Congress is in question — and her competition may not be as supportive of LGBT rights.
Fudge — who has yet to declare her candidacy for speaker — has a consistent voting record in favor of LGBT rights, but has declined to support the Equality Act, a comprehensive LGBT rights bill that would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
A former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Fudge has cited concerns about opening up the historic law to amendments on the House floor — a notion civil rights groups articulated when the bill was first introduced out of fear legislative activity would water down the entire statute.
“What I opposed was including the Equality Act in the current Civil Rights Act,” Fudge said last week in a statement. “The Civil Rights Act is over 50 years old and isn’t even adequate to protect the people currently in it. I want us to do a new and modern civil rights bill that protects the LGBTQ community and updates protections for this era. I do not believe it is appropriate to open and relitigate the current Civil Rights Act.”
Along with Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), who has a reputation for being an anti-LGBT Democrat, Fudge in the last Congress was one of two Democrats who wouldn’t co-sponsor the Equality Act.
Fudge’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests from the Washington Blade to comment on whether she as speaker would allow the Equality Act to come up for a vote on the House floor even if she personally doesn’t support the measure.
Meanwhile, Pelosi championed the Equality Act since it was introduced. Prior to Democratic wins on Election Day, Pelosi signaled advancing the Equality Act would be a personal goal and the legislation would be assigned a low bill number in the next Congress signifying its importance.
“It isn’t in our ‘For The People’ agenda because it doesn’t get that specific, but there’s one more because it’s personal for me that I really want to do, and it’s called the Equality Act,” Pelosi said last month. “The Equality Act expands ending discrimination against LGBTQ people and women and adding that to the Civil Rights Act.”
Hilary Rosen, a lesbian D.C.-based Democratic activist, supports Pelosi in her bid to become speaker and drew a distinction between her and Fudge on LGBT issues.
“We don’t have a better champion than Nancy Pelosi,” Rosen said. “Rep. Fudge hasn’t even co-sponsored the bill. Her Democratic colleagues might be surprised to know that and it would concern me about electing her leader.”
Pelosi faces the challenges in her bid to become speaker despite the millions she raised for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and massive wins for House Democrats on Election Day that exceeded expectations for the “blue” wave. (In contrast, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), whose caucus lost in the mid-term election, faces no similar challenge.)
On Monday, a group of 16 House Democrats (who, with two exceptions, were men) went public with a letter asserting they’re committed to voting against Pelosi. Other Democrats who won on Election Day, including Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) have made campaign promises about voting against her, but aren’t signatories to the letter.
To keep that in perspective, Pelosi can only afford to lose 15 within her Democratic majority and still have the 218 votes necessary for her to become speaker. Keep in mind House Democrats can’t replace Pelosi with nothing and it is far from certain Fudge would be able to obtain the 218 votes to win election.
Despite the challenges she faces, Pelosi has repeatedly expressed confidence she’ll have the votes to become speaker in the 116th Congress.
“I intend to win the speakership with Democratic votes, if that was your question,” Pelosi said. “I have overwhelming support in my caucus to be speaker of the House, and certainly we have many, many people in our caucus who could serve in this capacity. I happen to think that, at this point, I’m the best person for that.”
The moment of truth will come soon. The party nominating vote within the Democratic caucus will take place on Nov. 28 and the floor vote within the entire House will take place Jan. 3.
Faced with prospects of investigations under the new House Democratic majority, President Trump has offered to help on Twitter and said he “can get Nancy Pelosi as many votes as she wants in order for her to be speaker of the House.” If Republicans during the vote for speaker on Jan. 3 vote “present,” that would lower the threshold needed for her to win election.
But asked if she’d accept Republican support to win the gavel, Pelosi replied, “Oh, please, no, never, never, never.”
Drawing on her major achievements for the LGBT community in her role as Speaker of the House during part of the Bush and Obama administrations, a group of 102 LGBT leaders have signed a statement “enthusiastically endorsing” Pelosi as speaker.
Cited in the statement are the landmark laws in favor of LGBT rights Pelosi ushered through Congress as speaker, such as the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal. For the time when Democrats were in the minority, the statement enumerates Pelosi’s call for support for marriage equality in the 2016 Democratic Party platform and support for Rep. Ted Lieu’s (D-Calif.) proposal to ban widely discredited conversion therapy.
Lane Hudson, a gay D.C.-based Democratic activist, signed the statement and said Pelosi has “been our most vocal and reliable ally from her first days in Congress to now.”
“That’s why so many LGBT folks are fighting very hard to ensure she wins election as speaker,” Pelosi said. “So far, potential contenders are more conservative than she is and far less reliable on our issues. Only Pelosi has signaled that the Equality Act will be introduced very early and voted on, which will be historic.”
What are LGBT groups doing to help Pelosi? Human Rights President Chad Griffin has publicly declared his support for Pelosi as speaker and staffers for the nation’s largest LGBT group — Sarah McBride, David Stacy and JoDee Winterhof — have along with him signed the LGBT letter in support of her becoming speaker, but the organization didn’t respond to multiple requests from the Blade to comment on whether it’s lobbying the Democratic caucus on Pelosi’s behalf.
Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesperson, said he doesn’t having anything to say in response to a Blade inquiry on whether HRC or any other LGBT groups are lobbying members in the speaker’s race for Pelosi or anyone else.
For her part, Pelosi is making efforts to renew her connections with the LGBT community. On Friday during the annual dinner in D.C. for the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Pelosi made a surprise appearance and celebrated the election of LGBT candidates to the U.S. House.
“We are proud that so many new LGBTQ members…represent every corner of our country,” Pelosi said. “LGBTQ members look like America: They’re mothers, business owners, people of color and members of the native nations.”
Jonathan Lovitz, senior vice president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, also signed the statement and said Pelosi “absolutely deserves” to become the next speaker to continue advancing LGBT rights.
“A Democratic majority can resist the ongoing attempts to harm the LGBT community by passing the Equality Act, promoting LGBT-inclusive economic opportunities, and ensuring we are never erased,” Lovitz said. “Now is not the time for an untested Speaker. We need someone like Pelosi who affirms that protecting the livelihood of LGBT Americans is not some bargaining chip to pass legislation, but a nonnegotiable mandate that affirms who we are as an inclusive nation.”
The Blade is unaware of any prominent members of the LGBT community who are calling for new leadership in the Democratic caucus or who would back Fudge in a challenge to Pelosi.