MEDFORD, Mass. — Massachusetts state Rep. Carl Sciortino is writing a new playbook for LGBT candidates when simply being the first is not enough.
Sciortino's special election bid to succeed now-Sen. Ed Markey in representing Massachusetts' 5th congressional district comes just weeks after Christine Quinn failed in her bid to become the first out LGBT mayor of New York. And Sciortino is running roughly the opposite of Quinn's campaign, which followed an old template for minority candidates: Take the base for granted, and tack to the center.
Quinn's campaign was marked by criticism from LGBT corners about her failure to work for LGBT voters or their allies, though, and exit polls showed she failed even to secure a majority of the LGBT vote.
Sciortino, 35 and a state representative from just outside Boston, is running a kind of liberal counter-playbook for a changed political landscape: He would, after all, be the eighth out LGBT member of the 113th Congress. The Boston Globe has described Sciortino as "vigorously attempt[ing] to position himself to the left of his opponents," and, in an interview with BuzzFeed in the weeks before Quinn's Sept. 10 loss, he already had been advancing his candidacy in several different key ways.
"I was elected in the middle of the firestorm of debates around marriage equality," said Sciortino, who came to the statehouse following the 2004 elections as part of an effort to oust a Democrat opposed to same-sex couples' marriage rights — a drive to keep the 2003 Goodridge v. Department of Public Health marriage equality decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court from being overturned at the ballot.
The effort to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, which would have to have been passed by two different sessions of the legislature, "had already passed the first time in 2004, and my election was a part of stopping that constitutional amendment from moving forward and undoing the Goodridge decision."
Far from just seeking LGBT support because he is gay, Sciortino eagerly points out that he has been at the front lines of several LGBT rights fights in Massachusetts over the past decade.
"I was very active in the debates between 2005 and 2007, when we defeated the … constitutional amendment. I also authored and passed the transgender equal rights bill in 2011. I've been very active on a number of issues important to the community, including LGBT youth, elders and domestic violence and HIV services. I worked on the bullying bill. I just in January filed a prohibition of conversion, or reparative, therapy, which has recently passed in both California and New Jersey," he said.
Sciortino hails from a new generation of LGBT leadership, whose life experience may also change the discussion. He notes that, even in his mid-twenties, he had been out "for probably six or seven years before I even ran for state rep." He also proudly pushes his support for transgender rights with a level of comfort and familiarity that is uncommon still today from most politicians.
"It's very important to me that the LGBT community actually be 'L,' 'G,' 'B,' and 'T' in a very unified way," he said. "When we were still debating marriage equality in my first term, I started working with some of the transgender activists and community members who felt they had been asked to step aside while the marriage debates were unfolding and had, frankly, been left aside for many years by the broader gay community — and I felt that was wrong."
"I had been involved with the LGBT community in my undergraduate years. I was part of a fight there at Tufts to be more inclusive of our transgender student peers. I knew enough transgender people in my personal life to know that they did not feel welcome or safe or included in the LGBT community at large all the time," Sciortino said.
"As an openly gay younger person in the statehouse, it seemed obvious to me that it was my responsibility to stand up as an ally and file the legislation," he said, noting that he faced questions from gay and straight people who had been supporters of his marriage equality efforts about whether it was the time to bring such a bill at the time. "To me, that was all the more reason to get started."
Sciortino also talked about the need for out trans leaders, at the same time noting the financial and physical dangers such leaders face currently in many places and focusing on the ways he believes he can support them.
"We've seen some really brave, courageous people in the trans community step out and take on that role with a lot of personal risk. I think as an ally it's my job to help them find their own political voice and political power and, in the meantime, do what I can to give the community legal protections so that more people can come out and be safe in their jobs and their housing and their personal lives," he said.
Sciortino's LGBT activism is of a piece with a broadly liberal approach to policy, and a stance clearly to the left of his opponents — one that doubles down on his activist roots, and doesn't run away from them. (His rivals include Katherine Clark, endorsed by EMILY's List, and five others, including two state senators.)
In recent weeks, he came out in opposition to the potential resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria before any of his other opponents had done so — and days before the opposition began picking up steam in Washington and, eventually, the vote was put on hold. The move prompted an endorsement days later from the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva and Keith Ellison.
He's also been a strong supporter of protecting abortion rights, and his first bill was aimed at setting up a "buffer zone" around abortion clinics.
It was working on that bill, he said, that he met Pemberton Brown, then working at NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. More than five years later — and 10 days before the primary election — Sciortino and Brown are set to get married.
"[W]e didn't plan to have an open seat special election this year, we planned to get married in an off-year," he said, adding, "[B]ut the fact that we can get married in the middle of this election and, frankly, no one cares, it's not a big issue, it's not controversial at all, is remarkable."
Sciortino said he hopes to use his experience as an out gay lawmaker in Massachusetts to help advance LGBT rights across the country.
"We clearly are at a place where the progress is uneven, and the job of openly LGBT members of Congress is to actually make it progress on a national scale, so that no matter what state you live in, you have the same rights, the same protections. And I think that's the value of having more of us in Congress: We can actually build more political power, build more relationships, and move important legislation through to affect people in all parts of the country," he said.
"I've been doing this for nine years in the state context," he added. "Not everyone that's in the congressional equality delegation had the prior experience, legislatively, working on our community's issues that I do right now for almost a decade."
More than that, however, he put his potential role in Congress into the context of the larger path forward on LGBT rights, noting that he would be one of the dozen youngest members of the current Congress if he wins the special election. "That means I could potentially be there for decades to come."
Chris Geidner is the legal editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. In 2014, Geidner won the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association award for journalist of the year.
Contact Chris Geidner at email@example.com.
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