Before he was a lawyer or a lawmaker, Brian Sims was a standout athlete.
The son of two now-retired lieutenant colonels in the U.S. Army, Sims lived in 17 states before his family settled in suburban Philadelphia, where he played football for Downingtown High School.
He continued his studies and athletic career at Bloomsburg University, where he made waves 16 years ago for coming out to his teammates as gay, something no NCAA college football captain had ever done. As Sims puts it, his teammates asked him the question, and proved “affirming and supportive” in response.
In 2012, his successful run for the 182nd House seat in Philadelphia made Sims the first openly gay person ever elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
After bowing out of a brief bid for Congress, Sims went on to win a three-way Democratic primary last spring to retain his state seat. He rode to a second term in November uncontested in the general election.
In an interview shortly after Election Day, however, it was clear the 38-year-old legislator has other battles still to fight. While the former Republican spoke warmly about his respect for friends, family and other elected officials affiliated with the Grand Old Party, he also expressed deep misgivings about what the victory of Donald Trump and running mate Mike Pence could mean for civil rights issues.
Sims, who has served on the House Commerce Committee, also talked with the Business Journal about economic issues facing the state.
Q: What went through your mind when you realized that Trump had won?
A: I legitimately am fearful for women and people of color right now. I’m a gay man, and of course I have my concerns for the LGBT community. But right now, if you are a woman in this country, or a person of color in this country, you have just been overtly told that being opposed to you, or refusing to recognize your equal status, can make someone the most powerful person in this country.
We will spend generations undoing the rhetoric that this campaign — and I assume this presidency — will create. There have been several hundred hate crimes that have happened in just the last week alone. What’s happened to gay people, to people of color, what’s happened to women across the country in the last week is emblematic of people who think that they’ve won, and they think that their level of bigotry or hatred or homophobia or misogyny is now justified.
About Brian Sims
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, law degree in international and comparative law from Michigan State University College of Law
Previous careers: Attorney, LGBT rights activist
Memorable moment: Being co-captain of a Bloomsburg University football team that went to the Division II national championship game in 2000. Also remains the only former NCAA football captain ever to have come out as gay.
I remember friends that were supportive of candidate Trump telling me that either he himself personally didn’t feel animosity towards LGBT people, or that the anti-LGBT expressions that were coming from his campaign at large couldn’t be trusted because he was saying them just to get the support of the hard right wing. I don’t find either to be particularly compelling, and I think the most compelling indication of what we can expect from a Trump presidency was the selection of Mike Pence as his vice president. Pence has a record as being perhaps one of the most prolific anti-LGBT elected officials nationally.
Was it a foregone conclusion that you were going to be a Democrat?
I started as a registered Republican, as many people did, because my parents were registered Republicans. I have a twin brother who I think had been more traditionally Republican, although I think he leaned Democrat this last election. My older brother is an NRA member and a Republican. I have the benefit of having grown up around a lot of what I consider to be traditional Republicans: very well-educated, very forward-thinking, but they believe in small government, believe in fiscal responsibility. They have no issue with me being a gay man but do have issues with an advance tax structure.
We hear from a lot of small businesses that they feel overregulated, and that Obamacare has been creating hardships for themselves and their employees. What are your thoughts?
I don’t believe that businesses are overregulated. I legitimately don’t. I understand why anybody who has a bottom line that ends with their own pocket and sees any impact on that bottom line would say that is too much of an impact. But also, businesses get the benefit of my tax dollars when they drive on roads, they get the benefit of my tax dollars when they engage in commerce in this state. I therefore think that if I’m going to be paying tax dollars, that I should benefit from the same protections under the constitution as anybody else.
I know this doesn’t all come back necessarily to nondiscrimination protections, but in many ways, when companies talk about being overregulated, they’re talking about the protections in place for their own employees, sometimes for their customer base. These same people that tell me they are overregulated also want to tell me that women shouldn’t be paid than men are paid, that non-discrimination protections are overly burdensome.
What do you think is the biggest business challenge facing the state?
Our tax structure, no question about it. Our corporate net income tax is the second- or third-highest in the country right now, and because of that combined with our weird tax loopholes that are still available to some and not to others, roughly 70 percent of companies are not paying that net income tax, which means the burden is falling on some of the most Pennsylvanian of our companies — either the ones that ideologically refuse to leave for somewhere else or they are big enough to be able to just plop down a location in another state and say that is their base of operations.
We need to switch to a commercial activity tax in this state. We could do it in a net-neutral way and bring down that number.