November 15, 2011 at 9:33 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Gay Wis. lawmaker hopes to win Baldwin’s seat

U.S. House candidate Mark Pocan (Blade photo by Michael Key)

It’ll be a tough act for Mark Pocan to follow.

The gay lawmaker in the Wisconsin State Assembly is seeking the seat being vacated at the end of this year by lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who’s leaving the U.S. House to pursue a run for the U.S. Senate.

In an interview with the Washington Blade, Pocan, 47, said he wants to represent Wisconsin’s second congressional district to build on the work he’s done during his seven terms in the Wisconsin Assembly and to bring a progressive voice to Congress.

“I’ve always said there’s only one other job I would want,” Pocan said. “Our county executive recently left, and she said, ‘Do you want to run for that?’ She spent six months talking about manure digesters, and that wasn’t something I really thought was that exciting, but legislative work is something I really enjoy. It’s something that I think can have some of the same results at the state level at the federal level.”

The political careers of Baldwin and Pocan have been intertwined. Both served in the early 1990s as members of the Dane County Board of Supervisors. When Baldwin left the State Assembly in 1998 to pursue a run for Congress, Pocan ran to fill her seat.

Among his priorities, Pocan said, is “fighting the proper fight” for progressives on issues related to jobs and the economy. Having run a specialty printing firm for 23 years, Pocan said companies need access to capital to grow and jump start the economy.

“It’s funny to hear Republicans talk about job creators, and they get all excited when the say the words, ‘job creators,’ but their answer to everything is a new tax break for the wealthy,” Pocan said. “I think, when I look at, I know that what small businesses who are my customers need is access to capital, so they grow their business. So, I think I can very credibly provide a small business perspective, but matched with progressive values.”

If elected, Pocan would join other openly gay Democrats in the U.S. House and possibly keep that number at four after Baldwin leaves. Gay Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) are incumbents seeking re-election.

Denis Dison, spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said Pocan has what it takes to join the ranks of the other openly gay lawmakers in Congress fighting for LGBT rights. The organization has already endorsed him.

“Mark is a vocal and respected fighter for progressive values, and that’s what people can expect from him as a member of Congress,” Dison said. “In the same tradition as Congresswoman Baldwin, Mark won’t be shy about speaking out for what he believes in, and he’ll be an effective champion for LGBT equality.”

Pocan is married to Phil Frank, 34, who works as operations manager at the print shop that they both own. The couple has been together nine years, and were married five years ago in Toronto, although the state doesn’t recognize their marriage due to a constitutional amendment ratified by Wisconsin voters in 2006.

Pocan said he “absolutely” wants to follow Baldwin’s lead when it comes to fighting for LGBT rights. It’ll be a tall order: Baldwin was the first non-incumbent openly gay person elected to Congress and is a lead coordinator for pro-LGBT initiatives in Congress.

Drawing on his work in the Wisconsin Assembly, Pocan asserted he has the ability to take the lead on LGBT issues in Congress. As a state lawmaker, he played a key role in pushing through domestic partner benefits for state employees and, as part of the state budget, a domestic partner registry enabling same-sex couples in the state to have 43 of the rights and protections of marriage. Both measures went though the Joint Committee on Finance, where Pocan serves as a member.

“Those are two pretty significant measures for our state that are we rather behind on, that we were able to get done through my committee and through my leadership in the last session once the Democrats took control,” Pocan said.

Asked which pro-LGBT measures he’d like to pursue at the federal level, Pocan said he “wants to work with the community” to determine which measures are the highest priority.

“It’s working with the community groups in deciding what we need to move at the right time,” Pocan said. “Because clearly, in some congresses, you’re not going to able to move bills, you’re going to be fighting any bad legislation that could happen.”

Pocan said he supports repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, as well as passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Uniting American Families Act.

Recalling the recent backlash against the conservative, anti-labor policies of Gov. Scott Walker (R) — who’s facing potential recall — and the fight against the same-sex marriage ban in 2006, Pocan said the LGBT movement is an intrinsic part of the progressive movement as a whole. Earlier this year, Democrats led recall efforts against six Republican state senators and unseated two.

“When we had the fight for collective bargaining, our main political organization, Fair Wisconsin, and many people came with rainbow flags to show support from collective bargaining. I think it’s the collective fight that we have against people who want to take away rights — it’s just growing and becoming more sophisticated and more powerful.”

Pocan urged President Obama to take further action on LGBT rights. An endorsement of marriage equality, Pocan said, is among the steps he wants to see from Obama — as well as other members of Congress — and said an “education process” is necessary to enable Obama to “evolve” as he said he could do.

“When you talk to the president and other members of Congress, let them see what a same-sex couple looks like who are happy married after five years and defying most of the odds of heterosexual couples at that point,” Pocan said. “It’s a matter of getting public officials sometimes to lead like they’re supposed to and making them as a comfortable as possible so they can do the right thing.”

Additionally, Pocan said he “absolutely” wants to see Obama take action to address workplace discrimination against LGBT people. The candidate said he backs the idea of Obama issuing an executive order prohibiting federal dollars from going to contractors and suppliers that don’t have non-discrimnation policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“We’ve looked at this in our state, too, where sometimes you just work the system the best you can,” Pocan said. “You can’t say you’re going to wait necessarily for the political winds that brought in the Tea Party and others to suddenly acquiesce to civil rights. So we need to have the president take a leadership role. I think he’s done a lot of positive things for the community, but there’s a lot more he can do, and I think we need to make it so that there’s a strong environment so that he can get those things accomplished.”

Such an executive order has been seen as an interim solution until Congress can pass ENDA, although the Obama administration hasn’t said whether it will issue the directive.

Wisconsin’s 2nd congressional district — which includes Madison, sometimes referred to as the most gay-friendly district in the country — is a Democratic stronghold, so most observers expect Pocan to have no trouble winning the seat in the general election.

But Pocan won’t have smooth sailing in getting to Congress. In the Democratic primary likely to take place Aug. 14, Pocan is facing at least two Democratic opponents: State Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, who’s been serving in the legislature since 2008, and David Worzala, who was elected three times to the Dane County Board of Supervisors and serves as Dane County Treasurer.

“For us, the primary is the general, so there’s that kind of emphasis on the primary,” Pocan said. “We have to convince the voters that I’ve been a proven fighter for progressive values, got 18 years to look at my record. You know where I’m at, I’m not suddenly going to change, sell out to the Tea Party or something like that. I can best use the skills I’ve built, the accomplishments I’ve had in the legislature and bring that to a federal level.”

Baldwin hasn’t made an endorsement in the House race. Phillip Walzak, a Baldwin campaign spokesperson, said Baldwin thinks either Pocan or Roys would be good candidates to succeed her in representing the second district.

“Tammy has worked closely with Mark over the years, and Tammy thinks both Mark Pocan and Kelda Helen Roys are great candidates for her House seat,” Walzak said.

In terms of fundraising, Pocan is ahead of his Democratic opponents. According to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports, Pocan has raised $123,000 this election cycle and has about the same amount in cash on hand. Comparatively, Roys has raised $70,000 and has $67,000 in cash on hand, while Worzala has raised $55,o00 and has $52,000 in cash on hand.

But Pocan said he has something else to offer the Democratic Party if he’s chosen as the standard-bearer heading into the general election: a track record of helping other Democrats win election. During his time in the Assembly, Pocan said he’s worked on the campaign committee to help elect Democrats to the state legislature.

“Two cycles ago, when we took the majority for the first time in 14 years, I was in charge of that operation,” Pocan said. “I think that that’s something hopefully I can also bring to Congress. Having a very safe district like the 2nd district means whoever wins the primary will very likely be the next member of Congress. I think there’s an obligation to seat like that to help elect other Democrats.”

The election of more Democrats, Pocan said, would be key to advancing LGBT rights and other issues important to the progressive movement.

“Hopefully I can do that sort of thing and help in Congress because unless I help elect more Democrats, it’s not likely that I’ll pass the very things, the values I have and my district has,” Pocan said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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