For Rep. Mark Pocan, Same-Sex Debate Is Personal
Rep. Mark Pocan’s office is just two blocks from the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices this week heard two separate cases involving same-sex marriage. But for the first-term Wisconsin lawmaker, the issue of marriage equality hits even closer than that.
Pocan is the only gay member of Congress who is married. (He wed Phillip Frank in Toronto in 2006, just weeks after Wisconsinites voted to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution.) And he is one of just seven openly gay lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including his predecessor, now-Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
When Pocan’s husband visits the Capitol, he does not receive a spouse ID card; instead it’s marked “designee.”
“ ‘Designee’ is as close as we get under federal law,” he said Wednesday in an interview with RealClearPolitics. “As someone who is openly gay and married, [the court case] means a lot when it comes to personal life. . . . I’ve been married 6½ years and yet there is no federal recognition of that.”
The high court heard oral arguments Wednesday on whether gay married couples should receive the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples. The plaintiff in the case, Edith Windsor, challenged the Defense of Marriage Act, which includes a provision defining marriage as between one man and one woman; it was signed into law by President Clinton in1996.
Like Pocan, Windsor married her partner (Thea Spyer) in Toronto -- after four decades together. Spyer died two years later, in 2009, and though her marriage to Windsor was considered legal in their home state of New York, the federal government took a different view; as a result, Windsor had to pay over $360,000 in federal estate taxes.
Unlike New York, Wisconsin does not recognize Pocan’s marriage as legal. The state’s domestic partnership law awards legal rights to gay couples, such as hospital visits and permission to determine end-of-life care, but does not cover many of the benefits awarded by the federal government. “It’s more difficult to function as a couple,” Pocan said. “There’s a very real impact of not being recognized.”
The year he and his partner got married, 59 percent of Wisconsin voters supported a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. And polling shows a plurality is still opposed to gay marriage; a survey by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling in June found that by 47% to 43% margin, voters think gay marriage should be illegal (an increase, though, in support for same-sex marriage from the previous year).
Asked if he would leave Wisconsin for a state that recognizes his marriage, Pocan answered, “I’m a fighter . . . and I’m going to keep fighting to get it done in the state I grew up in.”
In 2012, voters there elected Baldwin over popular former Gov. Tommy Thompson, and she made history by becoming the first openly gay U.S. senator. After 14 years in the state assembly, Pocan won her seat, and Wisconsin’s 2nd District became the first congressional district in the country to be consecutively represented by an openly gay member. That’s not entirely surprising, given that the 2nd includes the liberal college town of Madison, a Democratic stronghold.
Notably, neither his nor Baldwin’s sexual orientations were factors in the campaign. Despite the marriage ban and the statewide polling at the time, voters mostly saw it as a non-issue. Instead, the economy and government spending took center stage, as was the case in most campaigns last fall. Pocan co-chaired the joint finance committee in the state assembly, and helped lead a filibuster of Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial collective bargaining bill.
A small business owner, Pocan continued pushing his economic message after joining the 113th Congress in January -- as did most lawmakers, given the fiscal crises at center stage the past few months. Pocan still runs the Madison printing company he launched at age 23. Though he has been in Congress for just under 100 days, the Democratic lawmaker is trying to blend his progressive and pro-business views into one identity.
In an op-ed for The Hill newspaper last week, for example, Pocan asserted that government invests in small businesses “when we invest in infrastructure, such as the roads and bridges and airports that facilitate the flow of goods and customers to our front doors.”
The freshman congressman splits a county with Rep. Paul Ryan, with whom he serves on the House Budget Committee. He has been critical of Ryan’s budget, but nonetheless used his maiden floor speech to call on Congress to focus on economic growth.
In recent weeks, however, same-sex marriage has become a top topic on Capitol Hill. Earlier this month, Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman voiced support for gay marriage, attributing his change of heart to his own son coming out as gay. Portman was a top surrogate for Mitt Romney during last year’s election and was vetted as a potential running mate; his revelation elevated the issue as the Supreme Court cases approached. Several Democrats from moderate or red states have also come out in support for same-sex marriage in recent days, and not raising a hand in favor of it has become something of a taboo among Democrats.
This coalescing of his colleagues “just shows this is no longer an issue on the left or the right. It’s considered mainstream,” Pocan said. “Our elected leaders and our institutions, like the Supreme Court, have been significantly behind where the public is on this issue.”
A recent CBS poll found 53 percent of Americans think it should be legal for same-sex couples to marry, while 39 percent say it should not. Also notable: 33 percent of those who now think same-sex couples should be allowed to marry say they previously had the opposite view.
The Supreme Court will not announce its decisions until June. In the first case it heard, involving a California ban on gay marriage, it’s not even clear if the court will rule at all; during Tuesday’s arguments, justices questioned whether the case was indeed one for the highest federal court. But the second case, involving the Defense of Marriage Act, appeared to be less murky, as justices expressed concern about the constitutionality of the statute.
While the court’s decision could be historic, Pocan said he has seen significant progress at the Capitol. Last month Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, which includes protections for LGBT victims. The Wisconsin lawmaker is currently working with a bipartisan group of members on a bill that would extend domestic partnership protections for federal employees.
The Violence Against Women Act may have marked progress, but it was passed in the House thanks to support from the majority of Democrats. A House Republican-sponsored version did not include the LBGT protections.
And House Republicans are prepared to spend roughly $3 million in legal fees to uphold DOMA. Speaker John Boehner said such steps are needed, since the Obama administration will not defend DOMA in court. In recent interviews and meetings with the press, he has reiterated his belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman.
Pocan brought his spouse to his ceremonial swearing-in earlier this year, as most members of Congress do. A picture from the event shows Pocan and Boehner, each with his left hand on the Bible and his right hand raised. Phillip Frank stands between them. “I introduced him to my husband,” Pocan said, noting that the speaker was “very gracious.” The moment was brief, and Boehner and the new congressman spoke about a shared acquaintance -- a former Republican representative from Wisconsin’s 2nd District who was a member of Boehner’s freshman class.