Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) speaks to eighth graders visiting Capitol Hill. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
The Capitol Hill office of gay freshman Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) is noticeably bare as one might expect from a lawmaker who began his first term in office just a few months ago.
But on the teal walls, one item stands out: a framed picture of a 1924 campaign flier for Robert LaFollette along with a license plate advertising his bid for U.S. Senate. LaFollette, a Republican, who served in the early 20th century, formed the Wisconsin Progressive Party and is considered a leading voice of the progressive movement.
That flier and license plate are just two pieces of LaFollette memorabilia owned by Pocan, who’s an avid collector of all things related to the Wisconsin senator’s political career.
“I have over half of his known political buttons,” Pocan says. “I also have a little slide movie projector from 1924. You put it in and you have LaFollette reeler and there’s pictures. And their slogan was ‘Fearless and Incorruptible,’ which is kind of a great slogan.”
Speaking with the Washington Blade in his office, Pocan says he and his spouse of six years — Phillip Frank, with whom he operates a small printing company business in Madison — have pledged to donate their LaFollette collection to the Wisconsin Historic Society.
Any why is the Wisconsin congressman so interested in LaFollette? Pocan says the 1920s public figure resonates with him because of his work starting the progressive movement and advancing progressive causes in the state.
“In Wisconsin, we started things like unemployment compensation, so many of these national programs started in the progressive area,” Pocan says. “And he was a strong fighter. At the time, the railroads were a big monopoly, and he fought that. And he just kind of embodies what the progressive movement is about. Even here, he was recognized as a national leader for the work he did.”
In many ways, Pocan is in line with the spirit of LaFollette as a progressive leader. Representing Wisconsin’s 2nd congressional district, one of the more progressive areas in the country, Pocan serves the same constituents that lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) represented for 14 years before she won election to the upper chamber of Congress.
And as one of the seven openly lesbian, gay and bisexual members of Congress, Pocan personifies — and pursues — one of the most prominent causes that progressive groups have embraced in recent years: the advancement of LGBT equality.
But on this day, other issues are crowding the Wisconsin lawmaker’s schedule. His schedule includes his morning staff meeting, an audience with eighth grade students, a meeting with a legislative representative from the Area Health Education Centers in Wisconsin and lunch with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Capping it off is a “Make It in America” news confernece with other members of Congress.
Pocan is able to find time to talk to the Blade about his experience serving in Congress for just more than 100 days. As a chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, Pocan already has priorities for what he wants to see on LGBT issues for the 113th Congress.
While passage of any such legislation would be challenging as long as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is the presiding officer of the U.S. House, Pocan says he sees opportunities in working across the aisle. In particular, he wants to build support for legislation known as the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act, which would provide federal workers with health and pension benefits for their same-sex partners.
A federal employee himself, Pocan found that he was unable to obtain federal benefits for his spouse, even though they were legally married in Canada, when he began his tenure in Congress — as was the person who was informing him he’d be ineligible.
“The person who was briefing me on my benefits, she and her partner don’t have benefits,” Pocan said. “So even the benefit designee, the person who’s a professional, she can’t get benefits for her partner. So, it’s a pervasive problem for federal employees. That’s an important bill, and we’ve got bipartisan support and we’re working on that so we can introduce it with strong support from day one.”
A member of the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, which would have jurisdiction over the legislation, Pocan says he expects introduction of the legislation next month. Although a Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, may make the legislation unnecessary, Pocan says plans for legislation are underway because there’s no telling how the court will rule.
In the meantime, Pocan is working within the system in Congress for greater equality for he and his spouse. The couple say they’re seeking from the House Sergeant at Arms an administrative change with the help of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). While his spouse was given a congressional pin that identifies him as spouse, Frank’s ID gives him the lesser distinction of designee.
“So he’s not treated equally, even though we’re legally married six-and-a-half years,” Pocan says. “So we’ve been working on that issue, trying to get that to change. For the last three months, we’ve been pushing to try to make them realize that we are legally married. What is their measure to say he’s a designee?”
Another LGBT issue that concerns Pocan is LGBT youth homelessness. That issue hits close to home; Pocan says an LGBT constituency group in Wisconsin informed him that about 400 people in Milwaukee who are homeless are LGBT youth.
Pocan says he intends to highlight an upcoming report from the Department of Housing & Urban Development to bring greater awareness to the issue of LGBT youth homelessness and has brought up the issue with the LGBT Equality Caucus.
“We realized the HUD report is coming this year, so now we’re partnering with some national groups on this, and we’re actually going to have something where we invite other national groups to Congress to talk about that,” Pocan says. “So, we’re just kind of getting that structure together to realize how we can have that magnified voice.”
The Wisconsin lawmaker comes to Congress after having served for 14 years as a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, and, for a time, as the State Assembly Budget Committee chair, which under his jurisdiction passed a domestic partnership laws for gay couples in the state and allowed state universities to provide benefits for employees with same-sex partners. It was the first state to do so even with a draconian state constitutional amendment on the books barring same-sex marriage and marriage-like unions.
For Pocan, the most glaring difference between serving as a state lawmaker and a member of Congress is the partisanship that pervades Congress. Pocan was particularly disappointed that during freshmen training for new members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans were separated with the exception of one dinner and one reception.
“They kind of taught you bad behavior from day one,” Pocan said, “I’ve always worked on a finance committee for six of my years. I was co-chair there for two years, where I spent eight hours a day, three days a week for three or four months every other year putting a budget together with the other party and actually working on stuff.”
But Pocan has taken it upon himself to get acquainted with fellow lawmakers on the other side. One surprising person with whom he’s formed a friendship: Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), an anti-gay lawmaker who was among the chief voices calling for congressional action against the marriage equality law in D.C.
Part of their friendship is the result of Jordan attending University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he wrestled, and having kids who also attend that school.
“I signed on to his bill to keep wrestling in the Olympics because he cares about wrestling,” Pocan says. “I’m trying to build those relationships because we’ve talked about not only getting together while he’s in Madison, but he also wants to get on this one conservative radio show. I said I can get you on there, she hates me.”
Pocan can’t stay in his office speaking with the Blade long before he’s headed to his next engagement: speaking to eighth-graders from the Eagle School for Gifted Students who are on a field trip visiting Capitol Hill.
For 30 minutes, Pocan talks to the students about his job as a member of Congress and fields questions about the legislative process. Among the questions are continued funding for the U.S. Post Office and environmental issues, but he also receives a question from a student on what he can do to bring marriage equality to Wisconsin.
Pocan responds by saying the effort will be difficult because Wisconsin “put hate” in the constitution by amending it to ban same-sex marriage, but notes the progress made when domestic partnerships were enacted into law.
“It’s not full equality, but at least we were able to do something in Wisconsin,” Pocan says. “So we’ve got some minor protections in place, but I think the big thing we’re all watching is the Supreme Court case that was just heard a couple weeks ago to see what decision they make.”
The Wisconsin lawmaker urged the student to take heart because the country is moving ahead of leaders and pointed to recent polls showing a majority of the American public — and 80 percent of America’s youth — back marriage rights for gay couples.
“This is really I think a civil rights issue of our generation, and I’m hoping we’ll have good resolution with the courts, but more importantly, the public is there, we just have to get our leaders to actually lead,” Pocan said.