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The House’s two biggest gay rights champions will be gone from the chamber after next year, leaving a void that advocates say will be tough to fill.
While Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin’s Senate bid in Wisconsin presents gay rights activists a historic opportunity to have representation in the Senate, Rep. Barney Frank’s (D-Mass.) retirement leaves the community without its most outspoken and grizzled veteran.
Rather than fill the shoes of the two giants who co-founded the LGBT Equality Caucus, Hill observers predict a broad coalition of Members — gay and straight — will collectively take up the mantle in the interim.
“The Equality Caucus is really vibrant, and there are many Members who are committed to the issues, and they will continue working on that,” said Cathy Hurwit, chief of staff to Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) who is a member of the caucus. “They are just hardworking, smart members, and I think they will step forward.”
Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) are the only other openly gay Members serving in the House. Polis took three weeks of paternity leave last month after he and his partner, Marlon Reis, announced the birth of their son, Caspian Julius. The Colorado Democrat has a coveted seat on the Rules Committee and is a frequent spokesman on gay rights issues along with Frank and Baldwin. Aides and observers say he is a natural fit to take the helm as the leading advocate for gay rights issues in the House, but spokesman Chris Fitzgerald demurred when asked about his boss’s future.
Still, that has not stopped supporters from floating Polis’ name.
“I think [he] would be the logical choice for who is going to take the helm,” said Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party.
Palacio said Polis fits the new mold of an LGBT lawmaker: someone who works with a wide spectrum of Members and who champions a broad portfolio of issues, not just those paramount to the gay community.
“There’s going to be a lapse because Barney had such deep relationships with everyone across the political spectrum. I see a little bit of that in Jared,” Palacio said. “Jared is very progressive but very pragmatic and pro-business. He has great relationships and works well across the aisle. They sort of operate in the same fashion.”