ABOVE: A coalition is seeking to unseat anti-LGBT Democrat Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), but he has support from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Washington Blade photo of Pelosi by Michael Key; photo of Lipinski public domain.
The nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group is spearheading a $1.3 million effort to unseat from Congress a nearly extinct animal — an anti-LGBT Democrat — in an upcoming primary, but that effort runs contrary to the position of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Weeks before the primary on March 20, the Human Rights Campaign has launched an independent expenditure campaign to defeat Rep. Dan Lipinski, who represents Illinois’s 3rd congressional district.
Ben Needham, director of strategic initiatives for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a phone interview with the Washington Blade on Friday the effort involves a multi-pronged approach.
“We are spending $1.3 million collectively to remove Lipinksi from office,” Needham said. “Those efforts include direct mail programs, social media, campaign and social media ads. It includes an on-air TV buy at this point, and we are doing phone calls into the district as well.”
Aside from the Human Rights Campaign, the coalition in the joint independent expenditure effort consists of NARAL Pro-Choice America, SEIU, MoveOn, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and EMILY’s List.
It isn’t the first time HRC has attempted to unseat Lipinski, a Catholic lawmaker who has established an anti-LGBT record even though he’s a Democrat and represents a progressive district. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the district by 15 points in the general election; Bernie Sanders won it by 8 points in the Democratic primary.
Needham said since Lipinski has taken office in 2005 the lawmaker has “repeatedly taken votes against the LGBTQ community, and he’s consistently done it in every single Congress since then.”
“This is not our friend,” Needham said. “This is someone who is extremely anti-LGBTQ and he is siding with some of our biggest opponents.”
During his first term in Congress, he voted “present” in 2006 when a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage came to the House floor. In the subsequent Congress after Democrats took control, Lipinski in 2007 voted against a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act on the House floor.
Lipinski was also the only Democratic co-sponsor of the First Amendment Defense Act, which seeks to “protect” opponents of same-sex marriage from government action, but was seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination in the name of “religious freedom.”
The incident most revealing of Lipinski’s anti-LGBT views was a 2014 campaign mailer to his constituents organized by the anti-LGBT Illinois Family Institute. That flyer indicated Lipinski backed a U.S. constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, supported a measure that would have prohibited the U.S. Justice Department from undermining the Defense of Marriage Act; and backed a conscience clause in major defense spending legislation seen to enable anti-LGBT harassment of service members.
Those views are in opposition to the tenets of the Democratic Party. The 2016 Democratic Party platform embraces LGBT rights and states “Democrats applaud” the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage that “recognized that LGBT people — like other Americans — have the right to marry the person they love.”
Needham said Lipinski has been able to maintain those views in office even though he’s a Democrat because he won the seat, which was previously held by his father, based on name recognition.
“He has never had a real race, he has never had to communicate his policies to the people and Illinois’ third district, and so they don’t know what his policies are, and that is the reason why we are partnering with our partner organizations: To make sure voters are educated when they go into the ballot box,” Needham said.
The Lipinski campaign didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment for this article or whether the lawmaker’s views have changed on LGBT issues.
Despite his anti-LGBT actions, it should be noted Lipinski’s record isn’t entirely hostile. The lawmaker has voted in favor of federal hate crimes protection legislation for LGBT people and in favor of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
More recently, Lipinski voted with Democrats to uphold President Obama’s executive order barring anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors and, just last year, to maintain payments for gender reassignment surgery as part of the U.S. military’s health care system.
But Lipinski’s anti-LGBT views aren’t the only aspect of his record that offended progressive groups. According to HRC, Lipinski has voted to block his constituents from care at Planned Parenthood and ban abortions, opposed raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and voted in opposition to Obamacare.
The only competitor facing Lipinski in the March 20 primary is Marie Newman, a small business person and entrepreneur who established the group called “Team Up to Stop Bullying,” a coalition of 70 organizations seeking to find anti-bullying solutions for school kids.
On her campaign website, Newman includes a section on “protecting rights,” which criticizes Lipinski for his anti-LGBT record and pledges a commitment to LGBT people.
“In Congress, I will fight tirelessly against discrimination based on race, religion, gender or sexuality — because respect, appreciation and equal rights are American values that I hold dear,” Newman writes. “We must rededicate ourselves to the basic, American principles of accepting refugees and promoting a welcome environment for all.”
Marty Rouse, HRC’s national field director, said Newman is “a candidate with a proven record of supporting LGBTQ equality” and his organization is mobilizing for her in the district on top of the independent expenditure campaign.
“Our staff and volunteers have completed hundreds of hour of canvassing and phone banks across the district and greater Chicago,” Rouse said. “HRC has already conducted two campaign advocate training in Chicago for our members. This grassroots mobilization is building to elect a candidate whose values best represent those of Illinois’ third district.”
An internal poll from the Newman campaign made public in December declared Lipinski was “vulnerable” based on voters’ lack of knowledge of his positions.
Against an unknown candidate, Lipinski led 49 percent to 18 percent, which is sub-50 percent and considered by the Newman campaign a sign of vulnerability. Upon educating Democrats on Lipinski’s record, support for him dropped five points and rose for Newman by 16 points. That closed the gap between them to a margin of less than 10 points. After hearing balanced negative attacks on both candidates, Newman pulled into the lead by five points.
Nathan Gonzalez, editor of the non-partisan publication Inside Elections, said progressive groups “definitely have an opportunity.”
“I think when we get closer to an election day, it’s important to rely on the current polling, and there just isn’t a lot of polling,” Gonzalez said.
But Lipinski has support in the upcoming primary from at least one progressive, Pelosi, whose voice is strong within the Democratic Party.
With the election weeks away and the progressive campaign underway to unseat Lipinski, Pelosi was asked during her weekly news conference whether she supports the incumbent lawmaker.
Her response was succinct and arguably half-hearted: “I do.” Those words seemed to surprise the Capitol Hill press corps because a reporter repeated the question, prompting Pelosi to leave no doubt of her position by saying, “I do,” once again.
A Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Blade Pelosi endorsed Lipinski because “leadership always supports incumbents.”
Needham said in response to Pelosi’s endorsement of Lipinski the Human Rights Campaign backs her, but still remains focused on defeating the lawmaker.
“We continue to support Leader Pelosi, and we’re appreciative for the support she has given to the LGBTQ community, but our focus here is Dan Lipinski is not a member that HRC believes should continue to serve in Congress, and we’re going to do everything we can to ensure he is not in the next Congress,” Needham said.
Gonzalez said he doesn’t think Pelosi’s support for Lipinski will change any minds of district residents who already oppose the lawmaker.
“I think a lot of the groups and individuals who are opposed to congressman also like Leader Pelosi, but they want to defeat the congressman in this race, so I don’t think her comment is going to be enough to satisfy the congressman’s critics,” Gonzalez said.
With congressional mid-term elections approaching and Democrats expecting wins with President Trump in the White House, Needham said the efforts in Illinois will precede the work in the fall and beyond.
“Our work in the Illinois-Third is just leading up to the work that we plan to do all across 2018 and leading into 2020,” Needham said. “This is part of our larger effort to put a lot of money into targeted states and targeted congressional races, and other races to really highlight the equality vote and really promote that LGBTQ people can the difference in the election. We intend to prove that in Illinois-Third.”