In November 2012, Tammy Baldwin made international headlines when she became the first out lesbian ever elected to the U.S. Senate. She was also the first woman ever elected to that chamber from Wisconsin.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, made history that year, too. A longtime friend of Baldwin, he won her former congressional district, becoming the first out candidate to succeed another out officeholder in Congress. Pocan also became the first member of Congress to gain an official spousal ID for a same-sex spouse — his husband Phil Frank. The two married in Toronto in 2006.
It took persistence and pulling some strings for Pocan to get House Speaker John Boehner to bestow the recognition. Pocan’s success in obtaining it demonstrates two fundamentals about his brand of leadership: He never backs down when it comes to his beliefs, and he works strategically, rather than showily, to promote them.
Congress’ spousal recognition of Pocan and Frank has greater implications than might be immediately apparent, said David Stacy, the Human Rights Campaign’s government affairs director.
“I went over there (to the Capitol) the day Mark was sworn in, and it was great to see Phil was right there by his side and his colleagues were looking on,” Stacy said. “Mark having Phil by his side, and it being just like other spouses, makes members who are anti-LGBT have to deal with same-sex spouses on an equal basis. Ultimately that changes attitudes, because it’s something they’re dealing with in their everyday lives.”
HRC is working with members of Congress to pass the Equality Act, which would update civil rights laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The law would give LGBT people a tool to legally combat discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and other areas.
Stacy said Pocan, co-chair of Congress’ LGBT Equality Caucus, and the five other out members of the House — along with Baldwin in the Senate — will be the most effective lobbyists on the bill’s behalf. They can speak directly to their colleagues on the measure’s significance to their lives.
Pocan is especially effective at the one-on-one level, according to Stacy.
“Mark is one of the best people I can think of to have those conversations,” he explained. “He’s friendly, accessible, nonthreatening. He’ll help (other representatives) work through any issues they have.”
Pocan, who recently celebrated his 51st birthday, applies an LGBT perspective to a variety of issues. For instance, he circulated a letter seeking to remove Brunei from a free-trade agreement due to that country’s death penalty for LGBT people. One hundred and nineteen members of Congress signed the letter.
Equality is but one item on a long list of progressive causes that Pocan has pushed forward with determination throughout his political career, which includes 14 years in the Wisconsin Assembly. He’s stood up forcefully for including raising the minimum wage, offering debt-free college, putting an end to fracking, building a trust fund for infrastructure projects and raising taxes on people earning over $1 million per year.
His strong work ethic, political skills and experience grabbed the attention of Democratic leadership from his first days in Washington. As a congressional freshman, Pocan was named a member of the powerful House Committee on Education and the Workforce — a plum assignment usually reserved for more senior representatives. Just one year into his second term, he was named first vice chair of the Progressive Caucus, the Democratic Party’s largest values-based congressional caucus. He’s also a senior whip and has frequent meetings with cabinet secretaries.
During a visit to Milwaukee earlier this year, Pocan told WiG that despite right-wing control over Congress, the caucus’ power and influence are growing.
“This year the progressive caucus’ budget got more votes than ever,” he said. And some key items in the progressive budget have been adopted by the administration’s proposed budget.
The Progressive Caucus call for debt-free college is now being promoted by the campaigns of both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
“We can put ideas out there that an become reality later,” Pocan said. “You just have to have the patience and the perseverance.”
Thanks to the fundraising strength of fellow caucus members such as his friend Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, and Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, Pocan expects the caucus to raise two to three times what it did last session.
The caucus “works side by side with labor, environmental, union and other groups,” Pocan said. When measures are blocked in Congress by Republican leadership, the caucus works through the executive branch. Pocan said the caucus was involved in President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration, as well as the one that raised the minimum wage for federal contractors.
“That’s 22 to 24 percent of the economy,” Pocan said, grinning. “In a vacuum, we have to have some way of doing something. We’re being strategic and realizing that there’s not a single way to get things done.”
Pocan noted that, despite the political right’s screams of presidential overreach and tyranny, as of the end of Congress’ last session, Obama had issued fewer executive orders than any president in the past 100 years.
Their successes aside, Democrats and progressives performed disastrously in last year’s elections. Pocan blames the losses on Democrats running away from the president and the party’s failed messaging about the economy. Those two factors helped push the nationwide turnout down to 36 percent. Low turnouts always favor Republicans.
Pocan said the election proved once again that “Republicans can succinctly put their message. We need to be able to package our ideas better. There’s awareness around that coming out of the last election cycle.”
For 12 of the 14 years Pocan was in the Wisconsin Assembly, he served in the minority. For half of those years, he served on the Joint Finance Committee, which writes the state’s budget. He served one term as committee co-chair, one of the state’s most powerful positions.
As he explained to Frederica Freyberg in a July 18, 2013 interview on Wisconsin Public Television, the finance committee taught him the fine art of working across party lines.
“When I first got elected, I’d throw a grenade,” he said. “People would say what did you hit? I’d say, I don’t know, it blew up. And then from being on the finance committee, especially when we had a committee that was an 8-8 committee, you learn to work with other people to get something thing done.
“You have to. I think one of the things around here is, you’ve seen Washington, there was a poll last December, people would rather have a cockroach at their dinner table than a member of congress. That should be a wake-up call.”
Pocan appeared on the program with Republican Rep. Reid Ribble. The two have become something of a political odd couple, working together publicly to engender partisan cooperation on issues. They’ve promoted legislation to increase funding for medical research, for example, and to change the federal budgeting process from annual to biennial, as it’s done in Wisconsin.
How does Pocan, who famously infiltrated the American Legislative Exchange Council and exposed its machinations in The Progressive magazine, manage to subdue his strongly held ideology? Because it’s the only way to get things done, he said.
“You find out what you have in common, not what you don’t have in common,” he explained to WiG during a visit early this summer. He cited as current examples his work with tea party Republicans on repealing the Patriot Act and stopping the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would become the largest free trade agreement in history. Obama negotiated it, but progressive Democrats are in opposition.
In 2013, Pocan joined with three Wisconsin Republican congressmen and more than 70 other representatives from both parties in creating a group called Problem Solvers. The group primarily seeks to cut wasteful government spending and gridlock caused by partisan one-upsmanship.
In May, Pocan stood with a group of supportive leaders around New York Mayor Bill de Blasio as he announced a 13-point progressive agenda. His goal, as he put it, is to stop Democrats from “running away from the discussion of progressive economic policy.”
The message is the same one de Blasio brought to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin during its annual meeting in June. It’s based in part on the mayor’s achievements in New York, which include paid sick leave and universal free pre-kindergarten. But it also tackles national issues, calling for closing tax loopholes, enacting meaningful immigration reforms and nixing trade deals that could harm American workers, human rights abroad and the environment.
Those are all reforms that Pocan supports.
While Pocan’s career is on the rise and his political future looks bright, don’t expect him to become one of those politicians who changes course based on the direction of the political winds. Like de Blasio, he’s unabashedly progressive and proud of it.
Although people might not agree with him, Pocan is widely respected for both his authenticity and his ability to work with the other side to obtain incremental success. He’s neither a flip-flopper or a demagogue.
Americablog’s Skye Winspur summed up Pocan perfectly in a May editorial titled: “Mark Pocan: A diamond in the congressional rough.”
He wrote: “It’s easy to look at Congress, shake your head and complain that everything is awful and can’t ever get better. For disaffected liberals around the country, Mark Pocan is the alternative — the counterexample — showing that good people can get elected to Congress and succeed once they’re there.”