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Equality PAC raises millions to boost LGBTQ representation in Congress

DON GONYEA, HOST:

As Pride Month celebrations continue across the country, the political arm of the Equality Caucus in the U.S. Congress is working to boost representation on Capitol Hill and pass broad protections for the LGBTQ community. NPR congressional reporter Barbara Sprunt has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN")

CYNDI LAUPER: (Singing) Oh, daddy, dear, you know you're still No. 1...

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Union Station in Washington, D.C., was recently lit up all colors of the rainbow, with sparkling tablecloths and celebrities and political heavyweights dotting the hall. The Equality PAC was celebrating its 10-year anniversary, or, as co-chair Congressman Ritchie Torres put it...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RITCHIE TORRES: Welcome to our annual convening of the gay mafia.

SPRUNT: There are currently nine openly LGBTQ House members and three senators in Congress. Equality PAC wants to expand their numbers and pass the Equality Act, which would enshrine civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community. This year, the group is backing six House candidates, all Democrats. Ahead of the event, I asked Torres if the PAC would ever endorse a Republican.

TORRES: If you were a Republican who sponsored the Equality Act, then, in theory, you were eligible. But in practice, even if you had a Republican who was pro-LGBTQ, if you're voting for a speaker who's anti-LGBTQ, then that is a factor against you.

SPRUNT: He says the Supreme Court overturning the constitutional right to abortion in 2022 makes people fearful other established rights could be on the chopping block.

TORRES: A woman born in 2024 has fewer rights than she did in 1973, which is a tragic reminder that progress cannot be taken for granted.

SPRUNT: Torres, who became the first LGBTQ Black Latino member of Congress in 2021, says his own political journey is a success story of the PAC, and he's now paying it forward with a new group of candidates.

TORRES: We will host fundraisers. But also, we provide technical assistance on how to run a campaign. We give our cellphone numbers to every candidate we endorse.

SPRUNT: Texas State Representative Julie Johnson says that kind of access helped her narrowly avoid a primary runoff election. The second-place candidate was 31 points behind her.

JULIE JOHNSON: PACs, by their very definition, are not the enemy of politics. PACs create a vehicle for donors to unite around a common cause, and they have introduced me to donors, helped me secure good consultants, navigate some of the media issues, the policy issues.

SPRUNT: She's running in a typically blue district. If elected, she'd be the first lesbian representing Texas in Congress and the first openly LGBTQ House member in the entire South. Johnson says it's a huge responsibility to be a history-maker.

JOHNSON: It's not lost on me the significance of what my election represents. It's a message that, you know, I am more than a gay person. It's certainly a significant part of me, but it's not all of me. I'm a mother. I'm a lawyer. And the whole of me comes to the process. And it makes it to where I can resonate with voters, and they see themselves in me.

SPRUNT: Delaware's Sarah McBride is familiar with the feeling of being a first. She was the first transgender person elected to a state Senate. Now she's running unopposed and is poised to become the first trans member in Congress.

SARAH MCBRIDE: It's much harder to hate up close. And at a minimum, our presence serves as a reminder for all of our colleagues that, when they're debating these issues, they're talking about real people.

SPRUNT: She says, if elected, she hopes, ultimately, her identity won't be the first thing people think about.

MCBRIDE: They'll think about the policies that I've helped advance. That is the best way to guarantee that while I may be a first, that I'm not the last and that we build a world where it's no longer noteworthy when a trans candidate runs and wins.

SPRUNT: The PAC is well on its way to increasing LGBTQ representation in Congress, but the mission to pass protections requires more than just new House members. It needs significantly more Democrats in the Senate, not to mention the White House.

Barbara Sprunt, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: June 22, 2024 at 6:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story said that Delaware state Sen. Sarah McBride was running unopposed for the U.S. House seat being vacated by Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester. McBride is running unopposed in the Democratic primary, but faces a Republican opponent in the general election.
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.