Marriage equality trailblazer Jim Obergefell sets sights on Ohio Statehouse [INTERVIEW]

“Representation matters, and the LGBTQ+ community needs a voice at the table in the statehouse.”

Jim Obergefell brought the fight for marriage equality all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States in 2015 – and won. Now he is vying to bring that fight to the Ohio statehouse.

“Not many people get to go to the Supreme Court of the United States to fight for… well, anything. I was able to do that for the LGBTQ+ community, and I will continue that fight as a state legislator,” he says.

Obergefell is running for District 89, which encompasses Erie and Ottawa counties, including his hometown of Sandusky. If elected, he will be the only out gay male representative in the state house of representatives. He would also only be the 2nd out LGBTQ+ Ohio State legislator currently serving, joining Senator Nickie Antonio.

The Buckeye Flame spoke with the candidate about how his SCOTUS experience drove him to run for office and what he hopes to accomplish if elected.

Why run for office now?
That’s the culmination of a few things. The idea of running for office was planted in my mind in July 2015 – actually July 4th, of all days. Brian Simms, an openly LGBTQ+ legislator in Pennsylvania, was the one who said, ‘Jim, if people are going to start mentioning public service to you, please do me a favor and don’t just say no. I hope you’ll think about it.’

This was in the wake of the SCOTUS decision on marriage equality?
Correct. Yes. That experience on the Supreme Court changed me profoundly and made he realize how important it is to me to be part of making things better. I kept hearing from people over the years, ‘Jim you should run for office, I would vote for you’; ‘Jim, when are you running for office?’

But what really prompted me to announce was moving back to my hometown, Sandusky. All five of my siblings are here, their spouses, most of my nieces and nephews. Getting back to my roots had an impact on me that I wasn’t expecting. So, when Chris Redfern who used to hold this seat threw out the idea of my running, I decided it was time. 

Jim Obergefell with a photo of his late husband John.

Though this can change when the dust settles on redistricting, for now it looks like you’ll be running against Republican DJ Swearingen. What makes you the right candidate to flip District 89 blue?
First and foremost, I always do what’s right. That’s just who I am as a person. I am committed to making things better for others – for everyone, not just in this district but across the state. Unfortunately, it seems a lot of state legislators in Columbus have forgotten that they are public servants. They are not serving the public. They are doing things that actually harm the public. That includes the incumbent, who supports harmful policies including HB 616.

Tell us a bit more about the platform you’re running on.
My biggest priorities are jobs, education, healthcare, and the environment. I want to be part of bringing well-paying jobs and opportunities back to this district. I want to be part of making sure we continue to protect and respect Lake Erie. Also, as a product of public education from K-12 and a former public high school German teacher, I am a staunch proponent of public education. That means fixing state funding for public education so that it is fair and keeping our public dollars in public education. I am opposed to vouchers. We also need affordable healthcare. I believe healthcare is a human right.

 If elected, how will you use your position to support LGBTQ+ Ohioans, specifically?
I will stand up, speak out, and fight against harmful bills like HB 616. I will fight against any proposed bills that would ban trans athletes from school sports. I will join in sponsoring the Ohio Fairness Act. Anything I can do to ensure that the LGBTQ+ community is respected and protected in this state, I will be there. Marginalized communities need a seat at the table and they need a voice in the state legislature. I will be that voice for marginalized communities.

What else can state legislators do better to make progress on LGBTQ+ rights?
Building bridges, building consensus, helping other lawmakers understand that members of the LGBTQ+ community are really no different than they are. When you know someone from a marginalized community, they cease being that abstract other; they become a person. I always like to say I am friends with Rick Hodges of Obergefell v Hodges. Most people would think that the people on either side of the v in a supreme court case could never be friends, well, we are friends. So, when I’m elected, as the only open LGBTQ+ member of the Ohio House, I will work with lawmakers across the aisle to build consensus on these issues.

Jim Obergefell submitting his petitions to run for the Ohio House of Representatives on January 28th (Courtesy: Facebook)

There are concerns about the low level of voter engagement with the political process. What can candidates do to improve voter turnout?
Get out the vote efforts are extremely important, but I think another big part of it comes down to making yourself available to constituents. I believe in sitting down and talking with people. I believe in getting out into the communities and meeting people and understanding their issues. I think that is something that’s been lost among a lot of state legislators. They are not holding those meetings. They are not returning phone calls. They are not open to having conversations. I will do that. When voters realize you’re someone who listens and will follow up on issues, someone who actually shares their values and wants to work on this, that will engage people.

It’s also a matter of educating voters about what’s really at stake in these elections. Many of the rights we value – for example, the right of a woman to control her own body the right to marry, and Labor rights – are at risk. When we elect state legislatures that more accurately reflect who we are and the values we hold, we can protect those rights – so it’s critical that every eligible voter votes in every election.

What would it mean to you to become the only out gay male state representative in Ohio?Personally, I don’t care about being the first, the only, the anything. I look at it from the perspective of that closeted gay man, that young woman who is starting to come out, or that child who realizes they’re different. Representation matters, and the LGBTQ+ community needs a voice at the table in the statehouse. If elected, I’ll have my work cut out for me as just one lawmaker of 99 – but it will be a start.

Any final thoughts?
I encourage everyone to contact Speaker Bob Cupp in the Ohio House of Representatives to voice their opposition to HB 616. It will do nothing but harm to students, teachers, staff members, and the LGBTQ+ community, and it has no place in Ohio law.

Ignite Action:

  • Learn more about Jim Obergefell and his bid for Ohio State Representative by visiting his websiteFacebookTwitter or Instagram.
  • Check to make sure you are registered to vote and update your voter registration address. 

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