COLUMBUS, Ohio—Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden declared Saturday that the Equality Act would be his top legislative priority, an effort to enshrine LGBTQ protections into the nation’s labor and civil rights laws.

The former vice president shared his hopes of signing the legislation as part of a keynote address to hundreds of activists at the Human Rights Campaign‘s annual Ohio gala on the first day of Pride Month. In a half-hour at the lectern, his remarks ranged from emotional tributes to his audience and their personal endurance to condemnations of President Donald Trump.

“It’s wrong and it is immoral what they’re doing,” Biden said of the Trump administration. Among other Trump polices, he cited attempts to bar transgender troops in the U.S. military, allow individuals in the medical field to refuse to treat LGBTQ individuals, and allow homeless shelters to refuse transgender occupants.

“Just like with racial justice and women’s rights, we are seeing pushback against all the progress we’ve made toward equality,” Biden said.

The Equality Act would address many such discriminatory practices. It recently passed the Democratic-run House, but will not become law under Trump and the Republican Senate. That means LGBTQ residents in dozens of states are still subject to various forms of discrimination that are either specifically allowed or not barred by state law.

“It will be the first thing I ask to be done,” Biden said.

Biden spoke in Ohio, a political battleground he was visiting for the first time since beginning his bid, on the same day that more than a dozen of his rivals were in San Francisco for the California Democratic Convention and a massive conference. By the end of the weekend, 14 candidates will have addressed thousands of activists in California, which has more than 400 delegates to the 2020 convention, about a fifth of what it will take to win the nomination.

Among them, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, nodded to Biden’s absence with subtle jabs.

“Some Democrats in Washington believe the only changes we can get are tweaks and nudges. … Some say if we all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses,” Warren said, an allusion to Biden’s recent prediction that Republicans will have “an epiphany” once Trump leaves office.

Biden made no mention of his rivals, with his go-it-alone itinerary and his message signifying his burgeoning confidence at his position atop the pack of 24 presidential hopefuls.

Campaigning in a Midwest battleground is no surprise for Biden. One of the prevailing arguments for his candidacy is that his moderate, deal-making, “Middle Class Joe” brand offers Democrats their best shot to win back the industrial belt that Trump wrested from the party in 2016.

Yet the HRC event offered both Biden and his audience a chance to go beyond that simplified framing of the 2020 landscape.

“The thing that gets overlooked when the story is written about Ohio and the Midwest is that we’re incredibly diverse,” said Shawn Copeland, HRC’s Ohio director.

Copeland said HRC has identified about 1.8 million “equality voters” in Ohio, including 400,000 LGBTQ citizens, plus their family members, friends and other allies. Trump got 2.84 million Ohio votes to Hillary Clinton’s 2.4 million in 2016.

Biden, meanwhile, used the forum to underscore his long alliance with HRC and LGBTQ activists — a key to Biden’s contention that he’s more progressive than the party’s left flank acknowledges.

The former vice president visibly enjoyed recalling the 2012 presidential campaign when he announced his support for same-sex marriage before his boss, President Barack Obama, had done so.

Biden recalled that most political observers “thought I had just committed this gigantic blunder.” He said he’d let Obama know beforehand what might be coming. “I told the president if asked, I was not going to be quiet.”

The rest of his remarks were less jovial, as Biden lamented the widespread discrimination that still exists in the U.S. and abroad. Noting recent killings of black transgender women, he roared: “It’s outrageous. It must, it must, it must end. The fastest way to end it is to end the Trump administration.”

He lowered his voice as he listed the percentage of LGBTQ children and teens who attempt or consider suicide. “I don’t have to tell you how hard it is for these kids, because many of you were these kids,” he said, “the terror in your heart as you spoke your truth.”

Several Democratic hopefuls have addressed HRC state dinners this year. National officials with the organizations say they’ve worked with the campaigns and the state organizations to schedule the occasions.

A Biden campaign statement issued before the speech said the choice to go to Ohio proves Biden wants to have conversations about LGBTQ rights “not just on the coasts of this country, but in the heartland and with any and all Americans.”

The venue also allowed him to push back, at least indirectly, at some of the jabs from California. He reminded the audience that he campaigned for many of the freshman House Democrats who helped the party to a net gain of 41 seats — mostly by winning swing or GOP-leaning districts.

“We didn’t have to be radical about anything,” he said. “They talked about basic, fundamental rights.”

With the resulting House majority, Biden noted, the Equality Act has gotten further than ever before.


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