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Is Virginia
Really for Lovers?

Is Virginia
Really for Lovers?


Equality Virginia takes stock of state politics since the marriage ban passed in 2006 and finds that even conservative Republicans are starting to think twice before targeting LGBTs.

What springs to mind when you think of Virginia? "Values voters"? The home of Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell? Where the capital of the Confederacy was, perhaps?

Sure, all of those things are true, but Virginia has started to surprise many political pundits and tease the national experts with the occasional flash of, dare we say it, progressive action and fair-minded thinking.

Virginia is on the front lines among contested states this year. Although the state has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, senators Obama and McCain have been spending millions of dollars on voter registration, multiple in-person visits to the commonwealth, and nonstop television advertising. Obviously, we are "in play" for the first time in a long time, and this illustrates the trend away from the divisive tactics of the hard right.

What has caused Virginia's shift toward moderation and away from the sense that it is easy pickings for cultural conservatives?

Just two years ago, on November 7, 2006, Virginia voters went to the polls to cast their ballots on our version of an antigay "marriage amendment." Virginia's legislation not only denied marriage equality to the state's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, it also prohibited any type of relationship recognition whatsoever. We were one of about a dozen states that year facing these reactionary measures, designed to deliver "values voters" and energize the far right's base of support during the hotly contested congressional races.

But something happened on our way to the polls. Although the amendment passed, almost 1 million voters sided with fairness and rejected the amendment. Our opponents, who had gleefully predicted a 70% victory for the amendment just a few months earlier, were stunned with only a 57% showing -- better that year than Wisconsin and matching Oregon in 2004.

And something more astonishing occurred. Our amendment actually helped an opponent of the amendment, Democrat Jim Webb, defeat incumbent Republican George Allen for U.S. Senate. "Macaca moments" notwithstanding, Senator Allen spent millions of dollars on advertising designed to turn out "yes" voters on the "marriage amendment" under the assumption that once at the polls, they would vote for him. "Yes" voters turned out, sure, but their position on the amendment didn't dictate their Senate vote.

A good example is Virginia's ninth congressional district, which runs along the Blue Ridge from Roanoke to our southern and southwestern borders with Tennessee and North Carolina. Allen spent heavily on pro-marriage advertising, and turnout was high in this "conservative" area. But while 75% of voters supported the amendment, only 55% voted for Allen, even as they reelected Democratic congressman Rick Boucher with 68% of the vote. Needing to win by a wide margin here, Allen ultimately turned out a lot of Webb voters too, and his flogging of the amendment for assumed political gain was one of the key factors in his loss.

Running parallel to our amendment efforts, Equality Virginia founded EVPAC in 2005, which enabled us to get directly involved in Virginia's legislative races. In two election cycles, 2005 and 2007, over 85% of our supported candidates won their races, and we helped defeat some of the most antigay leaders in the state's general assembly, replacing them with fair-minded allies on both sides of the aisle.

For us, the results of both of these efforts are tangible. More than 3,000 Virginians volunteered with the campaign to defeat the antigay marriage amendment and became part of our movement, and 1,000 people contributed for the first time to our cause. We called and spoke with hundreds of thousands of voters in the days before the election. EVPAC has raised money and turned out voters for fair-minded candidates, and encouraged our volunteers to be active leaders locally in elections. We are building a strong list of gay-friendly voters who we know are with us. For the first time, it is becoming dangerous to be too antigay.

Following these events, we've seen a shift. In recent legislative sessions our opponents have been less committed to attacks on our community. Research done by EV's Education Fund continues to show extremely strong bipartisan support for providing same-sex inheritance rights (82%), ending workplace discrimination (87%), and ensuring GLBT Virginians have the right to work for the government (90%) and the right to teach (79%).

In the fall of 2007, voters returned to the polls and "flipped" the Virginia state senate from Republican control to Democratic control for the first time in nearly a decade, replacing two vehemently antigay senators, Nick Rerras and Jay O'Brien, with new senators (who were strongly supported by our PAC) Ralph Northam and George Barker along the way. For the first time in recent memory, in the ensuing legislative session no antigay bills were filed by our opponents.

Certainly, no one is saying we've accomplished all there is to do. The obstacles remain great. Earning a fair-minded majority in the legislature remains a daunting task, so we remain committed to a bipartisan strategy for change. And yes, districts remain drawn in such a way that most are uncompetitive "incumbent protection" plans where real competition and true dialogue are difficult to achieve.

But here in the Old Dominion, progress is being made. To say that Virginia "fell forward" following our amendment in 2006 is beyond doubt. From here on out, the vision is clear: Virginia is no longer an easy mark for the forces who want to use our community as a political wedge. In fact, folks who try do so at significant political peril.

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