LGBT Outlook on Virginia's Special Elections

Election Day vacancies put control of the state Senate in play

Just hours after Sen. Ralph Northam (D-Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Mathews, Accomack, Northampton counties) declared victory in the race for lieutenant governor of Virginia Tuesday night, three Democratic hopefuls affirmed their candidacies for his state Senate seat, in the hope of not only replacing Northam, but gaining Democratic control over the state’s upper chamber.

Because Virginia Senate races are held every four years instead of every two, the Senate will remain divided 20-20 until Northam takes office in January. Depending on the outcome of the attorney general’s race, the results of which are being recounted before provisional ballots are tallied, another Senate seat may open up.

If Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg, Rockingham, Rappahannock, Page, Warren, Shenandoah counties) holds on to his current lead, when he vacates his seat the Senate will remain divided 19-19, with Northam acting as a tiebreaking vote. If Sen. Mark Herring (D-Loudoun, Fairfax counties) overtakes Obenshain, then Republicans will – at least temporarily – retain control of the Senate by a 20-18 margin, giving them the power to make committee assignments.

In any event, newly elected Gov. Terry McAuliffe will set a date for special elections to replace the departing senators, and each party will determine when to hold a primary or caucus to select nominees.

The three Democrats seeking to replace Northam are state Del. Lynwood Lewis (D-Norfolk, Accomack, Northampton counties), former state Del. Paula Miller (D-Norfolk) and Andria McClellan, a sales and marketing executive who was appointed chair of the Small Business Advisory Board by former Gov. Mark Warner (D) and who recently served as Northam’s campaign treasurer in his campaign for the state’s No. 2 spot. The winner of that Democratic contest will face either Wayne Coleman the CEO of transportation, shipping and freight giant CV International Inc., or Richard Ottinger, a lawyer who specializes in commercial litigation. Other candidates may also jump in, but have not yet filed paperwork with state election officials.

With control of the Senate in play, the election to replace Northam will likely be one of the more expensive races for a state Senate seat in recent years. Even though President Obama won the district with 57 percent of the vote in 2012, Democrats have often struggled to turn out supporters in special elections.

Regardless, LGBT Virginians can take comfort in Gov.-elect McAuliffe’s promise to sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination in state employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But progress on a more permanent statute prohibiting such discrimination, or any attempt to repeal the Marshall-Newman Amendment prohibiting recognition of same-sex relationships, will depend on the General Assembly.

Of the announced special-election candidates, only McClellan has touted her support for LGBT equality, saying she supports marriage equality, adoption by gay couples, allowing same-sex partners to make medical decisions for one another, and employment nondiscrimination legislation. Miller and Lewis have previously sponsored nondiscrimination legislation during their time in the Legislature, although both voted to place the discriminatory Marshall-Newman Amendment on the ballot in 2006.

”It is critical that we elect a strong Democrat who will defend a woman’s right to choose, create a more equal society for all Virginians, empower teachers, and build a better, safer Virginia for the next generation,” McClellan said in a press release announcing her candidacy. ”I am running to continue the legacy of advocacy and common sense solutions for which my good friend Lt. Governor-elect Ralph Northam is known.”

In contrast, Coleman’s campaign website touts his support for ”traditional marriage.” Ottinger does not have a website, but donated to the attorney general campaigns of Ken Cuccinelli and Mark Obenshain, in 2009 and 2013, respectively, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project.

Additionally, if Obenshain wins the attorney general race, his Senate seat remains reliably Republican. But a Herring victory could put a Northern Virginia swing seat in play, thereby placing Democrats on defense with two seats.

If Herring is victorious, one option for Democrats to try to hold the seat could be Jennifer Boysko, an LGBT-rights supporter who lost to Del. Tom Rust by 56 votes on Tuesday in a House district that overlaps part of Herring’s Senate district – provided the results of that race are not reversed by any outstanding provisional ballots. But any Democratic candidate would likely struggle to find traction in the Loudoun County part of the district, as there are no Democrats, besides Herring, representing the area in the General Assembly or on the county Board of Supervisors.

James Parrish, the executive director of Equality Virginia told Metro Weekly in an interview Thursday that the LGBT-rights organization would continue to advocate on behalf of pro-LGBT candidates and noted that any of the three Democrats running to replace Northam would likely be a positive for the community.

”It’s very clear that the Senate has been the body who understands where the Virginia public is on LGBT issues, even getting bipartisan support for LGBT rights measures,” Parrish said. ”It’s the House of Delegates that has continued to be a roadblock.”

Parrish added that the group’s political action committee, EVPAC, has not made any endorsements yet, but will likely endorse the candidate most likely to continue the Senate tradition of promoting LGBT progress.

”EVPAC will be making every effort to make sure the Senate stays in the control of people who are on the side of the majority of Virginians and the business community,” he said. ”We congratulate Sen. Northam on his win, and believe Sen. Mark Herring will prevail in the Attorney General’s race, and will make sure that the two people who replace them are worthy of the support of the LGBT community.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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