LGBT Strategy To Stay the Course in Richmond

After Virginia elections and state Senate changes, push will continue for nondiscrimination law, marriage-ban repeal

LGBT allies and advocates in Virginia say they are committed to permanently banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public employment and repealing the Marshall-Newman Amendment, which bans the recognition of any form of same-sex relationship, even if committees are reshuffled in the wake of November’s election and several expected House vacancies.

The victories of state Sen. Ralph Northam (D) in the lieutenant governor’s race and state Sen. Mark Herring (D) – provided he maintains his lead in a recount – in the attorney general’s race will leave two Democrat-held seats in the closely divided state Senate vacant, meaning Democrats must win the election contests to replace both men in order to gain control of the chamber, with Northam acting as a tiebreaker.

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But Northern Virginia’s state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), the General Assembly’s only openly gay member, says that even losing both seats wouldn’t significantly affect the makeup of Senate committees, which are currently split 8-7 in favor of Republicans, and 3-2 in favor of Republicans at the subcommittee level, as Senate rules say committee memberships last for a senator’s full four-year term.

Ebbin is the chief patron of a Senate resolution to repeal the Marshall-Newman Amendment to the Virginia Constitution, which currently blocks recognition of marriage as anything but ”the union of one man and one woman,” as well as any legal status for same-sex couples at all similar to marriage, anywhere in the state. That resolution has been co-patroned by incoming Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church, Fairfax Co.), who was elected in November to replace the retiring Del. Jim Scott.

In addition to the Ebbin-Scott resolution, Del. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond, Henrico, Charles City counties) has sponsored a similar House resolution. Last year, a similar bill patroned by Del. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax Co.) was killed in subcommittee.

Ebbin tells Metro Weekly he will be ”working hard” to find votes for his resolution in the upper chamber, noting that conversations his Republican peers have already begun.

”The fact that we had three statewide candidates elected who were supportive of marriage equality this last election has proven that pro-gay legislators can prevail in statewide elections,” Ebbin says. ”No one has lost an election for being pro-gay.”

While he hasn’t polled every member of the Democratic caucus on their marriage-equality positions, Ebbin says most are supportive. And his short-term focus is on getting the resolution out of committee and to a floor vote, which provides a sense of which legislators to lobby on the resolution. He adds that recent developments in other states to legalize marriage equality, along with the Supreme Court’s June decisions favoring marriage equality, have made some legislators, including Republicans, open to changing their positions.

While not offering names, Ebbin says several Virginia legislators in the House of Delegates seem to have ”evolved” on marriage equality. Prior to November’s election, Del. Ron Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach, Chesapeake) told the editorial board of the Virginian-Pilot that he now supports repealing the Marshall-Newman Amendment, something the board cited in its endorsement of him. However, Villanueva also noted in that interview with the editorial board that he is still opposed to any bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in state employment.

Ebbin also has some time to rally support for the repeal of the marriage ban, even if the vote doesn’t occur during the 2014 session, due in part to the nature of how a constitutional amendment must be repealed. Under Virginia law, the General Assembly must first pass a bill or resolution repealing the Marshall-Newman Amendment prior to the 2015 state and local elections. Next, that measure must again pass in the session following those elections. Finally, the measure would be put to Virginia voters. That means the earliest the ban could be repealed is 2016.

Ebbin adds that he will be introducing, along with Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond, Henrico, Charles City counties), a bill to prohibit discrimination in state employment based upon a job applicant’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Last year, the two successfully shepherded a similar bill through the Senate, though it died in a House subcommittee.

Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D) has vowed to sign an executive order to ban such discrimination in public employment, but Ebbin says passing a statewide statute needs to be a priority of LGBT allies in the Legislature.

”There needs to be consistency in state law, and nondiscrimination policies should not depend on the whim of a governor,” says Ebbin of the need for a nondiscrimination law. ”It tells all employees their service is valued and protected.”

Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax Co.), who co-patroned both the Surovell bill to repeal Marshall-Newman and the nondiscrimination bill last session, says Virginia voters have ”completely changed” on the issue of marriage equality and he would support having another vote on the issue. But he was more pessimistic about the chance of nondiscrimination legislation in the House, due largely to the influence of lobbyists from the Family Foundation, a right-wing organization that emphasizes socially conservative views and opposes LGBT rights.

”I think we might gain a few votes, but it wouldn’t be more than two or three House members,” says Sickles. ”The Family Foundation has them on a short string.”

Asked about whether House Democrats could be further disadvantaged by upcoming vacancies, particularly the retirement of Del. Onzlee Ware (D-Roanoke) and the possible absence of Del. Lynwood Lewis (D-Norfolk, Accomack, Northampton counties) if he wins a special election to fill Northam’s Senate seat, Sickles says he doesn’t believe Republicans would use potential vacancies, as some liberal bloggers have feared, to strip Democrats of additional committee seats by changing the committee structure from a 15-7 split favoring Republicans to a 16-6 split.

Sickles adds that even absent Ware’s seat, Democrats would still hold 32, the number they held last year. And Lewis, he points out, will continue to serve in the House throughout his campaign for the Senate, meaning the possibility of two vacancies at the same time – which would be the trigger for a committee reshuffling – is unlikely. Besides, he says, with Republicans already holding a supermajority in the chamber, there’s little incentive for House Speaker Bill Howell (R-Fredericksburg, Stafford Co.) to make such a power grab.

”Del. Ware’s seat will be filled before we go into session,” says Sickles. ”I don’t think the majority will use his absence as an excuse to cut seats on our committees. … The speaker’s a very fair man.”

Jonathan Parrish, executive director of LGBT-rights group Equality Virginia, says he’s unaware of any potential committee reshuffling on the House side, but confirms his organization’s strategy will be constant, regardless.

”Our focus has always been on passing the nondiscrimination bill through the Senate, and then working on getting it past the House,” Parrish said.

Ebbin, a former House member, says he remains optimistic about the chances of LGBT legislation this session, and doesn’t foresee any major anti-gay legislative threats.

”We have a much-improved climate in the General Assembly when it comes to these measures,” Ebbin shares, noting that legislators will no longer be able to use the threat of a veto by outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) as an excuse for inaction. ”We will get a better sense of attitudes on gay rights in the General Assembly this session, and will see if we have any new allies.”

[File photo: Adam Ebbin (by Todd Franson.)]

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