Karen Gautney has always been a fighter. And bullies – whether neighborhood troublemakers or legislators in Richmond – don't scare her.
A lesbian resident of the commonwealth, Gautney is running in a special election for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates left open by the early retirement of Del. David Englin (D-Alexandria), who announced in June he would resign his seat Aug. 31.
Gautney, who lives in Alexandria with her partner of 23 years, is a former special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). She has also served for two terms on Alexandria's Human Rights Commission, where her peers elected her chair. And she served two terms as the president of the Alexandria Gay and Lesbian Community Association.
Raised in Alabama, Gautney says she has always been an advocate for marginalized people. At just 5 years old, she stood up to a neighborhood bully who would throw rocks at other kids. One hit Gautney. She still has the scar.
''I remember, afterwards, thinking how proud I was that I had stood up to him,'' she says, speaking with a light Southern drawl. ''I think it's no accident that many, many years later, I went into law enforcement. And my reason for doing that was to stand up to the bullies, to stand up to the people who were hurting other folks. That's sort of been a theme in my life. And that's one of the reasons I want to go to Richmond – I want to stand up to the bullies.''
Gautney says she has grown increasingly concerned about what she sees as an assault on human rights in Richmond, where Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature and the governor's seat, as well as occupying the lieutenant governor and attorney general's offices.
''I would like to go to Richmond and be a very strong progressive voice to stand up to that,'' she says.
Gautney cites recent GOP-backed bills to require voters to show special identification, mandate specific medical procedures for women seeking abortions, and to allow adoption agencies to discriminate against gay people who wish to adopt. She sees it all as an ''anti-woman, anti-gay'' agenda being pushed in Richmond. She warns it may get worse.
Gautney says she fully expects bills that will harm workers' rights and target immigrants to be introduced during the 2013 legislative session. She also believes that Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), particularly if he is not named Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate, may take more extreme positions to bolster himself for a future run for higher political office, possibly the presidency.
Although McDonnell has not yet called for a special election to replace Englin, in order to schedule the special election on the same day as the 2012 presidential election, results from a primary election would have to be certified by Aug. 17.
That means Gautney, who was endorsed for the seat by Englin, has only a few weeks to introduce herself to voters. In the meantime, she faces Rob Krupicka, a three-term Alexandria City Council member with name recognition. Krupicka previously ran for State Senate against Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax Co.), the only out gay Virginia state legislator.
Although Gautney says she's been received warmly by voters as she makes the rounds, comments on some local websites have dismissed her as a ''one-issue'' candidate focused on gay rights.
''Comments like that have been used to marginalize minorities for generations,'' she says. ''With candidates of color, for example, it's not uncommon to say that's all they're about. For women candidates, it's not uncommon to say they're only about women's issues. I am not surprised to hear that they would use that to condescend about an openly lesbian person as well. But they are wrong.''
''It is true that my life and my perspective as a lesbian is integral to who I am, and how I think, and how I approach issues,'' she continues. ''But that doesn't mean that's the only issue I can consider. I have taken bold, progressive positions on a number of issues, including transportation, the economy, environment, health care.''
Gautney says she hopes that by serving in the House of Delegates, she will provide an ''antidote'' to the myths about LGBT people pushed by delegates such as Bob Marshall (R-Manassas).
''There aren't people like me in Richmond,'' Gautney says of the challenges she faces. ''We have a number of advocates there, who are straight, male members. But Richmond has never seen a delegate like me.''