Two of the three candidates running for governor of Virginia squared off Wednesday night in a debate hosted by the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce in McLean, Va., but offered little insight beyond their previous statements in response to a question about marriage equality, further entrenching themselves on opposite sides of the same-sex marriage debate.
One of the debate questioners, Aaron Gilchrist of NBC4, cited a recent NBC4/Marist poll showing 54 percent of Virginia voters support gay marriage and asked Democrat Terry McAuliffe why he would not use the office of the governor to lead the fight to overturn the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. In response, McAuliffe said he supported marriage equality and would sign a bill to repeal the ban if the General Assembly passed one, but essentially reiterated a previous position that he would be more focused on economic development and job creation as governor.
McAuliffe claimed that he and his wife, Dorothy, had spent a lot of time discussing the issue and changed their views because of the military’s now defunct “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
“The idea that we could send our men and women across the globe to fight for us,” McAuliffe said. “And then they come back and they don’t have the same equal opportunities and equal rights. I just think that was plain wrong. So I support marriage equality. And I’ve said that. And this is quite a difference from my opponent.”
McAuliffe also attacked Republican Ken Cuccinelli over the issue, claiming Cuccinelli had referred to gay Virginians as “soulless and self-destructive human beings.” Twice in the debate, McAuliffe also said that Cuccinelli’s efforts as attorney general to force Virginia colleges and universities to rescind nondiscrimination policies that included sexual orientation almost led defense contractor Northrop Grumman to scuttle a planned move to Virginia.
Cuccinelli objected, saying that the charge wasn’t true, but McAuliffe cited a New York Times piece that quoted an official in Gov. McDonnell’s administration that confirmed the Northrop Grumman story.
Cuccinelli, often known for being a partisan warrior, struck a much more conciliatory tone, telling the audience, “I understand and respect the fact that this is a sensitive issue to a lot of Virginians. But I’m one of those who do believe that the institution of marriage should remain between one man and one woman.”
He pointed out that a bill to repeal Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage “would never come to the desk of a Virginia governor,” meaning it would have to be passed by the General Assembly, something that is unlikely given the overwhelming dominance of conservative Republicans in the state House of Delegates.
Cuccinelli also counter-attacked, accusing McAuliffe of “appear[ing] poised…not to defend our state constitution.” Cuccinelli claimed that as attorney general, he’s had to defend laws he personally doesn’t like, and said McAuliffe “seems to think he gets to decide which laws and which parts of the Virginia Constitution that you’re obligated to defend as the Virginia governor.”
Cuccinelli referenced two pending lawsuits against the commonwealth relating to same-sex marriage. The first, a lawsuit filed on behalf of two lesbian couples in the Western District of Virginia, seeks marriage equality and the end of Virginia’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed elsewhere. The second, filed on behalf of a gay couple in the Eastern District of Virginia, rests heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court opinion that overturned a section of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and argues that unequal treatment of gays and lesbians denies them basic liberties and equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, while also depriving them of numerous financial benefits.
“… [T]he duty of the attorney general and the duty of the governor is to defend our constitution,” Cuccinelli said. “If they want to change it, one could lead, as the question suggested, to try and get the General Assembly to make those amendments and put it on the ballot. But the office has duties that come with it. And I respect the office. And I respect those duties. I respect Virginia’s history. And this is part of it now. It may change in the future. But right now, the next governor’s obligated to defend our constitution. I intend to do that.”
[Photos: Terry McAuliffe (left) and Ken Cuccinelli. Credit: Kate Wellington and Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons.]