Does the issue of gay judges have legs for November’s presidential and U.S. Senate elections? Bob Holsworth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist, thinks not — at least not in a big way.
The issue arose Richmond in May, when the House blocked the appointment of an openly gay prosecutor to the bench, just as gay marriage was becoming a hot topic in the presidential race. Virginia Democrats have been hoping that gay judges and other social issues that consumed the General Assembly this year will turn swing voters off Republicans in the fall.
But Holsworth doesn’t think gay judges will become a big part of the presidential or senatorial campaigns, even after the issue was revived this week as the Richmond Circuit Court, which has authority to fill judicial vacancies, appointed prosecutor Tracy Thorne-Begland to Richmond’s General District Court.
“I think it’s a niche issue in the sense that the Democrats will use it in certain places and in certain communities,” Holsworth said Thursday. “I don’t believe you’re going to see statewide advertisements with this. I don’t think it flies statewide, A. And B, I don’t think [George] Allen is especially vulnerable.”
Allen, the former Republican governor and senator running for Senate against former Democratic governor Tim Kaine, actually faced criticism from conservatives in 2006 because he had openly gay employees, Holsworth noted. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has also had openly gay staffers, one of whom recently resigned because of criticism from conservatives.
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), one of Allen’s opponents in Tuesday’s GOP primary, led the opposition to Thorne-Begland’s appointment said Allen hadn’t taken a hard enough line against gay judges. Allen had issued a statement in May saying that he opposed activist judges but that sexual orientation should not be a consideration in appointments.
Allen easily defeated Marshall in the GOP primary. Which is not to say the issue doesn’t remain a touchy one for Allen and others. Asked for a comment on Thorne-Begland’s appointment Thursday, Allen’s campaign referred a reporter to the May statement.
Kaine’s camp issued a new statement that, like his first, blamed the General Assembly’s rejection of Thorne-Begland on anti-gay bigotry.
“The Circuit Court no doubt made their decision based on Mr. Thorne-Begland’s qualifications for the position, and I congratulate him,” Kaine said. “I hope the Virginia General Assembly will approve this appointment when they convene in January and not let prejudices distract from their consideration of this fine candidate.”
Although it didn’t seem to hurt Allen in the primary, the issue could continue to nag moderate “establishment” Republicans as they face off against more conservative foes in GOP primaries, political observers said.
Don Blake, chairman of the Virginia Christian Alliance, expressed dismay Thursday not just with the Circuit Court for making the appointment, and the prominent Richmond lawyers, who’d urged it to do so, but with Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who less than a decade ago had questioned whether gays could serve as judges because they were breaking the state’s now-invalidated anti-sodomy laws.
McDonnell walked the same fine line as Allen last month, issuing a statement saying that he was against anti-gay discrimination in judicial appointments, but declining to say if he thought it had been a factor in the General Assembly’s decision. But on Thursday, McDonnell applauded the decision.
“I would challenge these fine attorneys and the judge who made this appointment to stand in their respective church pulpits on Sunday morning and explain their actions to appoint a person living in a lifestyle that the word of God — our Christian Bible — says is an abomination,” Blake said. “I do not believe any other immoral behavior — adultery, incest, polygamy or bestiality — would be condoned by any of these men.
“What they have done is a slap down of our moral value system. For Governor McDonnell to find the appointment of Mr. Thorne-Begland ‘acceptable’ is an acknowledgment that immoral life styles are acceptable for people in positions of public trust. Where is the church in all of this — missing in action!”