But that support began to collapse late last week when the evangelical Christian enforcers at the Family Foundation decided to make the vote a test case for legislators’ adherence to their reactionary social agenda.
Republican apologists aren’t persuasive when they try to argue that Thorne-Begland was rejected not because he was gay, but because his past support for same-sex marriage and other gay rights meant he couldn’t be trusted to be neutral as a judge.
Richmond legislators of both parties who knew Thorne-Begland said his record showed conclusively that he’d be as fair-minded as any nominee.
“People that I know, including police officers, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys . . . they all say he’d be fabulous at the job,” said Del. G. Manoli Loupassi (R-Richmond), one of Thorne-Begland’s principal sponsors.
“A few people were complaining a little because he’s kind of tough. But we’ve got a lot of crime in the city, so we probably need that,” Loupassi said.
McDonnell was hardly a profile in courage during the fight. To his credit, shortly before the vote, his spokesman did issue a statement saying discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is “not acceptable” in state government.
But the text very much left open the possibility that people might rationalize voting against Thorne-Begland on grounds that his support for gay rights was supposedly a blot on his record or aptitude for the job.
Afterward, McDonnell issued another carefully worded statement suggesting that he wasn’t sure whether anti-gay prejudice had contributed to the outcome. Overall, the comments seemed designed mainly to shield McDonnell from public outcry against a decision in which raw bigotry unmistakably played a major role.
Unfortunately, that’s been McDonnell’s pattern since the GOP won control of the General Assembly in November and gave social conservatives a long-awaited chance to advance their goals.
The governor warns fellow Republicans in speeches and statements against the risk of overreaching. But he won’t tangle openly with the Family Foundation or other influential social conservative groups or call them out for prejudice.
Partly because of such timidity, the social conservatives have sabotaged McDonnell’s professed desire to identify the Virginia GOP primarily with low taxes, economic development and other secular goals popular with independent voters. Instead, in a few short months, the state has become a national leader in backward thinking.