McAuliffe says GOP social agenda is bad for business

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe said last week that positions taken by the Republican ticket on social issues are wrong for an increasingly moderate Virginia and suggested that they could hurt the state’s economy.

Without singling out Republicans by name, McAuliffe accused his opponents of dwelling on agendas that create an intolerant atmosphere for women and gay people. He also indicated that remarks bubbling up from the Virginia General Assembly and the campaign trail have had an impact on tourism at Virginia Beach, whose sand and surf and other attractions draw 5.5 million visitors a year.

“We cannot grow our economy with a social, ideological agenda,” McAuliffe told the crowd at a Thursday luncheon sponsored by the Virginia Public Access Project at which Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, also appeared.

“We cannot be attacking women, we cannot be putting walls up around Virginia, we cannot be attacking members of the LGBT community,” McAuliffe said, referring to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. “I was in Virginia Beach yesterday, we were with 20 tourism folks. They’re losing business because of the rhetoric.”

But Cuccinelli’s campaign said the candidate who is emphasizing social issues and divisive rhetoric is McAuliffe. Cuccinelli strategist Chris LaCivita said McAuliffe’s assertion that Virginia Beach’s tourism industry has taken a hit is an example of the former Democratic National Committee chairman making unsubstantiated claims.

“It’s all he talks about is social issues. He’s got to try to change the topic,” LaCivita said. He accused McAuliffe of trying to turn the discussion to abortion and gay rights because his campaign pitch as a jobs creator has become less tenable as questions arose about two green ventures he started in the past four years, Franklin Pellets and GreenTech Automotive.

“Terry McAuliffe cannot provide Virginia voters a reason to vote for him,” LaCivita said. “So Terry McAuliffe can only try to sell an exaggerated bill of goods that you can’t vote for Cuccinelli. He’s a classic Slick Willie.”

But Brennan Bilberry, a spokesman for the McAuliffe campaign, said that when a state or its elected officials are seen as unwelcoming toward a specific group of people, they may stay away. Bilberry pointed to the uproar that ensued in March 2010 after Cuccinelli sent a letter to the state’s public colleges and universities asking them to remove references to sexual orientation from campus nondiscrimination policies.

Cuccinelli argued that only the General Assembly has the authority to extend legal protections to gays. The letter stirred student and faculty protests, with some warning that academic talent might go elsewhere. Some called on defense contractor Northrop Grumman to reconsider a move to the commonwealth that was then in the works. Calm returned after Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) issued a directive to state employees prohibiting workplace discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation.

McAuliffe’s campaign said Laura Habr, who has owned Croc’s 19th Street Bistro in Virginia Beach with her husband for about 20 years, raised the issue of campaign rhetoric during a meeting with McAuliffe and other business people.

“If your customers are saying they’d rather have their anniversary or birthday party somewhere else, there might be more to that underneath,” Habr, 43, of Virginia Beach said. “It’s not very hospitable to speak out against any group.”

Whether the rhetoric has affected tourism in the resort seems less clear.

Ron Kuhlman, vice president for Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the city agency has no indication that campaign statements have affected tourism.

Kuhlman said the bureau didn’t have data on projected bookings, but from contacts among restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues, this year looked to have “strong bookings.”

“I haven’t heard from any of our hospitality interests in the city that there’s been any backlash about gay rights,” Kuhlman said. “It’s something that, if it’s coming, you’re going get an e-mail or something like that, and I haven’t heard anything.”

Virginia Beach City Council member John E. Uhrin, an independent who also manages the Schooner Inn and three other hotels, said he had not heard anything about an impact on tourism.

“We had a pretty terrible spring, but the weather was bad, and sequestration has had an impact. But our summer bookings are up,” Uhrin said.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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