Gay rights activists oppose Va. Democrats’ party leadership pick


Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, left, faces opposition from activists in his bid to become the next chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia because he has not endorsed same-sex marriage. (Joe Mahoney/Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones banned discrimination against gay city employees. He issued a proclamation to mark the city’s Transgender Day of Remembrance. His police chief appointed the city’s first LGBT liaison.

But Jones (D), who moonlights as a Baptist preacher, has not endorsed same-sex marriage.

And that has put gay rights activists at odds not only with Jones, but with Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who has nominated the mayor to be the next chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.

Activists are working to thwart Jones’s election at the party’s central committee meeting March 15 — setting up a highly unusual battle for a sitting governor, whose choice for party chairman is rarely challenged.

They have been lobbying the governor’s senior staff, collecting hundreds of petition signatures and lining up committee members to vote against Jones. They have pressed on even after Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), who in January became a hero to activists by refusing to defend the state’s gay marriage ban, backed Jones.

“It’s not over,” said Joel McDonald, spokesman for LGBT Democrats of Virginia. “We’re looking for Governor McAuliffe to make a better decision here.”

The controversy reveals how rapidly same-sex marriage has gained acceptance within the Democratic Party and across the country. Even in a state as tradition-bound as Virginia, endorsing gay marriage has morphed with astonishing speed from an act of political daring to Democratic orthodoxy. The issue has taken on such prominence that the state party placed a rainbow banner atop its Web site. “Virginia is for all lovers,” it reads.

The episode has placed McAuliffe at odds with his left flank — despite the governor’s many nods to gay rights from the earliest moments of his administration, including a mention in his inaugural speech and the dedication of his first executive order to banning anti-gay discrimination in state employment. McAuliffe ran with a promise to govern from the middle but with avid support from liberal advocates. His pro-business bent and appointment of a Republican health secretary caused blowback from advocates for abortion rights and greater environmental protections. Now, some advocates for gay rights have joined those critics.

“When the top five Democrats in the state all support marriage equality, it seems out of step to have a chairman who doesn’t,” said state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria). “The party has changed and our leaders have changed.”

Some political observers predict that Jones would easily survive the challenge brought by what one Democratic insider dismissed as “our tea party.”

But the mayor was taking it seriously enough to pay a visit this week to the Democratic House and Senate caucus meetings. Behind closed doors, he emphasized his support for gay rights measures. He received applause but also mixed reviews on whether he changed any minds.

“I think that the party has got to remain as a big tent,” Jones said in an interview Thursday. “It always has been a big tent, and has been a place that has room for different ideology, different values. And that’s what makes us not Republicans. We should not have litmus tests about personal beliefs.”

Same-sex marriage was such a sensitive issue here that Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) felt the need to repeatedly duck it in his 2012 election. Yet in January, when Herring announced his plan to oppose the ban, Kaine weighed in on Twitter with a breezy attaboy: “Thank you @MarkHerringVA for fighting VA’s same-sex marriage ban! I agree — time to bring VA on to the right side of history.”

The issue’s evolution has been uneven in Virginia, where Democrats in the liberal Washington suburbs are not always in step with their counterparts in more conservative areas of the commonwealth.

“All Democrats don’t think alike,” Del. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake) said in an interview on the House floor. He motioned toward Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax), who recently announced that he is gay.

“If I was gay and came out like this guy did, I’d be done,” Spruill said. “My area, at the present time, most of them aren’t for it — especially the churches. So I remain neutral.”

Those lobbying against Jones say they, too, want a big-tent party. But they say its leader should be a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage at this moment, as supporters of the state’s gay-marriage ban appeal a federal judge’s February decision to strike it down.

Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) sees acceptance of gay marriage as only a matter of time. But he said the party needs to be patient with Democrats, particularly older ones such as Jones, 66, who are not yet on board. He noted that the young House pages, who are appointed by members and reflect the chamber’s predominantly Republican makeup, voted to legalize same-sex marriage in a mock session last week.

“Our pages are two-thirds Republican, one-third Democrat. The pages voted for marriage equality, our 12- and 13-year-old pages,” he said. “I’m confident that the tide of history’s on our side on this. But I’m not going to exclude people from our party just because they have a different point of view on this specific issue. If the Democratic Party wants to have a prayer of ever being acceptable to the broader state, then we can’t have one-issue litmus tests for party leadership. If we’re going to do that, we may as well write off everything outside of Hampton Roads, Richmond and Northern Virginia.”

Jones’s stance came into focus after President Obama announced in 2012 that he had “evolved” into a supporter of same-sex marriage.

“This is one issue that President Obama and I disagree on,” he said then.

At the time, it was Obama, not Jones, who seemed to be out on a limb, at least in Virginia. Kaine, then in a tight race with former governor and senator George F. Allen (R), tried mightily to avoid taking a position. Asked at a campaign appearance that year whether marriage is a civil right, Kaine said, “Relationship equality is a civil right.”

Pressed on whether gay couples should be given marriage licenses by the state, he said, “There should be a license that would entitle a committed couple to the same rights as a married couple.”

And would that be called a marriage license? “I think the labels get in the way of the issue,” Kaine said.

Two years later, Virginians elected three statewide officials who trumpeted their support for same-sex marriage during their campaigns: McAuliffe, Herring and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

“The Most LGBT Friendly Statewide Leadership in Virginia History,” the LGBT Democrats of Virginia said after the wins.

Jones has not said much about same-sex marriage since his statement in 2012, steering clear of the topic in politics and in the pulpit.

“We preach a gospel of love,” said Jones, who on Sundays serves as senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of South Richmond.

When pressed for his position, Jones said he will stand by whatever the courts decide.

“My position is that I’m going to fight for constitutional protections under the law for individuals no matter what their beliefs and their conditions are,” he said. “Whatever the law of the land is, I'm willing to uphold that and protect that.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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