GOP Senator in N.Va., Foe Seeking Gay Vote
Move Highlights Shifting Politics

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

If ever there were a sign that Northern Virginia's political landscape is shifting, it was the recent scene in a nondescript office park in Fairfax City, where two candidates for the state Senate battled passionately to win what each views as a crucial source of support this election season: the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender vote.

Republican incumbent Jeannemarie Devolites Davis and Democratic challenger J. Chapman Petersen practically fell over each other to win votes at a debate Thursday sponsored by Equality Fairfax, a nonpartisan group that seeks to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

"Everybody is equal," Davis, 51, told the small gathering in the sanctuary of the Metropolitan Community Church of Northern Virginia. "Everybody should be treated with respect."

When asked about a state constitutional ban on gay marriage approved by referendum last year, Petersen, 39, said, "The amendment was gratuitous."

The debate provided more evidence of the political shake-up occurring in Northern Virginia. In the 34th Senate District, whose boundaries were drawn by Republicans six years ago, Davis is fighting for her political life against what all agree is an overwhelming Democratic advantage. As a result, her race with Petersen at times looks more like a nomination fight between progressive Democrats than a Virginia general election.

Davis talks often of her support for greater gun restrictions and increased transportation funding. And in front of some audiences, she talks about her belief in gay rights.

"It is a remarkable thing," said David Lampo, vice president of the Log Cabin Republican Club of Virginia, an organization that supports GOP candidates, including Davis, who are friendly to gay issues. "I wish it was a lot more common where Republican candidates did actively seek the votes of our community. But it does stand out because it is in Virginia."

Equality Fairfax has an e-mail distribution list of about 1,000, President Sarah Gustafson said. Although not everyone on the list lives in the 34th District, enough do to potentially tilt the outcome Nov. 6. And with a built-in disadvantage in a district that voted against the marriage amendment, for U.S. Sen. James Webb (D) last year and for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) the year before that, Davis needs all the support she can find among Democratic-leaning voters.

"This district that these two candidates are vying to represent has become progressively more progressive over the past few years," said Tom Osborne of Virginia Partisans, a Democratic gay and lesbian group that has endorsed Petersen. "So any candidate who hopes to have a chance of winning would have to appeal to more progressive votes."

That has required a change of direction for Davis and Petersen. Davis, who served in the House of Delegates for three terms before moving to the Senate in 2004, has called herself the family values candidate in past elections. Petersen, a former two-term delegate, positioned himself as a conservative Democrat in his unsuccessful bid in 2005 for his party's nomination for lieutenant governor. Both of them voted in the General Assembly to put the marriage amendment on the ballot. Davis was a sponsor of an early version.

But one would hardly know it listening to them court the Equality Fairfax crowd last week. Both have embraced the entire agenda of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. They have pledged to support adding sexual orientation to anti-discrimination laws, to support anti-hate crime legislation and to mitigate the effects of the marriage amendment by providing specific protections for lesbian and gay couples.

"I'm not going to pretend I was out front on these issues," Petersen said. "But I want to talk about going forward now."

Because their positions -- and their pasts -- are so similar, it's not easy for the two candidates to contrast their views. But that hasn't stopped them from trying. At the debate, Davis offered a long criticism of Petersen's membership at Truro Church, which was among 11 Virginia congregations that left the Episcopal Church last year in part because they viewed it as too permissive on such issues as homosexuality.

But on that count, Davis's record is complicated, too. She has attended church dinners at Truro Church and sponsored a 5K church race. Davis attends a Catholic church, and the religion has strict views about homosexuality, as Osborne of the Virginia Partisans said.

"Every single person has a spiritual history," Petersen said. "Every single person comes through the faith community with their own individual experience. By and large, we draw upon it for inspiration. We don't attack each other based on faith or where people go to Sunday services. I've never seen that done before."

Davis was the only Republican candidate to attend last week's debate. Two other Republican senators from Fairfax County, Ken Cuccinelli II and James K. "Jay" O'Brien, said they were unable to attend because of conflicts. Both are more conservative than Davis, and some members of Equality Fairfax assumed that they chose to skip the debate for ideological reasons.

Others saw the appearance of even one GOP candidate as major evidence of change.

"You obviously wouldn't have seen that 15, 20 years ago," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), his chamber's minority leader. "Their issues at that point in time were not out where they are today."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company