By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Sensing an opportunity to separate himself from his Democratic gubernatorial opponents, former state delegate Brian Moran last week began emphasizing a topic that has long made Virginia Democrats wary: gay rights.
Earlier this month, Moran was alone among the three Democrats running for governor to pledge that he would work to repeal the constitutional amendment, passed in 2006, banning any attempt to equate same-sex relationships to marriage between a man and a woman.
Two days later, that stand earned him the endorsement of the Virginia Partisans Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club, which praised Moran's longtime support in a state where such statements have been considered politically risky.
Moran's decision to push out ahead of his opponents on the issue suggests he is counting on a shift in an electorate that in past years has backed avowed centrists. He is gambling that Virginia Democrats, testing their strength after winning the governor's mansion twice and helping to deliver the White House, will now embrace the candidate they see as their most progressive option in the June 9 primary.
"It's one of the reasons I'm a Democrat," he said in an interview. "I believe in inclusivity. I believe in equality. That's what motivates me. I'm passionate about that."
Moran's rivals, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds and Terry McAuliffe, former national Democratic Party chairman, helped create the opening by taking a more cautious approach to the issue in a campaign that has not been marked by significant policy distinctions.
All three candidates oppose same-sex marriage, but they all opposed the 2006 constitutional amendment because they believed it restricted even contractual relationships between same-sex couples.
But only Moran has said he would work to repeal it.
McAuliffe says the state's cumbersome process for changing the constitution -- the General Assembly would have to reverse position and back repeal twice, followed by a referendum -- means a governor would be wasting precious time by seeking a repeal.
"What do the citizens of Virginia want their governor fighting on?" McAuliffe asked at the April 19 debate. "I want, as governor, to focus on the things that I can change."
Deeds, who represents rural Bath County, is working to square his opposition to the 2006 constitutional amendment with a series of votes in 2004 and 2005 he cast in favor of putting the matter on the ballot. He calls himself a "work in progress" on the issue, recalling a childhood spent learning a literal reading of the Bible in southwest Virginia.
He says he came to believe that the language of the amendment was discriminatory and said so publicly before the 2006 balloting. But he never argued against the idea during the legislative debate. He said he believed at the time that the amendment merely codified Virginia law banning same-sex marriage.
Moran says a governor's first obligation must be to repeal the amendment. If a repeal is successful, his spokesman said, he would work toward allowing civil unions.
Moran has been particularly critical of Deeds, saying he "should be held accountable" for his legislative votes, noting that in 2000 Deeds voted against including sexual orientation in the state's hate-crimes statute. Moran supported that bill.
Moran's strategy is not without risk. Although potentially popular in parts of Northern Virginia, his position could alienate voters elsewhere in the state. In Danville, where the candidates will meet tonight for their third debate, 74 percent of voters supported the constitutional change.
A full 57 percent of voters agreed to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, civil unions and other legal recognition of same-sex relations. Some Democrats fear that vocal opposition to the constitutional amendment could hand Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican candidate and former attorney general, a potent issue in the fall.
Already, McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said all three Democrats' opposition to the amendment was a sign they were "aligning themselves with the extreme ideological interests of the far left wing of their party, not with the majority of Virginia voters."
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and former governor Mark Warner (D) avoided touchy social issues and worked to convince voters that they were pragmatists challenging an ideologically rigid Republican Party. But neither faced a nomination challenge.
Moran might be looking at numbers that show 46 percent of the vote in the low-turnout Democratic primary for U.S. Senate between Harris Miller and now-Sen. James Webb in 2006 came from the 13 Virginia counties and cities where voters opposed the marriage amendment. Moran notes that Webb edged out then-Sen. George Allen even while urging the amendment's defeat.
By portraying himself as the strongest voice in the field on gay rights, Moran is hoping to pull in a bloc of votes.
"Brian is playing for June," Deeds said. "I admire that strategy, but I'm not running to be governor of just a few people or just the Democratic Party. I'm running to be governor of all of Virginia."
Where the state will settle on the issue might be difficult to predict. A Washington Post poll of Virginians from June 2007 suggested that views have been shifting. Although 39 percent of those surveyed said they opposed any legal recognition of same-sex couples, 53 percent said they supported same-sex marriage or civil unions.
"It's moving more quickly than anybody expected," said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, who managed Virginia's campaign against the amendment.
Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), the General Assembly's first openly gay member and a Moran supporter, said the Democratic Party has undergone a steady transformation on gay rights. About a decade ago, he was surprised when the full name of the Virginia Partisans Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club was announced at a state party convention, rather than the shorthand Virginia Partisans, as it had been called for years.
"That they would use the word 'gay,' " he recalled, "that was considered a 'wow' moment."
Now the group's annual events regularly draw party leaders.
Database editor Jon Cohen contributed to this report.