RICHMOND — Gay and transgender activists, fed up with four consecutive defeats in trying to ban discrimination in housing and government employment, say they will now turn to the ballot box, targeting GOP leaders who have failed to support them.
“No one has taken a more bipartisan approach than we have,” said James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, which lobbied for the bills that passed the Senate but died in a House subcommittee.
“We have done everything we could do to show this speaker that this is supported by the people of Virginia and his constituents. The only solution we see now is new leadership.”
State Republicans hold a two-seat majority in the Senate and a three-seat majority in the House, with one seat open for a special election in a district previously held by a Democrat. A federal court approved a new redistricting map Thursday that is expected to favor Democrats.
Equality Virginia says it will work to unseat House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) because it blames those leaders for blocking a full committee hearing of the bills.
The bills would have prohibited discrimination in all state and local government jobs on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and barred housing discrimination against people in those same groups, with exceptions for rentals in single-family homes, property owned by religious organizations or private clubs.
Advocates thought they had a better-than-average chance for passage this year given the Republicans’ determination to try to win back seats in November and attract suburban swing voters, who are more open to supporting gay and transgender people than some constituencies within the Republican Party.
“It’s adapt or die,” one GOP strategist said last year, and several Republican lawmakers signed on in support of the bills.
“We don’t live in 1980 anymore, and it’s time for us to get past this and not discriminate against a community when most people don’t have a problem with this community,” Del. Roxann L. Robinson (R-Chesterfield), who sponsored the legislation, said earlier this year.
Conservative groups, including the Virginia Catholic Conference and the Family Foundation, opposed the effort.
Asked for comment, the Republican House leadership indicated that discrimination is covered by another bill sponsored by Del. Barry D. Knight (R-Virginia Beach) which requires all appointments, promotions and tenure in state government be based on merit. It passed the House 52 to 47 but has yet to be heard by the Senate.
In addition, Gov. Ralph Northam (D), shortly after his inauguration in January 2018, signed an executive order banning such discrimination in government employment. One of the bills would have codified that into law.
Equality Virginia’s Parrish said that is not nearly enough because the state anti-discrimination laws exempt many workplaces, including the governor’s office, the lottery and the Virginia Retirement System. “The joke is it only covers people who work for the DMV,” Parrish said.
LGBT advocates targeted Hampton Roads and Virginia Beach this past year, working with representatives from the business community, members of Congress and local elected officials from the area, all of whom supported the bills, Parrish said.
The activists sent thousands of postcards with personal stories to Cox and lined up Republican sponsors and co-sponsors to show the bipartisan support for the bills. Equality Virginia commissioned statewide polls of voters in February 2018 and again last month, and it said both surveys showed a majority of voters who identified as Republicans supported the legislation.
“Once again, the speaker and majority leader said ‘nope, under our watch this is not going to happen,’ ” Parrish said.
Cox “is only the speaker because his name was drawn out of a bowl,” he said, referring to how state officials broke a tied legislative race and handed control of the House of Delegates to Republicans. “He did not have a mandate . . . Now we will pivot, look at the new maps. Speaker Cox is in a very different district this year. That will be a priority of ours.”