RICHMOND — Virginia state Sen. Bryce Reeves blasted one of his Republican rivals in the primary race for lieutenant governor for supporting the appointment of the state’s first openly gay judge. Now, other Republicans are accusing Reeves of gay bashing, prompting an intraparty dispute around gay issues.
In a pair of mailers landing days ahead of Tuesday’s three-way GOP primary, Reeves (Spotsylvania) slams Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (Fauquier) because she “voted to approve the first openly gay judge in the Commonwealth” and was the “only Republican to vote for special rights for gays and transgenders.”
The fliers refer to Vogel’s support for Tracy Thorne-Begland, a gay former Navy pilot and veteran Richmond prosecutor whose 2012 nomination for a city General District Court judgeship was defeated by the Republican-dominated House of Delegates. After an uproar and an interim appointment by city Circuit Court judges, the legislature confirmed him the next year.
Vogel was one of eight Senate Republicans to vote for him in 2013, while Reeves was one of 12 who, in observance of Senate custom on judicial votes, left the chamber instead of voting against him.
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At the time, even Thorne-Begland’s most vocal opponents called him unfit not because of his sexuality but because they perceived him as an activist who had bucked the state’s now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage and the nation’s now-repealed ban on gays openly serving in the military.
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But Reeves’s mailer flatly states his beef was with Thorne-Begland’s sexuality.
“I am very upset by the mailer I saw,” Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.) said in an email. “Gay bashing and discrimination is unacceptable and the wrong message for the people of our party, the people of Virginia, and the people of America.”
More criticism came from John Adams, a conservative Richmond lawyer who is unopposed in the GOP primary for attorney general.
“This attack is very disappointing because I know Judge Thorne-Begland,” Adams said. “He was a tough prosecutor in Richmond, and he has served admirably as a judge in Virginia. When I am attorney general, I will hire the most talented and capable people to represent the Commonwealth of Virginia and those are the only standards I will apply.”
Reeves stood by the flier.
“Bryce is proud to be the conservative choice for Lt. Governor,” campaign spokeswoman Sam Azzarelli said in an email that also noted that the Family Foundation opposed Thorne-Begland’s appointment.
Vogel campaign manager Pat Trueman said in an email: “Jill Vogel believes discrimination is wrong and violates the Republican creed’s call for ‘equal justice for all.’ ”
In the Senate, Vogel voted this year to ban discrimination against gay and transgender people in housing and public employment, although she has also formed an alliance with E.W. Jackson, whose anti-gay rhetoric has made him one of the party’s most polarizing figures.
In a mailing of her own, Vogel raised alarms about the Obama administration’s order to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice. Vogel has said she was objecting to a heavy-handed federal mandate, not the goal of protecting transgender students.
The third Republican contender for lieutenant governor, Del. Glenn Davis (Virginia Beach), posted a video that said: “If you can’t win on policy and you have to win on stuff like this, you just shouldn’t be running.” Davis joined the House in 2014, after Thorne-Begland was already on the bench.
Other Republicans treaded lightly. State GOP chairman John Whitbeck, who in March publicly rebuked gubernatorial contender Corey Stewart for using a racially tinged slur against rival Ed Gillespie, said in a text: “We don’t comment in Party contests unless the circumstances are truly extraordinary.”
Asked if a blanket opposition to gay judges falls into that category, Whitbeck said, “We are neutral in primaries.”
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Of the three GOP contenders for governor, only Gillespie chimed in. Spokesman David Abrams said Gillespie was not taking sides in the lieutenant governor’s race but, as governor, he would make appointments and staff decisions “based solely on a person’s experience, judgment and ability, regardless of sexual orientation.” Stewart did not respond to a request for comment. The third GOP candidate for governor, state Sen. Frank Wagner (Virginia Beach), also voted for Thorne-Begland and for the bills this year that sought to ban anti-gay discrimination in housing and public employment. His only comment: “Let the LT governor candidates duke it out.”
The race for lieutenant governor has been unusually bitter, with Reeves and Vogel repeatedly accusing the other of dirty tricks while the underfunded Davis has struggled to grab attention. Reeves says Vogel was behind emails falsely accusing him of having an affair. Vogel has denied any involvement and suggested her family’s electronics, which were linked to the messages, had been hacked. The two square off in Stafford County Circuit Court Friday for a hearing in a related defamation suit.
The fliers, first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, prompted conservative blogger Jim Hoeft to yank his support for Reeves.
“Reeves, who up until about ten minutes ago was going to be the candidate I was going to endorse and vote for, just made a tremendously egregious mistake: he chose to play a game of identity politics that specifically limits opportunity (legitimate opportunity — not silly bathroom issues) to Americans who just want to serve their commonwealth,” Hoeft wrote on Bearing Drift.
Another critic was state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), who initially supported Reeves in the race but withdrew it in May and has stayed neutral.
“I feel like discrimination in any form is wrong and people ought to be judges on their merit and on their performance,” she said. “We have so much positive that we can talk about in the Republican Party. I think we need to stay focused on policy and really have the dignity to step away from this identity politics.”
State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), Virginia’s first openly gay state senator, was taken aback by Reeves’ fliers. “I thought he was better than that,” Ebbin said. “There’s a lot of people who were Republicans who aren’t anymore because of things like this.”