LGBT Issues Rising in Virginia AG Race
State Sen. Mark Herring (D-Loudoun, Fairfax counties), the Democratic candidate for Attorney General of Virginia, has launched an LGBT-rights offensive against his GOP opponent, state Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg, Rockingham, Rappahannock, Page, Warren, Shenandoah counties). The Herring campaign sent an email blast July 13 citing a Think Progress article accusing Obenshain of ''obscuring'' his record on LGBT rights. Two days later, the Herring campaign issued a statement countering an Obenshain claim that he opposes discrimination.
The Saturday email blast alleged that Obenshain has ''voted in lock-step with the anti-LGBT organization The Family Foundation.'' The foundation is arguably Virginia's most notoriously conservative ''family values'' organization. Obenshain was one of nine state senators to receive a 100 percent rating from The Family Foundation on its 2012-2013 report card.
During the 2012 and 2013 legislative sessions, Obenshain largely backed bills that would curtail LGBT rights and voted against others that would expand such rights. He voted in favor of the so-called ''conscience clause'' amendment to allow adoption agencies receiving state funds to discriminate against prospective adoptive or foster parents based on a variety of factors, including sexual orientation. He also backed a bill that would allow student groups at Virginia colleges and universities to discriminate against potential members.
Obenshain was one of 12 senators, all Republicans, to vote against SB701, a bill that would have prohibited discrimination against LGBT people in public employment during the 2013 session. He also refused to sign a statement pledging to LGBT-rights organization Equality Virginia that he would not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity in his Senate office hiring during the 2012 session.
In a story published July 11, Obenshain told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he agreed with an executive directive issued by current Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) that prohibits ''discrimination without a rational basis'' against any group, but that does not specifically mention sexual orientation or gender identity, as did previous executive orders by two former governors, U.S. Sens. Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D).
''I have been clear that discriminatory employment practices on any irrelevant basis should not be tolerated in Virginia,'' Obenshain told the Times-Dispatch. ''Discrimination of any kind should not be tolerated in Virginia - I want to be an attorney general for all Virginians, and believe that the only factor in hiring and human resource decisions should be the ability to do the job.''
But Obenshain has also opposed nondiscrimination bills, arguing that nondiscrimination laws would result in lawsuits against state agencies for ''perceived slights or for no perceived slight at all in the event one has the ability to claim that they are being discriminated against.'' Obenshain also objected to the inclusion of gender identity and expression in a 2010 bill's definition of what constituted ''sexual orientation.''
As Metro Weekly reported, Obenshain first voted for the nomination of openly gay judge Tracy Thorne-Begland to the Richmond General District Court, but later abstained, following a General Assembly tradition of not voting against nominees. The final tally was 28-0, with Obenshain joining 11 other senators in abstaining.
A representative from the Obenshain campaign was not immediately available to comment on the weekend's Herring email.
Herring, who touts a 100 percent rating from Equality Virginia, has made LGBT rights part of his platform, issuing an ''Equality Agenda'' in which he promised to promote policies that would focus on prohibiting employment discrimination, preventing anti-LGBT bullying, and allowing second-parent adoptions for same-sex couples.
''Actions speak louder than words, and Senator Obenshain has had several opportunities - including earlier this year - to add sexual orientation to the state's nondiscrimination policy, and he has voted against each one,'' Herring said in the July 15 statement. ''Senator Obenshain is now realizing that Virginians won't stand for his radical record, and he's trying to pretend like he supports nondiscrimination policies. He is hoping Virginians will forget that he walked off the floor of the Senate in opposition to a judicial candidate only because of that person's sexual orientation.''
''The truth is that, if elected, Senator Obenshain will bend and twist the law the same way Ken Cuccinelli has, and that's not what Virginians want,'' Herring continued. ''Virginians are tired of the divisive politics of Mark Obenshain, [lieutenant governor candidate] E.W. Jackson and [current attorney general and gubernatorial candidate] Ken Cuccinelli. They want an attorney general who will take the politics out of the office and protect every Virginian equally under the law.''