November 17, 2011 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Christian conservatives ‘in driver’s seat’ in Va.
Bill Bolling

Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling would cast the deciding vote in any tie on bills coming up for a vote, effectively giving Republicans a razor-thin majority in the Senate. (Courtesy photo)

LGBT activists said they were hopeful that the threat of a lawsuit by Democratic members of the Virginia Senate this week would persuade Republicans to share control of the chamber and decrease the chance that it will enact anti-LGBT bills following the GOP gains in last week’s election.

No one disputes the fact that Republicans have gained a one-vote legislative majority in the Virginia Senate after Republican candidates defeated two incumbent Democrats in the 40-member Senate, resulting in a 20-20 split between the two parties.

Under the Virginia Constitution, the lieutenant governor — in this case Republican Bill Bolling — has authority to cast the deciding vote in any tie on bills coming up for a vote, effectively giving Republicans a razor-thin majority in the Senate.

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But Democrats argue that the constitution doesn’t give Bolling authority to vote on non-legislative matters, such as who should be named as chairs of the body’s powerful committees and which party should control the committees. Both sides say the matter could wind up in court if a compromise isn’t reached before the new legislative session begins in the second week of January.

Republicans increased their existing majority in the state’s House of Delegates in the Nov. 8 election. With Republican Robert McDonnell as governor, if Republicans win the dispute over who fully controls the Senate, the conservative-leaning GOP would be in control of all branches of the Virginia government for the first time since the Civil War.

“Virginia is never a place to look for gay-friendly legislation,” said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political communications at George Mason University and a specialist in Virginia politics. “But what you’re looking at now is a Christian conservative element of the Republican Party that is very much in the driver’s seat going forward.”

Gay Democratic leaders and LGBT activists acknowledge that even if Democrats prevail on the issue of power sharing regarding Senate committees, the Republican majority for votes on legislation means that that the Senate is now far less likely to block anti-gay bills as it did when it was under Democratic control.

“We can certainly expect that there’s going to be a cascade of really unsavory bills flooding over to the Senate from the House as there have been in recent years pertaining to issues of immigration, women’s rights and obviously gay rights, too,” said Nick Benton, editor and publisher of the Falls Church News-Press and board member of LGBT Democrats of Virginia.

“And how many of those bills can be made to die in the Senate at this point becomes a much dicier situation,” Benton said. “There’s no guarantee at all that any of that stuff is going to be beaten back.”

Nearly all news media outlets, including the Washington Post, have reported since last week’s election that Lt. Gov. Bolling’s authority to break a tie vote in the Senate would extend to votes on committee and internal Senate organizational issues as well as votes on bills.

But some Democrats this week said they dispute Republicans’ contention that the lieutenant governor has the power to vote on non-legislative issues.

“Fundamentally, the question is whether under the Virginia Constitution he has the authority to vote on Senate organizational issues as contrasted to legislative matters, substantive matters,” said Claire Gastanaga, legislative counsel and chief lobbyist for Equality Virginia, a statewide LGBT advocacy group.

“I’m not ready to predict exactly what’s going to happen with respect to the issues that we care about,” she said. “We’ll be pursuing Equality Virginia’s agenda as we always have, and once the organizational decisions are made then we’ll know who we needed to be talking to.”

Since committees and their chairs decide which bills reach the Senate floor for a vote, a determination of which party controls the committees will play a key role in deciding which bills are passed, including a bill introduced in past years calling for banning adoptions by gay and lesbian parents.

Democrats note that when there was a similar 20-20 split between the two parties in the Senate in 1996 and 1997, party leaders worked out a power sharing agreement that enabled Republicans and Democrats to chair different committees.

Newly elected Va. State Sen. Adam Ebbin said he plans to introduce a bill to bar employment discrimination against state employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity. (Photo courtesy Adam Ebbin)

House of Delegates member Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), the Virginia Legislature’s only openly gay member, won his race last week for a seat in the Virginia Senate, becoming the first out gay in that body.

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Ebbin said this week that he, too, is uncertain about the outcome of the dispute over whether Republicans will gain full control over the Senate committees or whether a power-sharing agreement will be reached. In either case, Ebbin said he plans to introduce a bill calling for banning employment discrimination against state employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity similar to the bill he introduced earlier this year.

The bill passed in the then Democratic-controlled Senate but died in committee in the GOP-controlled House.

Ebbin said he and LGBT allies in the Senate and House will do all they can to block anti-gay bills in the 2012 legislative session. But similar to Benton, Ebbin said the ability to block hostile bills will be more difficult under a GOP-controlled Senate.

“In the past, we’ve been able to count on the Senate to thwart anti-gay legislation passed by the House,” he said. “We can’t count on the Senate to do that in the next legislative session. I’m not saying that things won’t get killed in the Senate. It’s just that we can’t absolutely count on it.”

Ebbin said that in addition to a possible bill to ban gay adoptions, conservative GOP lawmakers could bring up other hostile bills that either surfaced or had been proposed in past years but died in committee. Among them were calls for banning Gay-Straight Alliance clubs in the state’s public schools and a call for banning colleges in the state from adopting non-discrimination polices related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

Ebbin said that although it would be unlikely, anti-gay groups might also attempt to persuade the legislature to repeal the only pro-gay bills it has ever passed – separate measures in 2005 and 2010 that removed an arcane state law that prohibited private insurance companies from selling health and life insurance policies to same-sex couples.

Farnsworth, the George Mason University professor, noted that virtually all Republican candidates in Virginia this year stressed economic and jobs-related issues along with their disagreements with the Obama administration over the economy. He said few if any of the GOP candidates raised social issues, such as gay rights, during their campaigns.

“It will be interesting to see just how the Republican unified government system operates in Virginia,” he said. “The lessons that Republicans have learned from the experiences in Wisconsin and Ohio and other places is that overreaching, offering up polarizing messages can be counterproductive.”

He added, “Careful Republicans with their eyes on the future may be hesitant to go too far in the conservative direction and risk a backlash.”

Are moderate Republicans the answer?

LGBT activists were hopeful that more moderate Republicans would join Sen. Tommy Norment (R-Williamsburg), the current minority leader who’s in line to become Republican majority leader. Norment was the only Republican in the Senate to vote for the state employment non-discrimination bill earlier this year when the Democratic-controlled Senate passed the measure.

Tiffany Joslyn, president of LGBT Democrats of Virginia, said she doubts that very many Republican lawmakers in the state would join Norment in backing LGBT supportive bills.

“I have no doubt they will do the same thing that they always do,” she said. “They preach moderation, they preach jobs, and then they get into office and they govern from the far right and to their far-right base.”

Joslyn called on Log Cabin Republicans of Virginia to join her group and Equality Virginia in urging more GOP lawmakers to support legislation seeking to bar LGBT discrimination in the workplace and in other areas.

Log Cabin Republicans of Virginia President David Lampo couldn’t be immediately reached this week. Christian Berle, deputy executive director of the national Log Cabin Republicans organization, said both the national and Virginia group would continue their ongoing efforts to encourage Republican lawmakers to support LGBT equality in all levels of government.

Berle also disputed predictions by gay Democrats that a GOP-controlled Virginia Legislature would result in the passage of anti-gay bills.

“They said the same thing would happen with Gov. McDonnell, that all kinds of bad things would happen,” said Berle. “It didn’t happen.”

He criticized Equality Virginia for taking the position that “only Democrats” could be counted on to support LGBT equality in the state and expressed concern that more LGBT advocates didn’t support gay Republican candidate Patrick Forrest’s race for a state Senate seat in the Northern Virginia city of Reston in this year’s election.

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Gay Democrats said most LGBT activists didn’t support Forrest because he ran against incumbent Sen. Janet Howell, one of the LGBT community’s strongest allies in the Virginia Legislature.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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