A West Virginia lawyer on Tuesday became the first openly gay person elected to his state’s legislature.
Stephen Skinner will represent Harper’s Ferry, Shepherdstown and surrounding areas of Jefferson County in the far Eastern Panhandle in the West Virginia House of Delegates after defeating Republican Elliot Simon.
“It feels great,” Skinner told the Washington Blade on Thursday as he discussed his election. “Certainly we can recognize it is historic, but we also must remember that it’s about serving the constituents. This is about getting the votes from folks who have the same everyday problems as anybody.”
Skinner is among the hundreds of openly LGBT candidates across the country who won their respective campaigns on Tuesday. These include gay Florida state Rep.-elect Joe Saunders and Stacie Laughton, a Nashua, N.H., selectman who on Tuesday became the first openly transgender person elected to state office in the U.S. after voters elected her to the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
Skinner, who founded Fairness West Virginia, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, told the Blade there were what he described as “some rumblings about” his homosexuality “on the edges” during the campaign. He cited lesbian Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin’s historic election to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday as proof that voters are increasingly able to look beyond a candidate’s sexual orientation.
“We’re at a point in time at least in this part of West Virginia where if my opponent or outside forces had attempted to make it an issue, it would have backfired,” said Skinner.
Joe Racalto, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, applauded Skinner’s election. His organization will honor him, among others at its annual gala in Charleston, the state capital, on Saturday.
“History was made today in West Virginia,” said Racalto in a statement late on Nov. 6. “Delegate-Elect Skinner is proof that people should be judged by their ideas and vision, not who they love. West Virginians should be applauded for breaking this important barrier.”
Coy A. Flowers, president of Fairness West Virginia’s Board of Directors, agreed.
“On behalf of the nearly 40,000 West Virginians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and for the over 3,000 same sex couples who are raising children in this state, we are ecstatic that our community finally has a true seat at the table in the West Virginia Legislature,” said Flowers. “Finally, our legislative elected officials will be held accountable on issues of fairness and equality for all our state’s citizens.”
Skinner noted the economy and jobs were the top issues among his soon-to-be constituents during the campaign. He also said health care and increased traffic associated with an influx of new residents who often commute into the nation’s capital are also a concern.
“We’re just 65 miles up the Potomac [from D.C.,]” he said. “Development’s a big issue, but we also have gambling is an enormous issue because we derive a lot of our revenue from the Charles Town races. In my district we have two MARC train stations, so we have lots of commuters. Lots of folks work on the Hill and live out here. We’re constantly dealing with the issues of being a community that still retains a lot of its rural character, but is very connected into the D.C. metro area.”
Skinner added the district’s geographical isolation from Charleston and other parts of the state remains an issue.
“We feel very disconnected from the state capital,” he said, noting it takes him less time to drive to Manhattan and five other state capitals than it does to Charleston. “The issues in the rest of the state aren’t necessarily our issues — and vice versa. But we’re experiencing tremendous population growth and it’s sometimes from within in the state and for a lot of people they’re simply living here because it’s affordable housing and a great place to live.”
Home prices in Jefferson County are the highest per capita in West Virginia, while its population is statistically the most educated in the state. Skinner said there are also a lot of “folks who are forward thinking” in Jefferson County.
“We have to make sure the legislators in the Eastern Panhandle are making sure that we are able to have the data to show to the rest of the state the difference, but also that we are generating a huge amount of the revenues for the state,” he said. “We need to make sure that we are getting the correct amount back.”
Skinner said he and other LGBT advocates will continue to push for a bill that would add sexual orientation to West Virginia’s non-discrimination law. He noted he will also work with his soon-to-be colleagues in Charleston on the implementation of expanded Medicare coverage under the health care reform law President Obama signed in 2010.
West Virginia is also about to implement what Skinner described as an “enormous” reform of the state’s education system.
“Having more autonomy and less centralization in a state like West Virginia is going to be pretty important for our future success,” he said.