Virginia state Sen. Mark Herring (D-Loudoun, Fairfax counties), one of two Democrats seeking to become the commonwealth's next attorney general, yesterday released an ''equality agenda'' on issues related to LGBT rights.
During a Friday conference call with activists and media, Herring, first elected to the state Senate in 2006, touted his pro-LGBT record and promised to use the power of the attorney general's office to protect LGBT rights, with particular regard to nondiscrimination, bullying and adoption. Throughout the call, Herring sought to contrast his record with that of the current attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor and an opponent of LGBT rights who has been criticized for using his position to pursue a socially conservative agenda.
''Virginians are ready for fundamental change in the office of the attorney general,'' Herring said. ''That change starts with having an attorney general who will promote equality, rather than sow division.''
Herring's LGBT-rights platform has three major planks: prohibiting discrimination in state and local government, protecting children and ensuring their safety in schools, and promoting strong families.
Specifically, Herring promised to adopt a nondiscrimination policy for attorney general's office that protects all employees from discrimination and includes enumerated protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. Herring was one of 21 state senators to sign a similar nondiscrimination statement promising not to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity in their offices' hiring practices, and was one of only 13 senators to receive a perfect rating on LGBT rights on the 2012 legislative scorecard issued by Equality Virginia, the state's primary LGBT-advocacy organization.
Herring also said he believes Virginia's public colleges and universities have the legal authority to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in hiring and admissions, and promised to provide colleges and universities with the support and legal resources necessary to defend policies that protect sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
In 2010, the newly elected Cuccinelli issued a letter advising the state's public colleges and universities that state laws and policies prohibit including sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression in nondiscrimination policies, and that policies containing such protections are ''invalid.'' Herring said Friday that Cuccinelli's opinion was ''incorrect and harmful'' and that the attorney general ''twisted and misstated the law in order to get to a policy position that was well outside the mainstream.''
Herring also expressed his support for local school boards adopting anti-bullying measures, as they are required to under a recently passed anti-bullying bill, HB 1871. Because each school board is allowed to set its own regulations, Herring promised to work with local school divisions to craft comprehensive anti-bullying policies that protect LGBT students. He also promised to oppose any legislation attempting to ban the formation of ''gay-straight alliances'' in public schools.
Lastly, Herring stated his support of marriage equality and promised to work with state and local agencies to define ways to allow same-sex couples to access health and life insurance benefits without violating Virginia's ban on recognizing same-sex relationships. He also stated his support for changing Virginia law to permit second-parent adoptions for same-sex couples, and for repealing a so-called ''conscience clause'' passed in 2012 that allows adoption/foster-care agencies – whether private or state-funded – to discriminate against potential parents based on a wide range of characteristics by claiming religious or moral objections.
''Current Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has taken action and supported policies that are divisive,'' Herring said. ''They have hurt Virginians, damaged our state's reputation, and Republican [attorney general] candidates Rob Bell and Mark Obenshain would follow in Ken Cuccinelli's footsteps. We cannot afford another four years with an attorney general like Ken Cuccinelli. Virginia deserves better. As attorney general, I will take politics out of the office, I will put the law first, and I will use the powers of the office to promote equality.''
The two Republicans running for attorney general, Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Rockingham counties) and Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Page, Rappahannock, Warren, Shenandoah and Rockingham counties, Harrisonburg City), have anti-LGBT records on a host of issues, including gay adoption, the ''conscience clause'' bill and employment nondiscrimination. Bell voted against confirming Judge Tracy Thorne-Begland, Virginia's first and only out gay judge, to the Richmond General District Court Judge; and against repealing a 19th-century law prohibiting unmarried couples – gay or straight – from cohabitating. Obenshain abstained from voting on Thorne-Begland's nomination.
Herring's opponent in the Democratic primary, Justin Fairfax, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia in the Major Crimes and Narcotics Unit of the Alexandria Division, told Metro Weekly in an interview Friday that he supports marriage equality and second-parent adoption.
Fairfax said he favors repealing the adoption/fostering ''conscience clause,'' saying the legislation is overly broad and that placement decisions should be based on the best interests children. Fairfax also promised to place anti-bullying initiatives ''high on [his] list of priorities.'' Fairfax offered his support for students' gay-straight alliances and said efforts to ban them violate students' First Amendment rights.
Fairfax also said if elected he would ''absolutely'' issue a nondiscrimination order protecting sexual orientation, gender identity and expression for the attorney general's office, telling Metro Weekly that such an order would be binding, much like former executive orders issued by former governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. He also expressed his support for nondiscrimination legislation, such as SB 701, which passed the state Senate earlier this year before being killed in the House of Delegates, saying that such legislation was both ''constitutional and good policy.''
Regarding nondiscrimination policies for public educational institutions, Fairfax agreed with Herring's statement that Cuccinelli had ''twisted'' the law to suit his own purposes. Fairfax said public colleges and universities have the authority to issue nondiscrimination policies and codes of conduct for students.
''Ken Cuccinelli's legal reasoning is not only flawed, but incorrect,'' Fairfax said. ''I think he's wrong on the law, and wrong on the spirit of those policies.''
During Herring's April 5 conference call, he also announced the formation of an ''LGBT Virginians for Herring'' steering committee, which includes Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax counties), the Virginia General Assembly's sole out legislator; LGBT activist Danny Barefoot; Charley Conrad, the former chair of the LGBT Caucus of the Democratic Party of Virginia; Sean Holihan, former chair of Equality Virginia's political action committee; Kris McLaughlin, a former president of the Arlington Gay & Lesbian Alliance; activist and consultant Seth Morrison; and Richmond resident Jim Schuyler. Both Ebbin and Conrad also addressed reporters on the conference call.
Ebbin noted that Herring is the first statewide candidate in Virginia to run with an LGBT-specific platform, as far as Ebbin could recall. He also said he was supporting Herring because he's the ''best'' candidate from the Democratic Party and called both Republican candidates ''frightening.''
''I think the public is more than ready for an attorney general like Mark Herring who not only covers the gamut of issues, but particularly stands up for equality,'' Ebbin said. ''And not only are they ready for it, they expect it, and Mark will meet those needs.''
Ebbin also touted Herring's electability and his ability to win in swing districts by appealing to independents and moderate Republicans. Herring, who won his 2011 re-election campaign 54-46 over Republican Patricia Phillips, represents a district covering parts of Leesburg, Sterling, Herndon and Chantilly that went almost 60 percent for President Obama in 2008, but where Democrats generally perform in the low 50s.
Both Ebbin and Conrad also said Herring would be an improvement over Cuccinelli.
''We cannot afford to have any more of this craziness coming out of the attorney general's office,'' Conrad said, noting that he was not speaking on behalf of the LGBT Caucus. ''The attorney general is the person who's going to look out for all the citizens of Virginia, not just some of the citizens of Virginia.''
With the parties yet to choose their candidates, it may be far too soon to rate candidates' chances. The Virginia Public Access Project has detailed, however, campaign funds as of the end of 2012, with the cash advantage going to Bell overall, and Herring over Fairfax. Virginians will choose the state's next attorney general in the Nov. 5 general election.