Republican governor as gay rights defender: a sign of the times?

Republican governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia, reversing his previous position, this week extended nondiscrimination protections to gay state workers. His emergence as a gay rights defender may signal that 'culture wars' issues loom less large within the GOP, as economic concerns rise.

Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP
Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) of Virginia reacts to a question from reporters during a news conference outside his conference room at the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond, Va., Wednesday. McDonnell said that gay state workers would be included under nondiscrimination laws.

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) of Virginia said Wednesday that gay state workers would be included under nondiscrimination laws – a dramatic U-turn to his previous position and that one that may offer a curt warning to Republicans to steer clear of the culture wars heading into the November election.

By making that move, the governor “is now projecting the image of reasonableness and inclusiveness,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “This is not going over with the hardcore right-wing elements in the party, but it is a necessity for governing and it tells you where our society has gone. McDonnell has recognized a reality.”

During Governor McDonnell’s 2009 campaign against Democrat Creigh Deeds, one topic of controversy was his 1989 graduate thesis paper, which outlined a vision of the family. The paper said, in part, that government policy should favor married couples over “cohabitators, homosexuals, or fornicators.”

McDonnell said during his campaign that his views had evolved and that he believed in nondiscrimination against gays. Those statements were tested Feb. 5, when McDonnell issued an executive order that, unlike those issued by two previous governors, did not include specific protections for state workers who are gay. His action drew protests that grew louder with each passing day.

“Bob McDonnell is proving his critics right,” Democratic Party operative Hari Sevugan said at the time. “He said he'd focus on creating jobs, not social issues. But one of his first acts as Governor was to make it easier for a fellow citizen to be denied a job and he did so as an adherent to a right-wing ideology that allows for such discriminatory behavior.”

The controversy deepened when Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, a Republican who ran on the same ticket as McDonnell, sent a letter to public colleges asking them to remove references to sexual orientation from campus nondiscrimination policies.

Mr. Cuccinelli ruled that only the state legislature can extend such protections. McDonnell says he agrees with Cuccinelli’s basic legal interpretation, but as he rescinded Cucinelli's letter Wednesday he acknowledged that an executive directive can, in fact, extend some rights to workers and is symbolically important. (So far, Virginia's Republican-dominated legislature has not passed a law extending workplace rights to gays.)

"We will not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation or any other basis that's outlawed under state or federal law or the Constitution, and if it is reported, then I will take action, from reprimand to termination, to make sure that does not occur," McDonnell said Wednesday.

McDonnell’s victory over Mr. Creeds in November was seen by some as evidence of rising frustration with Democrats. Moreover, to some, such as US News & World Report columnist John Farrell, it appeared to signal that the GOP “had given up its desire to police our bedrooms, and would focus instead on pragmatic solutions for serious issues, like the dearth of jobs, the cost of education and the surplus of traffic.”

That's not to say the party is ready to embrace the whole gay rights agenda. There are gay Republicans, of course, who lobby their party to adopt more gay-friendly policies. But there are no openly gay Republican members of Congress, and California state Sen. Roy Ashburn (R), who this week publicly acknowledged that he his gay, has said he scrapped plans to run for Congress in part because of matters pertaining to his sexual orientation.

McDonnell’s willingness to take on his attorney general on an issue dear to segments of the Republican Party may indicate that GOP activists – from suburbanites to "tea partyers" – are choosing to spend more of their energy and political capital on economic issues and less on cultural ones.

McDonnell originally refused to issue an order specifically prohibiting discrimination against gays “because he said it was unnecessary,” says Mr. Sabato. “Guess what? It turned out to be necessary.”

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