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The Ebbin Flow of Richmond Politics

Staunch Democrat aims to build bridges across party lines.

When Democrat Adam Ebbin proposed his inaugural bill in the House of Delegates, he discussed it with the most conservative Republican members before broaching the topic with many in his own party.

Ebbin, the first openly gay legislator in the House, lobbied and cajoled Republicans whom he thought were most unlikely to support his goal of establishing a Public Defenders Office for Arlington and Falls Church. To the surprise of many pundits, the bill passed.

“I initially approached Republicans I might not otherwise work with,” said the 41-year-old delegate, who was first elected to represent the 49th District in 2003 and is running unopposed this year. “I worked to build relationships and didn’t assume anything.”

The bill died in the state Senate, but Ebbin was not stymied in his pursuit. He worked with Senate Republicans and the Governor’s office to ensure that all Arlington defendants receive a fair trial.

“That legislation was not supposed to happen,” said James Turpin, Chairman of the Arlington County Democratic Committee. “But he kept working at it and it ended up in the budget just by his sheer persistency.”

His ability to find common ground on many fundamental issues with those he disagrees has impressed other members of the House of Delegates.

“You would have thought he had been down there for two decades, not two years,” said Del. Bob Brink (D-48), referring to Ebbin’s work on the Public Defender bill. “He has the ability to take an issue, work at and move it though the legislative process.”

Pragmatism has been a hallmark of Ebbin’s brief career in Richmond, as he strives to implement a legislative agenda that is both progressive and achievable.

In a House increasingly dominated by social conservatives, Ebbin has learned to narrow his focus to the issues that matter most to him and where he can forge a consensus with Republicans.

“I want to pick and choose my bills carefully and put my full energy in those that will carry the most weight,” said Ebbin, whose district includes parts of Alexandria, Arlington and Falls Church.

EBBIN GRADUATED FROM American University in 1985 and has been active in local Democratic circles since. He has been a member of the Alexandria and Virginia State Democratic Committees since the early 1990s and sat on the City of Alexandria’s Board of Zoning Appeals in 1996-97. In 2002 Gov. Warner appointed him chief deputy commissioner of the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.

Ebbin narrowly survived a five-way Democratic primary in the spring of 2003 to succeed Del. Karen Darner. Ebbin ran unopposed in the 2003 general election and had no challengers in this spring’s primary.

Noted for his work as a gay-rights activist, Ebbin established Virginia Partners to encourage gay and lesbian voters to become more active in local politics.

He hopes to convince fellow delegates to reject a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between a man and woman, which Ebbin calls “overly broad, mean-spirited and unnecessary.” The state has already banned same-sex marriage and civil unions on three separate occasions and became the last state in the country to offer group health insurance to same-sex couples.

Though Ebbin vehemently disagrees with many Republican colleagues on social issues, he believes it is still his obligation to be civil and find issues where they can compromise.

“I’m pretty thick-skinned but there are times when you want to bang your head against the wall,” he said.

Immigration is certain to be a contentious topic in the General Assembly this year and Ebbin is concerned that senators and delegates will enact stricter legislation limiting immigrants' rights.

“It’s important that people in the House stand up for what’s right and not let immigrants be made scapegoats for political purposes,” he added.

Earlier this year Ebbin traveled to El Salvador and Nicaragua as a delegate from the American Council of Young Political Leaders. Ebbin said he is better able to relate to his Hispanic constituents now that he has been to some of their home countries.

SINCE EBBIN IS RUNNING unopposed he is devoting much of his time this autumn to crafting legislation and meeting with colleagues before the start of the General Assembly session in January. The most important issue for his constituents is improving the traffic gridlock, Ebbin said. He hopes to make progress this session on finding dedicated funding sources for Metro and improving bus service along Columbia Pike.

He would like to raise the sales tax and slightly increase the income tax for the highest bracket to pay for transportation projects. Ebbin would like the General Assembly to look into raising the gasoline tax, but doubts that will happen in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and $3-a-gallon prices. If he had his way, Ebbin would implement a one-time tax on “gas guzzling vehicles,” which would “encourage people to make energy efficient decisions.”

This session Ebbin would like to pass legislation requiring every Virginia department to establish a liaison for senior citizens to deal with their unique needs. In addition, he is considering introducing a bill, with the support of Republican colleagues, to toughen the state’s human trafficking laws.

Ebbin hopes to continue working closely with Republican colleagues and improving his ability to shepherd legislation through the House, as he did so successfully on the Public Defenders bill.”

“Even if I strongly disagree with someone on immigration issues we can still work together on something like human trafficking,” Ebbin said.