Arlington’s Democratic representatives in the Virginia General Assembly are growing increasingly optimistic that voters in November may reject a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions.
DURING A meeting last month with the Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance, Arlington’s two state senators and four delegates said that the political climate has changed drastically in recent months and opposition to the amendment is growing among those who believe that marriage should only be recognized between a man and a woman.
The shift, the politicians said, is due to a fear that the amendment’s language is overly restrictive and may jeopardize contractual agreements between individuals of the same sex.
"People are starting to see what this has the potential to do and how negative it can be," said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31). "Many are concerned this would affect relationships between unmarried individuals."
The Arlington County Democratic Committee announced during its April meeting that it will campaign heavily against the amendment and will encourage supporters to vote "No" on the sample ballot the party hands out at precincts.
"We’re all united against this terrible bill foisted upon the people of Virginia," Del. Al Eisenberg (D-47) said during AGLA’s April 25 meeting. "We will fight this legislation until the last dog dies."
Meanwhile, the Arlington branch of the Republican Party has decided not to weigh into the contentious debate, due partially to a split in its ranks on the issue.
"It’s not our top priority," said Jeff Miller, the chair of the Arlington County Republican Committee. "We’re focusing on the County Board election and supporting Sen. George Allen."
Those campaigning to defeat the amendment received a boost last month when Gov. Timothy Kaine (D) announced he will vote against it, even though he is a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage.
The reason, Kaine said in a letter to Equality Virginia, was the far reaching effects of the amendment, which could threaten the right of individuals to enter into private contracts and possibly prevent businesses from offering benefits to unmarried couples.
SOME SAME-SEX couples are worried that if voters approve the referendum they may no longer be able to pass on inheritance to their partners and may be denied hospital visitation rights.
The amendment’s backers, including Jeff Caruso, the director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, say the measure would in no way impinge on contractual relationships and that that line of reasoning is merely a scare tactic to drum up opposition.
"The amendment doesn’t have anything to do with these areas," Caruso said.
The Catholic Diocese of Arlington has been one of the Marriage Amendment’s most vocal proponents, arguing that the institution of marriage contributes to the common good. "The family is a fundamental building block of society, and encouraging state recognition of stable families is something that promotes the well being of children and society," Caruso said.
Bishop Paul S. Loverde plans to send letters to pastors urging them to support the amendment in the run-up to the November referendum, Caruso added.
Nineteen states have already passed marriage-protection amendments, and no state has yet to strike down such a measure.
Yet public opinion is beginning to shift on the issue. A Pew Research poll in March found that 51 percent of the public oppose legalizing same-sex marriage, down from 63 percent in February 2004.
County Board member Jay Fisette said he believes that Virginians are warming up to the concept of civil unions.
A poll commissioned by Equality Virginia last summer found that 59 percent of registered voters in the state are in favor of allowing civil unions.
Fisette believes that number would be higher if a simple poll was conducted today. Virginia statutes already ban same-sex marriage and civil unions.
"People are looking at this differently and the fear is dissipating," Fisette said. "People are not as afraid as they were two years ago during the spate of constitutional amendments."
While admitting that defeating the amendment is still "an uphill battle," Fisette said he believes that it will be a close contest, something he could not have envisioned a year ago.
Arlington legislators said they are seeing a burgeoning backlash against the amendment from business leaders and libertarians who are concerned by its scope and potential unintended consequences.
"There are conservatives who are very worried about big government intrusion into the private sector simply to make a statement about gay marriage — which is already illegal," said Del. David Englin (D-45).
LOCAL POLITICIANS and analysts are split over what effect it will have on turnout in November’s election. In 2004, a constitutional amendment blocking same-sex marriage was integral to marshaling conservative voters to the polls in Ohio, possibly swinging that state to President Bush.
Miller, the head of the Arlington chapter of the Republican Party, said that Virginians will flock to the polls because of the Senate race, and that the constitutional amendment will have little barring on whether or not people vote.
But Rebecca Maestri, president of the Virginia chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans and a strong opponent of the amendment, said that state Republicans will use it as a wedge issue to turn out conservatives who are becoming disillusioned with the Republican-run Congress.
While this strategy worked well across the nation in 2004, it is unlikely to have the same resonance at a time when voters’ top concerns are the war in Iraq, immigration and escalating gasoline prices.
By electing Kaine over Jerry Kilgore last November, Virginia residents signaled that bread-and-butter issues like transportation and education matter more than divisive social issues, Arlington politicians said.
"Politicians are starting to learn that targeting gay people is not a popular way to expand power," Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49) said.
The amendment’s opponents acknowledge that they have much work to do before now and November, and must raise funds and build coalitions with unlikely partners if they expect voters to reject the referendum.
"We have a big task ahead of us this fall, but I’m feeling more optimistic that we have a real chance to defeat this," said Del. Bob Brink (D-48). "What a message this will send if Virginia— the home of Jerry Falwell — is the first state to defeat a marriage amendment."