Well, it looks like it’s kind of a bad news/good news situation for newly elected Governor Bob McDonnell. On the downside, his carefully cultivated campaign image—which presented him as a sensible, well-coiffed, middle-of-the-road pragmatist—is in complete tatters, destroyed by a series of mean-spirited, politically tone-deaf moves against Virginia’s lesbian and gay community. On the plus side, however, he and his administration have already garnered more snark-heavy airtime on “The Daily Show” than the previous two governors combined.
To sum up: national exposure, good—national exposure that paints you as the least tolerant state executive in the country, not so much.
Of course, many would argue that the current contretemps isn’t really McDonnell’s doing. Sure, he issued a February 5 executive order barring discrimination in the state workforce that pointedly excluded protections for gay employees, and summarily dismissed Tim Kaine’s proposal to extend health benefits to state workers’ nontraditional partners. But that was small ball, homophobically speaking, and occasioned little more than grumbling from the left.
No, it took Attorney General Ken “Overkill” Cuccinelli’s unsolicited, absurdly intolerant letter demanding that the Commonwealth’s universities strike any and all gay-friendly anti-discrimination policies from their rulebooks to really bring things to a boil.
But, intentionally or not, McDonnell is entering the third month of his governorship deeply embroiled in the exactly the sort of divisive cultural kerfuffle he spent the entire campaign disavowing. And, even as he lurched from tacit support for Cuccinelli’s anti-gay offensive (a spokesperson at first characterized the letter as “consistent with all prior opinions” issued by the AG’s office) to damage-control directives (a non-binding missive insisting that “we will not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation or any other basis that’s outlawed under state or federal law or the constitution”), the governor seemed to want nothing so much as to sweep the entire sordid business back under the rug.
Now, it’s no huge secret that the average Virginia lawmaker sits comfortably to the right of the Old Dominion as a whole. But since, outside of Richmond, the majority of tolerant lefty types are generally exiled to the D.C. exurbs or Virginia’s college campuses (and, of course, the People’s Republic of Charlottesville), it’s usually easy to overlook that fact.
But this jarring onslaught of values-voter invective might prove to be more than even our jaded commonwealth can handle. Consider, for instance, the sudden deluge of pro-gun proposals that flooded the legislature this session. Now, you might have heard that our legislative brain trust decided that allowing pistol-packing patrons to bring firearms into bars was a great idea, but did you know that other proposed laws would have repealed Virginia’s sensible one-gun-a-month law, allowed concealed carriers to bring loaded guns into courthouses and churches, and exempted homemade guns from federal law?
Unfortunately, the only thing keeping these wild west provisions bottled up is a special, bill-killing subcommittee set up by senate majority leader Dick Saslaw, which—mirroring a longstanding anti-democratic practice in the house of delegates—strangles bills in the crib before they can even think about becoming laws.
So this is where we stand: institutionalized prejudice in the executive branch, and dysfunctional desperation in the Assembly. One way or the other, it looks like we’re all in for a hell of a bumpy ride.