Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David (center) poses for a photo with Virginia House and Senate candidates during an Aug. 15 press event in Richmond.
Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David (center) poses for a photo with Virginia House and Senate candidates during an Aug. 15 press event in Richmond.

The nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group is making a “six-figure” investment into the 2019 Virginia General Assembly elections and endorsing a record number of state Senate and House candidates.

“This is the largest number of endorsements we have made ever in the state of Virginia for State elected officials and it is the highest investment in terms of the dollar amount,” Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in an interview. The group announced Thursday it will back 27 candidates it believes will champion equal rights legislation if elected.

Why Virginia?

“We see an opportunity in the state to actually change the landscape,” David said. “I say that because approximately 70% of people that live in this state support equality legislation.”

In Virginia, advocates have long pushed for equal rights including a public employment law that would, if enacted, extend the same anti-discrimination protections that apply to race and gender to sexual orientation. As it stands, it is still legal to deny a Virginian a public sector job based on their sexual orientation. Democrats have backed such measures in recent years, but Republican leadership has repeatedly stopped those bills from advancing, David said.

At a press conference in Richmond, David and his colleagues, along with about a dozen candidates that earned the group’s endorsement, took turns on the podium to drill home this message: The only way to ensure equal rights for all Virginians is to vote Republicans out of power.

The Virginia GOP has controlled the General Assembly for the greater part of two decades, but on Nov. 5, 2019, all 140 seats are on the ballot again. Democrats flipped over a dozen GOP seats in the 2017 elections, and this year the majority is well within their reach.

For Democrats, winning is their last best hope for equal rights.

Who is in power matters, Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn told The Dogwood after the event. For decades, Republicans have chosen who sits on which committees and subcommittees and what bills those panels consider, she said.

“And then there’s all of these procedural moves that you can make which will ensure that a certain bill does not get to the floor, or a certain bill does not get heard in the subcommittee and therefore never makes it to the full committee,” Filler-Corn continued.

“We’ve seen this time and time again … we’ve been out of control for 20 years.”

In 2019 some bills, like one that would update the Commonwealth’s Fair Housing Law to include non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender-identity, received bipartisan support in the Senate but were later killed by Republicans in the House.

Del. Danica Roem (D-13) said in an interview that the GOP support for equality bills in the Senate is part of their leadership’s political chess game. Because state senators represent broader constituencies, they need to appeal to a more general electorate. So when pro-equality bills arise that could split the Republican caucus, the tactic is to push them through the Senate first and give Republicans in the upper chamber the political cover to vote “yes.” Then, when the legislation moves to the House, Republicans from deep red districts can squash the measure — often in small committees — with less political blowback.

Roem, one of the nation’s first openly transgender elected officials, argued there’s no convincing Republican leadership to change course. “If you can’t change their minds, you change their seats,” she said.

A ‘panoply’ of options to support candidates

And that’s what the HRC intends to do. In addition to money and endorsements, the advocacy group will provide a “panoply of options,” to support candidates, David said. Those options include communications, direct mail, and digital support.

“Some candidates need certain types of assistance, so we’re using all of the tools in our toolbox to support them,” David said.

But HRC’s most significant contribution could be its massive network, which includes volunteers that will provide on-the-ground support and “equality voters” in House and Senate districts that HRC will engage directly. Equality voters are people HRC has identified who prioritize LGBTQ-inclusive policies.

In each of the nine endorsed Senate districts, HRC has identified an average of 54,500 equality voters — more than enough to tip the scales for those districts, which had an average margin of victory of 6,818 votes in 2017.

In House endorsed districts, HRC has identified 22,581 equality voters, with an average margin of 1,358 votes per district.

HRC endorsed the following Senate candidates: Cheryl Turpin (7), Missy Cotter Smasal (8), Jennifer McLellan (9), Ghazala Hasmi (10), Amanda Pohl (11), Debra Rodman (12), John Bell (13), Amy Laufer (17), and Adam Ebbin (30).

And in the House, HRC endorsed: Wendy Goodlitis (10), Danica Roem (14), Joshua Cole (28), Elizabeth Guzman (31), Mavis Taintor (33), Dan Helmer (40), Eileen Filler-Corn (41), Mark Sickles (43), Mark Levine (45), Hala Ayala (51), Sheila Bynum-Coleman (66), Dawn Adams (68), Clint Jenkins (76), Len Myers (81), Nancy Guy (83), Martha Mugler (91), Shelly Simonds (94), and Phil Hernandez (100).