Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring came a long way on gay marriage before officially declaring on Thursday he would not defend his state’s same-sex marriage ban. From his gig as state senator to now, he has moved from siding with former AG and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli on the ban to beginning to strike it down.
It’s the kind of political path that doesn’t seem so out of the norm today, when a majority of Americans support marriage equality. But it’s instructive of where the issue is going, and why some politicians are moving fast to change their minds.
As a state senator in 2006, Herring voted with then state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli to support a voter referendum on whether the state should have a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. This wasn’t a surprise move from the new legislator. In his failed 2003 state Senate campaign, Herring explicitly said that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
But by siding with Cuccinelli, Herring tied his position to that of a firebrand. The year before, Cuccinelli’s anti-gay-marriage fervor came out in a Washington Post interview ahead of a state Senate vote to approve a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He said:
The homosexual left has been on the attack against marriage and family for 40 years, and we’ve been taking it. If you’re going to start a war, if you’re going to invade a country, expect a counterattack. All we’re doing is regaining lost ground.
Herring, while not obviously on the front lines, was on Cuccinelli’s side of that war in 2006. The referendum, which passed, set up a November vote establishing the state’s gay-marriage ban.
But Herring’s attitude shifted by the time he decided to run for attorney general as Cuccinelli’s successor last year. Whether because of politics or convictions, Herring began to move against the state’s ban. In April 2013, he posted his campaign’s “Equality Agenda,” in which he said he “believes that civil marriage is a fundamental right,” and he “supports marriage equality for same-gender couples.”
Herring’s switch on gay marriage became a campaign issue in his race against Republican Mark Obenshain, and in a June debate he was forced to defend his movement. Eight years ago, Herring said, he was uncomfortable with same-sex marriage. He continued:
But since that time, I’ve done a lot of thinking about it. I’ve talked to my friends, my constituents. I talked to coworkers; I talked to my family, including my children. And like millions of Americans and a lot of Virginians, I don’t believe that way anymore, and I think it’s wrong.
I don’t believe anybody should be treated as a second-class citizen, and I don’t believe that the state should decide who you can and cannot marry. So I support marriage equality, and as we work toward marriage equality, there are very specific things I, as attorney general, can do to help protect the rights of gay and lesbian Virginians.
The change in positions over eight years fully reflects the trend in national opinion. In May 2006, just 39 percent of Americans nationwide were in favor of same-sex marriage, with 58 percent disapproving, according to Gallup. By summer 2013, those numbers had virtually flipped, with 54 percent approving of same-sex marriage and 43 percent disapproving.
That flip is true in Virginia, too. The 2006 referendum on an amendment banning same-sex marriage won the support of 57 percent of state voters. An October 2013 poll found that 56 percent of Virginia voters opposed that ban.
It’s easy to look at Herring’s movement on gay marriage as a purely political decision. But if you’re a supporter of legalized same-sex marriage, that shouldn’t really matter. It’s just as easy to look at Herring’s 2006 referendum support as a purely political decision, as back then voters both in his state and across the country were against marriage equality in greater numbers. Herring’s shift fits into the wider national change in attitudes, and while that may seem opportunistic, it’s entirely possible that his beliefs are just reflective of those of his state.
This kind of movement may seem small. Herring wasn’t the guy out there calling this a war, and Ken Cuccinelli likely isn’t about to have a change of heart. But in this particular case, one politician’s change in views is what matters to put his state on a path toward marriage equality, starting with the decision Thursday to challenge the ban. And as we head into another election season, it’s a solid bet that Mark Herring won’t be the only influential politician changing his mind.