How a Virginia Politician Went From Supporting a Gay-Marriage Ban to Being Its Most Powerful Opponent

The new attorney general’s movement on gay marriage reflects a broader political trend.

Supporters of same sex marriage listen to the Pledge of Allegiance during a ceremony where Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed the Illinois marriage equality act into law making the state the 16th to allow such unions on November 20, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.
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Matt Berman
Jan. 23, 2014, 5:30 a.m.

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.


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