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Blend Exclusive: an interview with Virginia Delegate David Englin

Monday, April 24, 2006



[This post will be up top for most of the day; check below for fresh Blend.]

Virginia Delegate David Englin (D-45) recently caused quite a stir in the blogosphere; many of us learned about him after he gave a whale of a speech in support of civil equality on the floor of the legislature. He's proven to be an outspoken ally for the LGBT community, working mightily at the state level to directly challenge the right wing's message of bigotry and fear.

The religious right-beholden Republicans (and way too many Democrats) went on to vote to place the bigoted marriage amendment on the ballot this fall, which bans civil unions, domestic partnerships and any relationship/legal arrangement that approximates marriage.

A fighting Dem who was in the Pentagon on September 11, and served in the Balkans while in the Air Force, David Englin had nothing to gain and everything to lose politically by getting up and sharing these thoughts with his colleagues before that vote:
Mr. Speaker, I rise in strong opposition to this resolution.  I'm not going to talk about same-sex marriage.  I'm no fool -- although others might make a different judgement about a freshman delegate rising in this chamber on the third day of session.  But I understand that on the issue of marriage, I'm in the minority, perhaps even in my own caucus.  I also sleep very well at night knowing that at some point in the future of this great Commonwealth, those of us of my opinion will be judged to have been on the right side of history.  But let's for a moment forget about the question of same-sex marriage, because this amendment addresses much more than that.  We need to be clear and honest:  This amendment also outlaws civil unions and domestic partnerships and other similar private legal arrangements.

We have heard from the other side that this constitutional amendment is necessary to protect conventional marriage.  I am blessed with a beautiful and brilliant wife who is the love of my life.  In June, Shayna and I will celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, and I would fight with every ounce of my strength anything that would threaten my marriage.  So I would like to know, how exactly civil unions and domestic partnerships and other similar arrangements threaten my marriage?

We have heard from the other side that this amendment will protect families.  Shayna and I are blessed with a strong and bright six-year-old son, Caleb, and we have a strong family.  My friend the gentleman from Rockingham County, Delegate Lohr,  and I have discussed how we come from different backgrounds and different parts of this great Commonwealth, yet we share a deep and abiding commitment to our families.  I want nothing more than to protect my family.  I spent 12 years wearing the uniform of the United States Air Force to protect my family.  I've been in harm's way to protect my family.  So I would like to know, how exactly do civil unions and domestic partnerships and other similar arrangements threaten my family?  Because if they do, I will be the first one to stand up and fight, because nobody better threaten my family.
There's much more of this speech, which you can read it in my earlier post on his courageous stand, Virginia delegate shows Dems how to support gay rights.

I recently had the opportunity to ask David Englin about the outpouring of support he received after the speech (and the criticism), the state of progressive politics in Virginia, the effect of the religious right there, and how other Dems can and should stand up for what is right.

***

Interview with David Englin

Q: Your passionate speech against the Virginia marriage amendment in the House of Delegates garnered a lot of attention and support from all over the country. What has the volume of email, calls and snail mail been like since that day?

I spoke on the House floor in the morning, and when I checked my new BlackBerry that evening, I thought it wasn't working properly because I suddenly had more than 300 new messages. Within a few days, I had nearly a thousand emails and dozens of calls to my office from all over the country. I've received a handful of actual letters, but most people seem to communicate electronically these days. I haven't really kept track of the total number, but I'd guess I've had roughly a couple of thousand email messages. They've tapered off at this point, but I still get a few new messages every week.

Q: Did most people find out about it from the blogosphere, and when did you realize the impact of the speech?

There wasn't much traditional media coverage of the floor debate, so I assume most people found out about it from the blogosphere. A few days after the speech, my uncle, who is gay and lives in Arizona, called me to let me know that a friend had forwarded the speech to him not even knowing he and I are related. I guess I didn't appreciate the impact of the speech until a few days later as I was wading through the emails. Gay and lesbian families were sending me their personal stories and family photos and thanking me for having such courage and for giving them hope. These families are forced to live each day with the fear and insecurity that stems from our collective failure to live up to our nation's founding principles. They are the ones with real courage.

Q: What kind of reaction or responses have you gotten from the Right?

Sources are telling me that local Republicans are already targeting me. I assumed I'd have a Republican opponent when I'm up for reelection in 2007, but it sounds like they feel a greater sense of urgency now that I've confirmed their worst fears -- that I'm a Democrat with a spine who's not afraid to use it. Other than that, the right has been surprisingly quiet about my speech. I received three or four emails calling me names -- which I actually kind of got a kick out of -- and a couple of people trashed me in blog comments, but that's been about it. I'm sure they're using my name in vain in their fundraising letters and biding their time to strike.

Q: One of the interesting behind-the-scenes business about your speech on the House floor is that a fellow Democrat told you that it was "bad strategy." How do you respond to that comment, and was that isolated or did you hear from others with the same opinion?

What does "bad strategy" even mean? That by speaking out, I made the amendment more likely to pass? I was under no illusions that speaking out would cause the House to defeat the amendment, but it's important for Virginians to know that there are people like me -- a husband, a father, and a military veteran -- who are willing to stand up against this kind of bigotry. It's never bad strategy to defend people who are being abused. When was the last time you saw a Republican get the vapors because a fellow Republican stuck to his (albeit misguided) principles?

Q: You serve the 45th district, which is in Northern Virginia (NoVa). It's a progressive area, but Virginia is not a state known for progressive politics overall; the right-wing extreme element of the GOP has a level of control that has resulted in relentless efforts to demonize gays and lesbians. There are also plenty of Dems willing to side with Republicans on socially conservative issues. What is the overall atmosphere in the legislature in a climate like this?

We're in a very partisan, contentious period in the Virginia legislature, mainly because the House Republican caucus is controlled by that right-wing extreme element of the GOP. Interestingly, Senate Republicans are fairly moderate (although not moderate enough to defeat the marriage amendment) so we count on the Senate to kill many of the extremist bills that sail through the House. This divisiveness isn't limited to social issues. We're in a special extended session right now fighting over the state budget where the Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats, House Democrats, and Governor are all on the same page, but House Republicans are obstructing the process because of their extremist anti-tax theology.  

Q: Do you see any shifts toward more moderation in Virginia politics overall, or more of a balkanization between urban/suburban and rural political spheres in the state?

The recent string of Democratic victories in Virginia suggest that voters are rejecting extreme right-wing social dogma in favor of Democrats who are talking about education, health care, public safety, transportation, and other issues that matter to the vast majority of people, gay or straight. In November, we elected our second consecutive Democratic governor, and we're back up to 40 (out of 100) Democrats in the House and 17 (out of 40) in the Senate. Nearly all of the newly-elected Democrats in the General Assembly have consistently voted against the extremist social legislation coming from the Republican majority. We're not there yet, but we're moving in the right direction.

Q: On a day-to-day basis in the House, how strong is the pressure of the religious right in terms of lobbying and pressure? Clearly they've been effective.

On balance, the religious right is still very influential in Virginia, although I'd say that it's starting to wane a bit. There are legislators who naturally embrace the politics of the religious right, and there are others who are more moderate than their voting records suggest but who are hostage to the religious right, who put them and keep them in office. One of the most interesting results of my speech on the marriage amendment has been the number of Republicans who have told me privately that they agree with me but feel beholden to the religious right. That suggests to me an opportunity for our side to organize and become a more potent electoral force, so legislators will feel beholden to advocates of reasonable, progressive policies instead. That's why I'm so focused on grassroots organizing and building the party.

Q: Dem party officials -- where do they stand regarding strategy on progressive politics in Virginia? The Dem and progressive forces haven't been successful in countering this enough to make serious headway. What is the plan?

Actually, Democrats have been making quite a bit of headway in Virginia, and I think we can be a model for other parts of the country where Democrats are trying to claw their way back to a majority. As I mentioned, we just elected our second consecutive Democratic governor, and we continue to pick up seats in both houses of the General Assembly. We were down to 34 Democrats in the House a few years ago, and now we're up to 40, including two seats we won in special elections since November, so the momentum is on our side. Not all of my newly-elected colleagues vote as progressive as me, but nearly every one of them voted against the marriage amendment --including Delegate Shannon Valentine, whose district includes Jerry Falwell and Liberty University, and Delegate David Poisson, who ousted one of the most hateful extremists in the state.

In terms of "the plan", we need to keep running terrific, energetic Democrats who are smart enough to campaign on the issues most voters actually care about, like health care and education. That's step one, which has been aided by the fact that Republicans here keep running extremist candidates who campaign on the death penalty, abortion, and bashing immigrants and gay people. We also need to continue strengthening our investment in grassroots field operations so we are identifying voters year round that we can turn out on election day.

In my opinion, our weakest area -- here in Virginia as well as nationally -- is having a coherent, compelling agenda for the future, but it's something several of us at various levels are working on. Finally, progressive Democrats need to get fully engaged. Ask yourself if you can give just a little more money or just a little more time, so that when people like Shannon Valentine and David Poisson --and me! -- are up for reelection, they have what they need to win. Even beyond that, get down to your local Democratic committee and get involved, recruit other people to be committee members, and run for committee leadership positions. If you do that, eventually you'll be one of those party officials deciding strategy. To quote my favorite TV president, "Decisions are made by those who show up."

Q: A politician who catches a lot of grief on the Blend is Governor Tim Kaine, whom you helped to elect. Obviously, (Kaine's Republican opponent) Kilgore represented the bottom-of-the-barrel level of wingnuttery that had to be defeated, but Kaine has been playing cute on the marriage amendment -- unhappy with its "language," but ultimately he is not for civil equality. How do you square your views with his - which are clearly aimed at positioning himself as a centrist at the expense of gays and lesbian voters (and taxpayers)?

I wish Governor Kaine agreed with me on same-sex marriage, but he doesn't. That said, I think you're otherwise being a bit too hard on him. While he doesn't believe in complete marriage equality the way you and I do, he does support most other forms of equal rights, and he began challenging Republicans on issues like employment nondiscrimination the very moment he took office. (His first act as governor was an executive order on employment nondiscrimination.) Moreover, he has been surprisingly public and outspoken in his opposition to the marriage amendment, refusing to sign the legislation putting it on the ballot and publicly urging Virginians to follow his lead and vote against it. He's shown a lot of courage on other progressive issues too. For example, against his staff's recommendation, he vetoed a bill on baccalaureate services that was important to the religious right that only 11 of us voted against, which took real guts. He's not as progressive as I am, but on a whole range of issues, he does the right thing.

Q: Have you had discussions with Kaine (or his campaign) about this all-too-familiar attempt by establishment Dems to woo the right wing elements rather than court the many disaffected voters who are looking for real change in politics?

I've spoken with Governor Kaine and his staff about the future of the party and how we can keep building and bringing in new voters, and it's a constant topic of concern to our caucus and party leadership here in Virginia. There's a lot going on behind the scenes through the governor's leadership PAC and through the party to build the grassroots and to reach out to those disaffected voters. Honestly, seeing things from inside the wall, I've been impressed with how little wooing of the right wing there is and how much unity and determination there is on our side right now. To some extent, it might be a reaction to how far right the Republicans have gone. For example, they killed a cabinet nomination for the first time in history for no other reason than the appointee -- who was also a close personal friend of the governor -- had been the president of the Virginia AFL-CIO. Not much wooing happens after that sort of thing.

Q: Here in North Carolina, we have managed to turn back an amendment bill a few times, with it dying in committee in the Dem-controlled General Assembly. There is a realization that this amendment is bad for business. What do you think is it about Virginia politics that makes it difficult for elected officials to see the damage this amendment can do for business in terms of recruitment of employment talent, businesses and tourism?

You said it: You have a Democrat-controlled General Assembly. Among Virginia Republicans, Grover Norquist and the religious right carry more sway than the business community. The fact that the marriage amendment is bad for business and intrudes upon private sector business practices will help us defeat the measure at the ballot box in November, but it wasn't enough to stop it in a Republican-controlled General Assembly. Like so many issues, the real solution is to win back Democratic control of the House and the Senate.

Q: In the next election cycle, do you think your strong progressive views are going to put you on the defensive, or do you think the groundswell of support that you've received bolsters your case that fairness is "electable"?

My main weakness right now is not my progressive views, it's that I'm still carrying $25,000 in campaign debt, which makes it difficult for me to pay for everything I need to communicate with my constituents. If I don't erase my debt fairly quickly, I become a juicy target. However, I'm as progressive now as I was when the people of the 45th District elected me in November, so I don't imagine my views will put me on the defensive. I'm not on the ballot again until 2007, but I'm already out meeting with constituents on their doorsteps, through various organization meetings, and at Metro stops throughout the district. A number of people have commented that they aren't used to the kind of energetic leadership I work hard to provide. This seat doesn't belong to me, it belongs to the people of the 45th District. Anyone is free to challenge me, but they had better be prepared to face the grassroots juggernaut I've built. But I still need money, so please go to my website, www.davidenglin.org, and donate $100 online right now. :-) Many, many thanks to your readers who have already contributed.

Q: Blenders have complained endlessly -- and rightfully so -- that the Democratic party at the national level just doesn't get it. The endless cozying up to the right, the inability to defend and frame progressive issues successfully, the endless begging for money from the very groups -- gays and women -- that they continually throw under the bus when it comes for standing up for civil equality, and reproductive freedom. It's maddening. Why can't they do what you do?

I wish I knew the answer to that question. To me it's not rocket science: Be who you are, stand strong on your principles, and be loyal to your friends. I guess the downside of being a party of thoughtful, intelligent, open-minded people is that we're so open and tolerant that we never want to say simply, "We're right and they're wrong." Well, on so many issues, I believe in my heart that we're right and they're wrong, and it's my duty to my community and to my country to say so.  

Q: Is the problem the high-paid, consultants (that continue to lose so often), the endless focus groups and polling -- what is wrong with the party? What can we do to fix it, aside from supporting the rare Dems with spines like yourself?

There are all kinds of consultants who provide all kinds of services, some of which are very helpful and make a big difference. The problem is candidates who let consultants turn them into something they're not. If you're not strong enough to be true to who you are on the campaign trail, why should voters think you'll be strong enough to do that in elected office? I've heard that Republican consultants operate on a "three strikes" policy where three consecutive losses and they will no longer be able to find work. I don't know if that's true, but maybe it's something Democrats should consider. But the real solution is to get more involved, not just online, but offline. There are plenty of Democrats out there with energy and ideas and backbone, there just aren't enough of them running for office. Have you considered running for office?

Q: Who are the progressive pols who you feel are willing and able to frame these issues effectively? (state or national)

That's a difficult question to answer in part because "progressive" includes a number of issues, and I don't know that there's anybody out there who's exactly where I want them to be on every issue. Certainly, social issues are important, but where a candidate stands on the environment, health care, poverty, and other issues matter too. To varying degrees, I'd say the national list probably includes Barak Obama, John Edwards, Mark Warner, Russ Feingold. Here in Virginia, our House Democratic Caucus chair, Delegate Brian Moran, is very talented and would make a terrific statewide candidate, and he's strong on most progressive issues.

Q: When Dem politicians at the local level clearly articulate and define progressive positions, and how can these pols get party support when the machinery is concerned with running to the right?

If we want party organizations to become more progressive or support progressive candidates, progressive activists need to get more involved and work their way into the party structure. The next time your local party reorganizes -- as many local party committees are required by party bylaws to do every couple of years -- show up with 20 of your people to become new committee members, and then run for a leadership position on the committee.

Q: What role do you see for blogs and the internet generally for candidates at all levels? Do you find that one party or another is making better use of new media?

Blogs and the internet can be extremely helpful, especially for candidates at the state and local level who otherwise wouldn't get much attention. The real problem is that most candidates don't know how to take advantage of the internet. You can use blogs and the internet to build buzz and even to build community, but if you can't translate that into volunteers, money, and ultimately votes, you can't win. My gut feeling is that the left makes better use of the internet than the right, which is better at talk radio. That said, Republicans still control all branches of government, so our online advantage has yet to fully translate into electoral victory.


Q: How has all of the excitement and exposure affected your family? Shayna has been very effective and supportive.

Elected office requires tremendous family sacrifice -- probably more than most of our constituents realize -- and this experience demonstrates how much those sacrifices are worth. Shayna and I have always been committed to fighting to improve the world -- I guess you could say that it's one of our family's core values. I am blessed with a brilliant wife who is the love of my life. Effective and supportive don't even scratch the surface. I wouldn't be the man I am without her, and she happens to be a brilliant campaign strategist, so I probably wouldn't be in elected office without her either.

Q: When are you going to clone yourself?

Thanks for the love, but that's a scary thought! I was the one to stand up and speak, but when I look at the courageous progressive votes some of my colleagues cast this past session, knowing that those votes will hurt them come election time, it makes me want to clone them.

***

We have to continue to encourage and support the fearless people out there willing to put themselves at political risk. They want to be on the right side of history, but there is intense pressure from the deluded political machinery to de-spine themselves and court the right wing. Civil equality-affirming pols, particularly those in Red states, need to be held up as the example of what good, responsible (and responsive) politicians can be -- in either party -- and that they can still win races.

Our dollars and support need to go to candidates who don't pander to the bible-beating, womb-controlling, privacy-invading, power-mad homophobic bigots -- the real enemies of the principles of freedom upon which this country was founded.

We need allies in office who don't have to wait for the polls to shift in our direction before they feel safe enough to come out from behind their mother's apron to support civil equality.

Thanks, David, for setting the bar high.

***

Virginia's marriage amendment:

Constitutional amendment (voter referendum); marriage. Provides for a referendum at the November 2006 election on approval of a proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage. The proposed amendment provides that "only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this Commonwealth and its political subdivisions." The proposed amendment also prohibits the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions from creating or recognizing "a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage." Further, the proposed amendment prohibits the Commonwealth or its political subdivisions from creating or recognizing "another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage."

The ballot shall contain the following question:

"Question: Shall Article I (the Bill of Rights) of the Constitution of Virginia be amended to state, in part, that 'only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this Commonwealth and its political subdivisions' and to add provisions relating to the legal status of other relationships and prohibiting the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions from recognizing a legal status for relationships that intend to approximate marriage?"