In Virginia, gay marriage debate pits popular black mayor and governor against activists

Liberal activists in Virginia are sharply opposing the candidacy of Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones to be chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party because the African-American pastor refuses to publicly support gay marriage, even though Jones says his personal views on the issue would not affect his decisions if he were selected as chairman.

Jones is one of the highest-ranking black Democratic officials in the state and was recommended by newly-elected Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to be party chair. But a bloc of state Democratic lawmakers in Virginia, along with liberal and gay rights groups, are arguing that Jones is a flawed candidate for the post because two years ago Jones said he personally opposes gay marriage. Jones has not indicated that his stance has changed.

“We have a president, a vice president, and a U.S. Attorney General who now stand on the right side of history, on the side of equality. The Democratic Party of Virginia must not consider retreating on this issue,” says a petition from the LGBT Democrats of Virginia.

The statement continues, “Unless Mayor Jones makes a strong public statement in support of legal marriage equality, we cannot consider supporting him.”

Jones, in an interview with the Washington Post last week, refused to say if he backed same-sex marriage, but emphasized, “my position is that I’m going to fight for constitutional protections under the law for individuals no matter what their beliefs and their conditions are.”

The controversy in Virginia is part of a broader debate happening within both parties on same-sex marriage. There is growing support for gay marriage, particularly among young Americans, and courts have struck down gay marriage bans all over the country in the last few months.  At the same time, polls show that highly-religious Christians, Americans over age 50 and blacks are less likely than white Democrats to support gay marriage.

Those blocs being more wary of gay marriage may complicate the issue for Jones, who in addition to being mayor is a pastor at First Baptist Church in Richmond.

Jones has long been involved in Democratic politics, serving as a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates for more than a decade before been elected mayor in 2009.

Two years ago, he was one of many black pastors around the country who, when asked about President Obama’s decision to support gay marriage, said they would still vote and campaign for Obama but did not embrace the president’s shift on same-sex unions.

“This is one issue that President Obama and I disagree on,” Mayor Jones said in a statement back then that was provided to, a Richmond-based website that focuses on LGBT issues.  ”Despite this disagreement however, I applaud the efforts and work of President Obama and his administration and I will do whatever I can to ensure he is re-elected.”

Jones so has been unwilling to backtrack from that statement.

McAuliffe, a strong defender of gay rights and a supporter of gay marriage, is not alone in backing Jones. Virginia’s newly-elected Attorney General Mark R. Herring has been a leading figure in opposing Virginia’s gay marriage ban, which was recently struck down in court, but also endorsed the Richmond pastor.

“Mayor Jones is an excellent choice for chair, and I support him based on all of his work on behalf of our party’s values as a delegate and mayor, including his work advocating for civil rights and equal opportunity,” Herring told the Richmond Times Dispatch in a statement.

But other figures in the party remain unconvinced. And the final decision is not up to Herring or McAuliffe. The party’s central committee, composed of about 250 activists from around the state, will vote on the next party chair in a meeting on Saturday,  March 15.