Virginia's Allen Hopes Gay Issue Helps Turnout

Ballot measures to ban gay marriage were credited with boosting turnout among values voters in 2004. This year, the issue is on eight state ballots, including in Virginia, where Sen. George Allen (R) has seized on the issue to energize his own re-election bid.

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This year, gay marriage has hardly been the issue that it was two years ago, but it has started making a comeback thanks to New Jersey's Supreme Court. Last week the court said that same sex couples deserve the same legal and financial benefits that heterosexual couples receive. That ruling has had an impact on a number of campaigns, including the Senate race in Virginia, which is one of eight states with ballot initiatives this year banning gay marriage.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: It was early afternoon yesterday when Senator George Allen turned up at the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in Portsmouth.

Senator GEORGE ALLEN (Republican, Virginia): Hey, (unintelligible). How are you? Good to see you. Good to see you.

Unidentified Man #1: Do you know Roger? And here's the (unintelligible).

Senator ALLEN: My pleasure.

Unidentified Man #2: Good to see you.

WELNA: Allen, who's been battling accusations that he's made racist remarks, came with a couple of older, African Americans who'd played on the Los Angeles Rams football team that his father, George Allen, Sr., once coached.

Allen had just been out with them, visiting some all black churches. He told reporters he'd spoken at two of these churches about the court ruling favoring gay couples.

Senator ALLEN: In fact, the New Jersey decision really does show as an example of why our representative democracy ought to have the people making these decisions, not unelected judges. And I am very much in favor of marriage defined as one man and one woman, and I'm voting for that amendment, urging and encouraging people to do so in Virginia. My opponent is against it. And that does say a lot about our differences on this important value.

WELNA: Jim Webb, the Democrat running against Allen, was campaigning elsewhere. Webb's spokeswoman, Kristian Denny Todd, said Webb does oppose gay marriage but also opposes the proposed amendment on the grounds it would hurt many other couples as well. Todd said Allen was trying to exploit a wariness about gay marriage among some black churchgoers.

Ms. KRISTIAN DENNY TODD (Spokeswoman, Jim Webb): This is his one and only issue. He's going to try to use it as a sword, if you will, as a divisive technique to either suppress African Americans, or keep them from voting or vote for him. But I think that African American voters are a little more clever than Senator Allen is giving them credit for.

WELNA: But gay marriage clearly is on the minds of some black church leaders. Driving away from Ebenezer Baptist Church yesterday in Portsmouth, Pastor Leroy Hill, Jr., said he'd spoken during the service about how marriage should be between a man and a woman and he said he'd also mentioned the election.

Pastor LEROY HILL, JR. (Ebenezer Baptist Church): We don't tell people how to vote but we encourage them to vote, so yes.

WELNA: May I ask you a question? Have you decided how you're going to vote in the Senate race?

Pastor HILL: Yes, I will tell you I vote my conscience.

WELNA: Is your conscience -

Pastor HILL: I'm not giving you any names. I'm not going to do that to you.

WELNA: According to a recent statewide poll, only about 4 percent of black Virginians plan to vote for Senator Allen and while many others interviewed yesterday said they too oppose gay marriage, none would say how they planned to vote.

(Soundbite of song, “Shall We Gather At the River”)

WELNA: At a Baptist service in Ladysmith, Virginia yesterday, many in its mostly white congregation expressed strong support for Senator Allen, including Trisha Alison, a 32-year-old mother of four who abhors same sex marriage.

Ms. TRISHA ALISON: It's not God's will. It's not how marriage was supposed to be set up and I am absolutely against it.

WELNA: Is that something that makes you more likely to go vote on the 7th?

Ms. ALISON: Yes. Yes, very much so.

WELNA: Another churchgoer, 45-year-old carpenter Scott Gherkin said he too is against gay marriage.

Mr. SCOTT GHERKIN: In the Lord's eyes, I think marriage is a man and a woman.

WELNA: Still, Gherkin added that for him this election's about much more than gay marriage.

Mr. GHERKIN: I've been a Republican pretty much all my life. My family was Republican, but I'm at the point now where I'm starting to think we need a change. It seems to me the Republican administration has gone to the rich side, where that's basically all they care about is big business and people that have a lot of money.

WELNA: Do you plan to vote the 7th?

Mr. GHERKIN: Yes, I do. And in the (unintelligible).

WELNA: Do you prefer Jim Webb to George Allen?

Mr. GHERKIN: Well, I prefer Allen, but I think I'm going to vote for Webb.

WELNA: It's voters like Scott Gherkin who've made this a far closer race than Allen's supporters ever expected.

David Welna, NPR News.

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