Bob McDonnell, sodomy and Virginia politics

The Washington Post reminds voters of the GOP gubernatorial candidate's anti-gay remarks in 1993

Published September 9, 2009 12:57PM (EDT)

It's been a tough couple of weeks for Bob McDonnell. And it may be about to get tougher.

The Republican candidate in the Virginia governor's race has been on his heels ever since the Washington Post dug up his 1989 master's thesis from Regent University, in which the future politician took some impolitic stands: against a court ruling legalizing contraception for married couples; against women working (that's "detrimental to the family"); in favor of spanking kids; and against government policies that favor "cohabitators, homosexuals and fornicators" over married folks. Aides to Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds jumped on the thesis within hours and have been pounding McDonnell with it since, convinced it shows the hardcore fundamentalist side that the Republican has been trying to hide during this campaign; the Post reported that McDonnell appeared to have tried, while serving in the Virginia legislature, to implement many of the ideas in the thesis. Adding political insult to injury, the paper apparently only learned about the thesis because McDonnell mentioned it to a reporter.

Now it seems to be open season on social issues in the Virginia race, which is something McDonnell was trying desperately to avoid. There was a time when a candidate who wasn't sure women should be working might have had an advantage in statewide elections in Virginia, but that time has passed -- the state's demographics have changed enormously over the last decade, a shift demonstrated most clearly by President Obama's six-point win over John McCain there last fall.

So today's Post revisits another episode from McDonnell's past as a right-wing culture warrior, and this one from not so long ago: a 2003 hearing in which McDonnell and other Republicans grilled Verbena Askew, the state's first black female Circuit Court judge. The hearing focused, in particular, on allegations that Askew had sexually harassed a female colleague. And that led McDonnell to tell a reporter for the Newport News Daily Press that gay judges might not be qualified -- after all, they might be violating Virginia's anti-sodomy laws.

"It certainly raises some questions about the qualifications to serve as a judge," he told the Daily Press's Terry Scanlon. "There is certain homosexual conduct that is in violation of the law... I'm not telling you I would disqualify a judge per se if he said he was gay. I'm talking about their actions."

That's not even the most absurd part of the story, though. When Scanlon asked McDonnell if he had ever committed sodomy, the Republican answered, "Not that I can recall."

The Post buried that part of the tale. But as Democratic strategist Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, who's worked on Virginia campaigns for years, told me in June for a piece on the Democratic primary, that's not the politically savvy way to answer a question like that, even if McDonnell hopes to appeal to people who agree with him about gay judges. "I might have forgotten where my car keys were, and I might have even forgotten where my car was, but there's a few things in life you never forget," Saunders said. "A lot of conservative bubbas out here ain't gonna vote for somebody if they don't recall whether or not they've ever committed sodomy."

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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