Trial by Fire

Trial by Fire

Freshman legislator opposes Marriage Amendment.

Freshman legislators are often instructed to silently listen and learn. “Get along to go along” — an old phrase originating with the late U.S. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn — is the motto of many new members of Virginia’s House of Delegates. But not Del. David Englin (D-45).

“For me, the three days in Richmond were a trial by fire,” he said. “I learned some good lessons about parliamentary procedure.”

On Jan. 11, the opening day of the General Assembly, Englin was thrown into the middle of a political firefight. Republicans were eager to pass the Marriage Amendment, which provides that “only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this commonwealth.” But Democrats wanted to kill the amendment in committee or vote it down on the House floor.

For Englin, the fight against the Marriage Amendment was an emotional issue — a campaign promise made over and over on the campaign trail to support equal rights for gays.

“I had a real sense of obligation,” he said. “Given how strongly I feel about this issue, it was an honor that this would be my first fight in the House of Delegates.”

IN A DECEMBER meeting with Speaker William Howell (R-28), Englin expressed an interest in two committees: the Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee and the Education Committee. Another assignment that he expressed an interest in was the Privileges and Elections Committee, a more prestigious position that Englin said he mentioned as an alternative.

“When the clerk read the members of the Privileges and Elections Committee, I was really surprised to hear my name,” said Englin, who was also assigned to the Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee. “For a freshman to get two out of his three preferences is rare, so I was pretty excited about that.”

But excitement soon turned into action. The Privileges and Elections Committee was immediately called into session to consider the Marriage Amendment, which Republicans hoped to move through the committee as quickly as possible.

“On their side, there was this sense of inevitability,” Englin said. “But that didn’t mean that I had to remain silent and let it happen without doing something about it.”

THE COMMITTEE WAS SCHEDULED to meet in House Room D of the General Assembly Building. Englin had about 10 minutes to get from the floor of the House to the committee chamber, so he sought quick advice from Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49), the first openly gay state legislator to be elected in Virginia and a second-term member of the House of Delegates who knows some of the parliamentary strategies that are used in Richmond. Ebbin offered some pointers to the Englin, hoping to stall the amendment or change it significantly.

Around 5 p.m., when the committee was called to order, the only business on the agenda was the Marriage Amendment, patroned by Del. Robert Marshall (D-13).

“Del. Marshall feels that marriage between a man and a woman is the foundation of society,” said Claire Gardner, Marshall’s legislative assistant. “The amendment bans any recognition of civil unions.”

For conservatives, the Marriage Amendment is a top priority — one that they plan to fight for.

“The process to amend the state constitution is a long one,” said Pat McSweeney, chairman of the board of The Family Foundation Action. “While we have little doubt that the vast majority of Virginians support this amendment and will vote in favor of it in 2006, we will not sit by and allow those opposed to traditional marriage dominate the debate.”

REPUBLICANS ON THE COMMITTEE hoped to pass it quickly, sending it to certain victory on the House floor. Last year, the amendment passed the House floor in a 78 to 18 vote, and amendments need to pass the General Assembly two consecutives years before being sent to voters.

“The strategy was first to delay,” Englin said. “As soon as the chairman gaveled the meeting to order, I made a motion to carry it over.”

But Englin spoke too soon. When the clerk of the committee passed him a hand-written note explaining what “carry it over” meant, Englin realized his mistake.

“I meant to make a motion to ‘pass it by,’ which would have delayed the bill until the committee’s next meeting,” Englin said. “But instead I made a motion to ‘carry it over,’ which meant that the amendment wouldn’t be considered again until next year. So, of course, that motion failed.”

When the delay tactic failed, Englin tried to change the resolution by restoring the “savings clause,” which was struck from the language of the amendment last year. The clause is intended to protect existing private contracts that could be nullified by the amendment.

“The problem is that everybody knows that any change would set the clock back,” Englin said. “So that didn’t work either.”

With his options running out, Englin tried a third tactic — challenging the language that will be presented to voters in November when the amendment could appear on the ballot. Many people — including supporters of the Marriage Amendment — say that the language should be more specific.

“This is the soft underbelly of the issue,” Englin said, adding that the movement to change the ballot language has support on both sides of the aisle. “If we keep the current language, voters will be deceived about what they are voting for.”

IN THE END, all of Englin’s tactics failed. The Marriage Amendment passed the committee and was on its way to the House floor. On Friday, two days into his first term, Englin decided it was time to make his first floor speech.

“I'm no fool — although others might make a different judgment about a freshman delegate rising in this chamber on the third day of session,” Englin said on the House floor.

In the speech, Englin talked about the importance of his own family. He questioned why the amendment was the first order of business for the House, and he gave several specific examples of how the amendment would restrict the lives of gay Virginians.

“They are friends and neighbors and teachers and doctors and soldiers and loving parents who want nothing more than to live life without fear that the government will tear their families apart,” he said. “I submit to my fair-minded colleagues that this amendment sends a message. And that message is, if you are gay, or lesbian, or even a man and a woman living together and committed to each other who are not married, you are not welcome in the commonwealth of Virginia.”

When the session ended Friday afternoon, hundreds of supporters contacted the freshman delegate to thank him for the speech.

“If was a rough beginning — definitely a trial by fire,” said Stephen Davis, Englin’s legislative assistant. “But we received more than 600 e-mails thanking David for his speech.”