Shortly before the Fourth of July, a rather remarkable set of quotes appeared in the Washington Post.
Virginia state Senator Adam Ebbin, a speaker intoned at a recent National Rifle Association event in Fredericksburg, is “the only openly gay senator in our Senate” and has an agenda that “means infanticide is coming, all the gun bills.” State Senator Bryce E. Reeves claimed Ebbin supported raising the minimum wage to as much as $25 and that he’d heard Ebbin say Democrats planned to “radically change Virginia” if they won control of the state this fall.
People in the crowd reacted with shock, the Post reported. And after he read the remarks, Ebbin, a Democrat from Alexandria, reacted with his own angry disbelief. For one thing, he doesn’t support a $25, or even a $20 minimum wage, much less infanticide. For another, Reeves was a colleague Ebbin had considered a friend, someone who’d invited him to dinner. Now he was invoking Ebbin’s sexual orientation in order to rile up a crowd.
The nasty comments, which came just days before a scheduled special legislative session on gun control, were taken as a sign of how polarized the state had become. But they also thrust Ebbin into the headlines in a way he wasn’t expecting—although he’s long been a champion for LGBTQ rights in Virginia, he didn’t think his colleagues would invoke his identity to turn off voters.
Why Ebbin? It doesn’t take a keen political strategist to come up with a theory: In a state increasingly torn between its growing urbanized population around Washington and a beleaguered rural conservative demographic, a gay liberal from the DC suburbs makes a great target. “I was really disappointed to be used as a bogeyman to divide Virginians just because of who I am,” Ebbin says. “My sexual orientation shouldn’t be relevant to gun safety.”
November’s general election will determine whether Virginia Democrats will take back control of the House and Senate, where Republicans currently hold a razor-thin majority. If that theory is correct, Ebbin’s name may ricochet around a lot more political events in the Virginia’s red areas before this state election cycle is done.
So who is this foil?
Ebbin was born in Long Island in 1963. His passion for politics began in grade school, where he would walk around his classrooms wearing a “Ford for President” button and worked for a moderate New York Republican running for Congress. While his party affiliation has shifted, his interest in legislation hasn’t waned.
In 1989, his college friends tipped him off about a reasonably priced condo in Alexandria, which was all of the convincing he needed to move to the area. In 1992, he co-founded the Virginia Partisans Gay/Lesbian Democratic Club and spent several years working on the campaigns of two gay elected officials, Arlington County Board’s Jay Fisette and Alexandria City Council’s Paul Smedberg. As a day job, he sold advertising space for Washington City Paper.
After nearly a decade of working for other politicians, Ebbin decided to run for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, and in 2003 narrowly won a five-person Democratic primary for the state’s 49th District, which includes parts of Arlington and Fairfax. He was now Virginia’s first and only openly gay state legislator.
Ebbin says that he felt isolated when he first arrived in Richmond. “In 2004, there was a lot of hostility to LGBT people with anti-gay legislation, whether it was anti-gay adoption, anti-gay straight alliance, anti-gay marriage,” he says. “But I’m proud to say that has changed drastically; we’re in a position where we’re promoting pro-LGBT legislation, and I’ve been really honored to carry legislation for non-discrimination in hiring and housing in Virginia.”
After eight years in the House of Delegates, Ebbin ran for the Virginia Senate. His platform focused on defending LGBTQ Virginians, investing in public schools, and welcoming immigrants. He faced the first Republican who bothered to contest the district since 1999 and won with 64.7 percent of the vote. He’s run without a Republican opponent ever since and represents south Arlington, parts of Alexandria, and Mount Vernon—an increasingly diverse, growing area that’s an example of the sweeping demographic and political changes in the state.
“There’s certainly been a growth in population, but with that we’ve improved better bus service, and we have amazing diversity in our local high schools,” Ebbin says. He also serves on three Senate Committees, and seven state commissions and organizations—one of which he is the co-chair, the General Assembly for Gun Violence Prevention Caucus. There, he pushes for universal background checks, child access prevention, and extreme risk orders.
This year, Ebbin co-sponsored a bill that raised Virginia’s nicotine and tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 21 and was backed by politicians from both parties. He also successfully introduced a bill to ban the use of election equipment made by a Russian vendor, and another that bans “deepfake” revenge porn videos.
As that special legislative session to consider gun control measures loomed earlier this month, Ebbin spent several days prepping at the statehouse with advocacy groups such as March for Our Lives, and passed part of the opening day at a peace vigil alongside Governor Ralph Northam, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, and other politicians. Then, an hour and a half after the session began, Republican lawmakers abruptly adjourned the session, promising to reconvene after November’s elections. “The corporate gun lobby is a powerful force,” Ebbin says, “and I think we’re representing the majority of Virginians trying to push forward.”
Reeves sort of apologized to Ebbin: “I certainly meant no disrespect to him or anyone in the LGBTQ community,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Ebbin says the two have been in touch briefly since the comments surfaced. He’s saddened by the rift, but he says it makes fits the tone set by the current occupant of the White House. “As long as the current president is in office, Trump will divide people among Virginia just as he is across the country.” As an important election approaches, Ebbin says, “you never know what tactics Republicans will turn to next.”