As midnight approached on the eve of the Republican convention in Virginia, party loyalists were tipping beers and listening to country music at a rollicking fete hosted by Pete Snyder, a front-runner for the nomination for lieutenant governor.
Down the hall at the Marriott in Richmond, a minister also running for Virginia’s second-highest office, E.W. Jackson, was lingering at his own party, where a Bible and a cross were displayed at the entrance. The ballroom was largely empty. If the excitement at Snyder’s gathering suggested momentum, the quiet at Jackson’s spelled a looming return to obscurity.
Twenty-four hours later, after delivering a thunderous speech that seized the convention, Jackson was the Republican nominee and the party’s first black candidate for statewide office since 1988.
Jackson’s improbable rise, one that has astonished Republicans far and wide, is the latest of a number of incarnations, including foster child, Marine, Harvard law school graduate and even Democrat. But the minister who is now GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli II’s running mate has long used his booming voice to endear himself to conservatives.
Still, Jackson’s words — sometimes eloquent, sometimes raw, often impassioned — are causing anxiety for many Republicans as the resurfacing of his past statements about homosexuality and abortion have threatened to disrupt the campaign.
Instead of promoting their new ticket, Republicans have answered for Jackson’s once calling gays “perverted” and “sick” and saying Planned Parenthood has been “far more lethal” to blacks “than the KKK.”
“The Republicans I’m talking to are saying, ‘What the hell are they doing in Virginia?’ ” said Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “Is this, ‘101 ways to lose an election’? You’re coming out of the gate with comments everyone has to explain. You’re wasting a lot of time and energy batting that back when you should be doing other things to get the guy known.”
Although unknown to many Republicans, Jackson in recent years has built a following among the most activist of Virginia’s conservatives, many of whom were delegates at the convention. But Republicans are now concerned, Steele said, that Jackson will turn off the party’s own voters. “You can’t have a situation where Republicans say, ‘You know what? I can’t have this’ and they stay home or vote for the other guy,” he said.
Raynard Jackson, a Republican political consultant who has known Jackson since the 1990s, said the minister’s voice has long been his most potent tool. That was the case at the convention Saturday, when thousands of delegates roared when he shouted: “Get the government off our backs! Off our property! Off our guns!”
But Raynard Jackson also said the minister has to be “more careful in the articulation” of his message. “The message will resonate if he can control his verbiage,” Raynard Jackson said. “The question is: Will he control his verbiage? He has the ability. But will he?”
Over the years, Jackson, 61, has thrust himself into the most divisive of issues, beginning in Boston, where he was a pastor and radio host during the 1980s and ’90s, and later, in Virginia, where he moved in 1998 because “we thought our values would be mainstream.” During the mid-1990s, Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition hired him as a liaison to minority communities.
All these years later, Jackson seems uninterested in moderating himself. He paused between whirlwind campaign stops this week to tell reporters that he doesn’t have “anything to rephrase or apologize for.”
“I say the things I say because I’m a Christian, not because I hate anybody, but because I have religious values that matter to me,” he said. “Attacking me because I hold to those principles is attacking every churchgoing person, every family that’s living a traditional family life, everybody who believes that we all deserve the right to live.”
Married for more than 40 years, Jackson and his wife, Theodora, an elementary school teacher, have raised three children. In a 2011 federal financial disclosure statement, the minister, who travels in a gold Cadillac, reported an income of about $40,000, including $15,772 from his church. He listed “no reportable asset worth more than $1,000.”
On the campaign trail, the minister has captivated audiences with colorful stories of growing up as a “juvenile delinquent” in Chester, Pa., where he was born Earl Walker Jackson to parents who were splitting up. After he spent years with a foster family, Jackson has recalled, his father, a welder, took custody of him and pulled him away from street life.
“He took me out of that foster home. He sat me down the following day,” Jackson told an audience at a recent candidates’ forum. “He said, ‘Look, every day with me can be a day of heaven on earth. Or every day, I will tear your behind all to pieces. It depends on what you want.’ ”
After a tour with the Marines, Jackson graduated with honors in 1975 from the University of Massachusetts, where he majored in philosophy. Then he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1978. He spent more than 20 years in Boston, practicing law, pastoring at New Cornerstone Exodus Church, serving as a chaplain to the Boston Fire Department, and hosting radio shows, including one called “Earl Jackson Across America.”
At one point, he was a Democrat, and he was elected to the party’s Massachusetts State Committee, where he distinguished himself with his conservative views. “I thought, ‘Wow, here’s a great potential leader,’ ” said James Roosevelt, who is a grandson of Franklin D. Roosevelt and who was then and is now legal counsel to the state Democratic organization. “Then I learned of his views, and I thought: ‘What’s he doing? This is not a leader of the Democratic Party.’ ”
Jackson became a Republican in the early 1980s, explaining that Democrats’ embrace of the gay rights movement violated his religious beliefs. In 1989, he joined the opposition to a proposal to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians in Massachusetts. “We intend to blow this bill to smithereens,” he told reporters then. “We intend to defeat this legislation and bury it so deep no one will ever find it again.”
On his radio show, he liked to introduce himself as “the personification of the American Dream and liberals’ worst nightmare.” He told listeners that he was broadcasting from the “eye of Hurricane Kennedy . . . the land of the freebie and the home of the gays.”
Jackson’s views on gays prompted David Scondras, then a Boston City Council member, to oppose a resolution a colleague proposed to honor Jackson, then the Fire Department’s chaplain. “It was bad enough to have someone ranting against gay people, but it struck me as too much to have them being paid by the city,” Scondras said.
Jackson voiced opinions on other sensitive issues. He advocated the release of all juvenile offenders’ records and sympathized with white South Boston residents who opposed the integration of public housing. “I don’t like being told by some bureaucrat how I’m going to live my life either,” he told a church filled with cheering white residents.
About that time, Jackson appears to have suffered financial strains, filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1993, according to court records. In 1995, court records show, he incurred a federal tax lien for $8,539, which was lifted nine years later.
But Jackson’s life as a conservative activist flourished. The Christian Coalition assigned him to help raise money on behalf of churches torched in arson fires in the South, a role that led to his testifying before Congress. The coalition also tapped Jackson to lead its Samaritan Project, an effort to forge relationships between the organization and black communities. In that role, Jackson hosted a conference of pastors in Baltimore in 1997.
“He did a good job for us,” Reed, the organization’s leader at the time, said in a recent interview. “He had credibility and spoke the language of those conservative African Americans.”
Soon, however, Reed left the Christian Coalition, and the organization became less influential. By the end of 1997, the coalition cut off funding to Jackson’s project.
The next year, Jackson and his wife moved to Chesapeake, where he began identifying himself by the title of bishop. By his own telling, he was returning to his “ancestral home.” His great-grandparents had been slaves in Orange County, and his grandfather had lived in Richmond before migrating to Pennsylvania.
In 1998, the Jacksons paid $242,000 for a house in a Chesapeake subdivision of brick and gabled facades. Leigh Cole, their next-door neighbor for the past seven years, described the couple as pleasant, and she said her daughter once tried to sell Girl Scout cookies to Jackson. The minister declined, she said, explaining that he was watching his weight. But he still made a donation.
In Chesapeake, Jackson founded Exodus Faith Ministries, a nondenominational Christian church, which has had at least three headquarters, including a storefront in a strip mall. At one point, the church became embroiled in a dispute with its landlord and was accused of owing more than $6,000 in rent, according to court records. Jackson has since settled the debt. Today, he holds services in a hotel conference room with a seating capacity of 125.
Although a clear picture of his 15 years in Virginia is still emerging, Jackson appears to have maintained a relatively low profile in Chesapeake, at least for his first decade there. In 2000, he started an annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast and impressed guests with his oratorical skills.
William E. “Bill” Ward, Chesapeake’s first black mayor, has attended the breakfasts, and he said Jackson seemed like a “race man, committed to the struggle of African Americans.” Later, Ward said, Jackson’s conservatism became more apparent.
“He began to, I guess, espouse more of the conservative GOP line of thinking,” Ward said. “He seemed . . . not to attack local leaders, but he shied away from the traditional black ministerial groups. He never became very active with them.”
Helena Dobson, president of Chesapeake’s local NAACP chapter, said she has no relationship with Jackson.
In 2008, as Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency, the minister became more politically active, publicly chastising the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former minister who had made racially divisive statements. Over the next couple of years, Jackson distributed news releases with such headlines as “Liberals are the True Racists.” He started a Twitter account, writing at one point: “I love America. I love God. I am black. Obama does not love America & does not love God. His being black is not enough!”
In 2010, a Virginia tea party convention in Richmond invited Jackson to join a roster of speakers that included political consultant Dick Morris and the wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
The next year, Jackson ran for the U.S. Senate, raising $135,000, all of which he spent. He finished last in a field of four candidates seeking the Republican nomination, receiving less than 5 percent of the vote.
He then began to campaign for lieutenant governor, raising $140,000, more than a third of which came from Peter Via, a Roanoke financier. When asked about his contributions, Via, reached by phone Thursday, told a reporter, “I have nothing to say” and hung up.
After winning the nomination last weekend, Jackson joined Cuccinelli and state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (Harrisonburg), the GOP’s nominee for attorney general, on a three-day tour of the state. The frenetic pace seemed to catch up with Jackson, who was coughing and asking for water Tuesday as he stood under a sweltering sun in Winchester.
The small crowd lavished cheers on him, a greeting that dwarfed the reception given to Cuccinelli and Obenshain. “Now, this is a learning curve for me,” Jackson acknowledged.
The next afternoon, five days after vaulting to the center of Virginia’s political stage, he returned home. Answering the door bell late in the afternoon, Jackson told a reporter he was not answering any questions.
Ben Pershing and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.