Democracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia Politics

Gillespie stokes culture wars with NFL kneeling mailer in campaign’s closing days

By Laura Vozzella, Fenit Nirappil

November 3, 2017 at 9:14 PM

RICHMOND — Republican Ed Gillespie, already capitalizing on Confederate monuments and Latino gangs, has added national anthem protests to the red-meat smorgasbord he's serving up in the homestretch of the Virginia governor's race.

A Gillespie flier publicized on Twitter Friday bears an image of a kneeling football player, raising an emotionally charged issue on which Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam essentially agree.

"You'd never take a knee," it says. "So take a stand on election day."

The flier refers to National Football League players who have knelt during the anthem to protest social injustice and racial inequality. Those protests intensified this fall after President Trump called upon league owners to fire or suspend players who did not stand for the anthem.

"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a (expletive) off the field right now. Out! He's fired. He's fired!'" Trump said in a speech in Huntsville, Ala., in September.

Related: [Gillespie rolls out ad that tries to connect Northam to Latino gang violence]

The issue has hardly come up the race, a fairly sleepy contest until Gillespie started rolling out ads focused on the fate of Confederate monuments and the violent MS-13 Latino street gang.

Related: [Ed Gillespie went from ‘big tent’ Republican to culture warrior]

By evoking the anthem protests, Gillespie appears to be making a play for Trump voters as well as moderates who see the players' actions as disrespectful to the flag or the military.

Gillespie and Northam, the state's lieutenant governor, were both asked about kneeling players shortly after Trump weighed in. Both men supported the players' right to free speech. But Gillespie made it clear he was offended by the protests, while Northam criticized Trump's language.

"My view is that I find it offensive when people don't stand for the national anthem and honor our flag and all that it stands for," said Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, Washington lobbyist and counselor to President George W. Bush. "But one of the things it stands for is freedom, and you've got a right to be wrong in this country."

Northam, a Virginia Military Institute graduate and former Army doctor who treated soldiers in Operation Desert Storm, hit a similar note but also called out Trump.

"I fought in the United States Army for eight years to protect our freedoms and to protect the first amendment," Northam said. "You don't have to always agree with what people are protesting about, but that's their right, especially if they do it peacefully. For the president to react to that and call these people SOBs, I just, as an American and a veteran, I find that unacceptable."

The election is Tuesday.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.

Fenit Nirappil covers politics and government in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. He previously covered the California statehouse and suburban government outside Portland, Ore.

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