E.W. Jackson, the Chesapeake preacher known for controversial rhetoric, is facing new challenges as his campaign for lieutenant governor of Virginia enters its final weeks.
According to interviews and campaign finance reports, Jackson’s campaign has struggled with basic management issues, including financial accounting. And more recently, vivid details of his escape from deprivation in a Chester, Pa., foster home — the emotional core of his stump speech — have been challenged by two women who were there.
A campaign spokesman said Thursday that everything Jackson says on the trail about his upbringing is true.
Jackson says life was so tough with his impoverished foster family that they sometimes had to eat mayonnaise sandwiches for dinner. Other nights, there was no supper at all.
There was also no indoor bathroom, Jackson said, and as the youngest of the foster children, “I brought the pot down.” He was last in line for the once-a-week bath in a galvanized tub.
“I’m like, ‘What house was he in?’ ” said Nadine Molet, the adopted daughter of foster parents Willie and Rebecca Molet.
Nadine Molet shared the same roof with Jackson and said the bathroom was on the first floor, beyond the well-stocked kitchen. “I never remember missing a meal. We always had fatback, cornbread, pancakes. We always took a lot of food to church.”
Leola Brown, who lived in the unit next door and would come over to babysit Molet and Jackson, said, “They didn’t want for anything.” She remembers the banana pudding and fruited Jell-O she’d find there, and the bathroom, just as in her unit, was past the kitchen and “off to the right.”
Jackson declined requests for interviews. His campaign spokesman, Brian Marriott, said: “Nothing he’s saying about his childhood is untrue. Those were the conditions he experienced.”
After leading a struggling gospel-radio venture and facing bankruptcy in Massachusetts, then moving to Virginia and pursuing his vision of building a worldwide church, Jackson has spent much of the past three years trying his hand at a new career as a political candidate.
Jackson has faced repeated eruptions over his past and present rhetoric, including comments on gays and non-Christians. Democratic opponent Ralph Northam, a child neurologist and state senator from Norfolk, assailed Jackson for those comments and others, including Jackson’s contention that gay people’s “minds are perverted.”
According to interviews and records, Jackson has blurred the lines between his political and religious lives. Starting with his long-shot bid for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2011 and 2012, his political efforts have faced financial questions.
In his run for lieutenant governor and his Senate bid, members of his tiny Chesapeake church were hired for campaign work.
Chris D’Ambra, a former campaign aide, said fundraising and money problems were constant.
“The problem was, he just wasn’t 100 percent committed to all the intricate details to actually get to that next step — to actually being in public office,” D’Ambra said.
D’Ambra had been brought on as campaign manager just out of college, following his previous job as a Papa John’s pizza delivery driver. Jackson’s campaign still owes him back pay, but he’s now entering Navy officer school and said he harbors no ill will.
Jackson was a hardworking boss and compelling speaker. “He was pretty calculated in every word he spoke, and he wanted us to be the same,” D’Ambra said.
Delmon Quesinberry, the former chairman of the Chesapeake Republican Party Committee and the man who brought Jackson into the local GOP, served as Jackson’s campaign treasurer in that race. As the bills stacked up, Quesinberry’s decades of accounting experience kicked in. But Jackson had other ideas.
“I have a certain way of doing this. If you had four bills that need to be paid, I would pay the oldest one. . . . We had a difference of opinion in that area,” Quesinberry said. “He felt like it was his campaign, and he would have the right to say who would get paid.”
Quesinberry would not say whom Jackson insisted on compensating. But he resigned, leaving the job of treasurer to Jackson’s wife. A Jackson spokesman declined to comment.
The Federal Election Commission has queried Theodora Jackson about the decision on her watch to essentially erase $25,000 from the campaign books. The campaign said it had mistakenly provided too high a figure for earlier donations. But the FEC has asked for more information.
In the lieutenant governor campaign, Theodora Jackson signed off on $13,000 in American Express bills listed as expenditures without detailing the actual spending as required by law. The campaign blamed her inexperience and last month promised corrections. But state officials said they have not received them.
Some of Jackson’s supporters have bristled at the attention. On a recent Sunday, nearly two dozen parishioners joined Jackson in the Springhill Suites meeting room where his church, the Exodus Faith Ministries, holds services. Congregant and campaign consultant JoAnn Barnes would not let a reporter attend.
“When he preaches, it’s for us,” Barnes said. “If you’re not a member of this congregation, you might not know where he’s coming from.”
Later, parishioner Alfreda Wilson of Chesapeake paused outside the hotel to explain Jackson’s appeal. “He doesn’t preach what people want to hear. He preaches the truth,” she said.
Theodora Jackson, listed as the church’s “first lady,” admonished Wilson for speaking out, then stepped into a gold Cadillac with a BSHPS2 vanity plate and drove off.
Jackson’s approach to politics has spurred questions among even some supporters.
Quesinberry said Jackson could benefit from advice he once heard — a retort to the phrase, “Tell it like it is.”
“Sometimes,” Quesinberry said, “it’s just better not to tell it.”
Take one of Jackson’s most provocative lines, Quesinberry said — “Planned Parenthood has been far more lethal to black lives than the KKK ever was.” Comparing abortion to slavery was easily misunderstood, he said.
Others credit Jackson for barreling ahead with his vocal views whatever the consequences.
“I believe E.W. Jackson would stand up for the right values, even if it meant defeat,” said Jay Ahlemann, pastor of the Restoration Fellowship Church in Strasburg. After Jackson said that non-Christians are “engaged in some sort of false religion,” Ahlemann backed him.
On policy, Jackson has staked out expansive positions. He wants the United Nations ejected from New York and has called for “No ‘Gun Free Zones’ ” in Virginia.
That could end the prohibition on possessing firearms at schools, although the campaign calls that “hypothetical.”
The details of Jackson’s early life are central to his political pitch.
It’s not midnight basketball or liberal do-gooders with handouts that lift ghetto kids like him out of poverty, Jackson says. It’s a father willing to beat his butt raw, a strong work ethic, a good education, God and American freedom that do that.
Of his foster parents, the Molets, he said, “These were illiterate people, and they were poor.”
Jackson said he became a juvenile delinquent and hung out with a gang and recalls friends being jailed and killed. But at age 9, after failing fifth grade, he said, his father reappeared and taught him the value of education and discipline.
Nadine Molet speaks warmly of Jackson, who returned to Chester to preach at her mother’s funeral, and she referred to him as “kind of like my brother.” But, she added, “I don’t want him to paint a picture that’s not true, either.”
Fundamentally, she said, “I don’t remember being poor.”
Her father, Willie Molet, was a welder. Her mother, Rebecca, was a housekeeper for wealthy families, including a bus company owner and a top upholstery-firm executive. As a gift one year, they reupholstered the Molets’ furniture.
There were gigantic Sunday dinners served under a big brass chandelier. “We had a china closet with real china in it. The white people she worked for gave it to us. That’s why I don’t know what he was talking about,” Molet said of Jackson.
The family did make mayonnaise sandwiches, but “that’s because we wanted to, not because we didn’t have meat to put in them,” she said.
Marriott, the campaign spokesman, said Molet “probably does have a different memory because she was younger.” The two are seven years apart. Jackson is “just saying blanketly the economic conditions were probably a lot better after he left,” Marriott said.
Leola Brown, however, remembers Molet and Jackson living in comfort. “As we looked at it, they were the upscale family,” Brown said.
While there was an indoor bathroom, the Molets also had a portable pot, convenient for overnight needs upstairs, Brown said.
She said Jackson was no juvenile delinquent and didn’t see him getting in any trouble, in part because Willie Molet kept him occupied running and fishing. In fact, she wondered if the thoughtful young man might enter politics someday.
“There always was a cause with him. If he could change it, he would change it. If he could do something to help it, he would help it,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I can picture him as governor.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.