Corey Stewart, Republican candidate for Virginia governor. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Fenit Nirappil: Tell me what you see as the most important issue in the Virginia governor’s race.

Corey Stewart: Well I think the most important issue in the governor’s race here in Virginia is the economy. We’ve been losing tens of thousands of jobs – 160,000 jobs – in the last 10 years. And the reason we’re losing jobs is because we haven’t done anything to improve the business climate in Virginia. We’ve been losing a lot of jobs to North Carolina as they’ve ratcheted down their income tax all the way from 7.75 percent in 2010 to 5.49 percent today and they’re going lower. And as that has happened, jobs have been lost. We’ve been leaving Virginia going to North Carolina and other states, and what I want to do about that is push through the biggest tax cut in Virginia’s history. Reduce the top marginal income tax rate in Virginia from 5 – sorry, from 5.75 – percent to 4.75 percent over the course of about a year.

Fenit Nirappil: How would a reduction in the income taxes, how would an elimination of an income tax encourage new businesses to start here?

Corey Stewart: Well, that’s a great question. The answer is this, is that 80 percent of new jobs are created by small businesses and most small businesses are not incorporated. They pay their taxes at the personal income tax rate. So the only way to get off the back of business and the only way to let more businesses keep more of their money is to reduce the burden of state income taxes and that means that we’re going to have to, we will have to reduce the income tax for everybody in Virginia, which is good of course, but that also means that we’re going to be able to let small businesses in particular keep more of their money and hire more people.

Fenit Nirappil: One of your opponents in the primary, Frank Wagner, has suggested that cuts in the income tax would throw Virginia’s budget off balance and would threaten the bond rating. What do you say about the potential negative impacts of a severe income tax reduction?

Corey Stewart: Well, a cut in the income tax and a cut in the state’s revenue would only jeopardize the bond rating if we didn’t make up for those – that lost revenue – by reducing spending. Now in Prince William County, I led the county to becoming one of the few localities in the United States to have a triple triple-A bond rating status, which means we are one of the few localities that has a triple-A bond rating status from all three of the major bond rating agencies, and we did it while we cut spending. We cut taxes as well and as we cut taxes to Prince William County, we cut, we cut spending and we cut spending so significantly in the first year that I controlled the budget that the average tax bills went down by over $400 on a single year. And yet we gained after that, we gained or triple triple-A bond rating status because we were also – as we cut taxes we cut spending.

Fenit Nirappil: [00:03:14] You mentioned earlier how Virginia is losing jobs to North Carolina. One of the big arguments that Democrats in Virginia are making is that Virginia needs to lead the way as a socially progressive place and Virginia has been able to take jobs from North Carolina because it has been more socially progressive on issues like trans rights. How does that fit into your economic vision for Virginia, and do you agree with their logic?

Corey Stewart: The transgender issue has nothing to do with economic development. I know the Democrats would like to think so, but it’s not. Look, of every of the five candidates who are running for governor only one – only one – has actually governed anything. I’ve governed the second largest state, sorry the second largest locality in Virginia, Prince William County, for over 10 years. And during that time, I led Prince William County to be number one in job growth in Virginia and number three in the United States. And we did that by a couple of things: One, you got to get off the back of business; you’ve got to reduce unneeded regulations. We cut in half the amount of time that it takes to open or expand a business of Prince William County. Number two, you’ve got to build adequate public infrastructure. You’ve got to have the necessary roads, the necessary schools, the necessary parks. And that’s important because at the end of the day businesses move into your community, they move into your state, if there’s a high quality of life, if you have adequate schools, if you have great schools, if you have adequate road infrastructure, then they’ll move into your community and they’ll stay in your community because their employees and the management wants to live there. That’s how you create business development inside the state and how we did it in Prince William County. And then finally, you’ve got to have a low tax burden. That’s what I did in Prince William, and that’s what we’re going to do in Virginia. It has nothing do with transgender rights or any of these socially, social issues. At the end of the day, building business and causing business to come into our community takes those three elements. It has nothing to do with, with transgender issues.

Fenit Nirappil: Going back to the issue of taxes, a lot of times when there is discussion of tax cuts at a state level, Democrats will frequently point to the example of Kansas and say look at the budget damages that happened there after Governor Sam Brownback shepherded through severe tax cuts. Have you looked as examples places like Kansas and Louisiana? Has that informed your thinking on tax cuts in Virginia?

Corey Stewart: Not at all. I mean I think, look, if you’re going to have – and here’s the difference between Ed Gillespie and me. Ed wants to cut taxes without cutting spending. You can’t do it. And if you, if you try to cut tax bills while, but you don’t cut spending then you get yourself into a deficit situation, a shortfall situation and that, in fact, does jeopardize the state’s triple-A bond rating status and causes a whole lot of problems. My tax plan is dependent upon cutting spending. First, you cut spending. We’re going to have it across the board – 10 percent cut in spending. I’ve done it before in Prince William County – even deeper than that in Prince William County. It was done by Governor Wilder several years ago, and we can do it again in Virginia. By – by – zero-based budgeting requiring each of the department heads to come up [with] a list of cuts that we could choose from, from the governor’s office and then putting those into place. And if you cover your tax cuts with adequate spending cuts, you’re not going to be jeopardizing your bond rating status because you’re not going to be headed into a deficit or shortfall situation.

Fenit Nirappil: What are scenarios you see as right for spending cuts?

Corey Stewart: Well, I think that you know especially in the, in the areas of in Medicaid, for example, and, and, and at VDOT. There has never been a zero-based budgeting process done in the state of Virginia – never. In Prince William County and other localities, we do this, in Prince William County every three years, every department we have a zero-based budgeting analysis. So you’re going to find room for savings in every area of the state government in every department. Some departments are going to cut more than others. Some departments you might not cut at all, such as the state police who have been underfunded but that’s how you do it. You take the decisions, you require your administrator to identify the cuts. They in turn push that into midlevel management and then further, deeper down into the administration, into the bureaucracy so that every member of government is looking for savings and looking for cuts. That’s how we did it in Prince William County, and that’s how I intend to do it in Virginia.

Fenit Nirappil: So since November, to turn the, our attention to national politics, we’ve seen the Republican Party debating its future, whether it should be the party of smaller government, conservativism, whether it should embrace a more populist message, whether the role of big business, in supporting the business wing of the party. Where do you fall in the future of what the Republican Party should be?

Corey Stewart: I think the Republican Party needs to embrace the blue-collar, working-class Americans who have been struggling. And one of the reasons that Trump was able to reach in and grab working-class Americans was because the Democratic Party had essentially turned their back on them. And that’s – I am, I come from a working-class background; my dad was a longshoreman and you know I’m very much that’s where my heart is. And, and so I see myself as kind of a new Republican, a new style of conservative similar to Donald Trump, but I am my own man. You know I’m not anti-union. I do believe in reaching out and working with the working class. And here’s the other thing, too, that we have not done very well – as Republicans we have not been promoting career technical education. This to, you know, we’ve been – this focus, this over-focus on, on everybody, every kid’s got to get a, get out and get a four-year degree, a bachelor’s degree. Well, they are coming out of these colleges with mounds of student debt; they can’t find jobs. We need to shift our focus and make it okay and make it something to be proud of, you know, you’re a working-class person, you’ve got a certification, a working-class degree. I mean, on all the social issues, I’m very, very conservative. You know, I’m a leader on, on illegal immigration. I’ve been doing that for 10 years. Long before Donald Trump ever came up with it. I’ve been, you know, I’m socially conservative. I am conservative on all those issues. But at the same time, I do recognize that the Republican Party has grown tired and we have to reach in and we’ve got to grab new classes of people that we have previously been unable to grasp. I’ve been able to do that. That’s the only reason I’ve been able to win in Prince William County four times for 10 years the countywide-elected chairman of Prince William County because it’s 54 percent minority. I’ve been able to win large percentages of minority voters, and that’s what I intend to do as the Republican nominee for governor.

Fenit Nirappil: I remember when I talked to you on the night of your reelection victory, in November 2015, you mentioned, you really made a point “in my campaign to have an increasingly close relationship with minority voters and that’s what Republicans need to do to win in Northern Virginia.” How is that going to play out in your gubernatorial race?

Corey Stewart: Well it’s, you know, some people think that because, you know, if you’re conservative on illegal immigration, if you’re conservative on heritage issues, you know, protecting the statue of Robert E. Lee and things like that that you can never win minority voters as a Republican. I’ve proven that that is not true. Because what happens is Republicans have failed to go into, into minority areas and to campaign there and show people that you care and that you’re there to listen. You don’t, you don’t go there to preach. You go there to listen to what they’re saying and that’s what I’ve done. I go every single year, I go into minority churches and mosques and I – all over you know Prince William County. That’s what I’m going to be doing as a Republican nominee for governor. And you cannot moderate your way to victory. That’s what Ed Gillespie is trying to do. Ed Gillespie thinks that he has to become a Democrat light, that he’s got to run away from the controversial conservative issues in order to win. I know from governing and getting elected four times in Northern Virginia countywide that’s not the way to do it. You stand up for your beliefs. You have to reach out and you have to communicate and you have to go and ask minority voters from every, every walk of life what the issues are that they’re concerned about.

Fenit Nirappil: Do you think the African American community in Richmond would embrace you when you’ve made Confederate, and defending Confederate statues and Confederate heritage a centerpiece of your campaign or Latino communities in Fairfax when you’ve called for federal agents, federal immigration authorities in schools?

Corey Stewart: Yes. And here’s why. You know what? You know when we led a crackdown on illegal immigration in Prince William County in 2007? Naturally I knew there were going to be some consequences to that. But over time what has happened is, you know, the greatest improvements to public safety in Prince William County occurred in minority neighborhoods; the violent, the violent crime rate went down all over Prince William County. But especially in the poorer areas of Prince William County, especially in the areas where there are a lot more minority residents. And so we – and everybody thinks that if somebody is Latino that they’re not for immigration enforcement. That’s not true. That’s just an assumption that people make. But if you’re here illegally and you brought your, your – in many cases people have waited decades to come into the United States legally and they’ve done it the proper way. That doesn’t mean that they’re supporting someone who is coming over here illegally and cutting in line. So that’s that. And then the second thing is this whether your white or your African American or your Hispanic or your Asian people are so fed up and they’re so tired of political correctness and that’s ultimately what this removal of a statue in Charlottesville is all about. It’s political correctness gone mad and whether your white or black or Hispanic or Asian people are fed up with it, and they’re tired of it. And nobody thinks that we should be trying to erase history except for the radical lefties down in Charlottesville.

Fenit Nirappil: How do you think the state should grapple with its history of slavery?

Corey Stewart: Well, I think that, you know, look I mean every, every single society, every – no matter what country somebody comes from or what state, no matter their race or ethnicity, we all are, we have our heritage, we have a history. You know, my family came to the United States, you know, from Scotland and other parts of Europe after the Civil War was over. And I’m very proud of the heritage I’ve got. You know, I have a kilt for goodness’ sakes; I’m proud of my Scottish ancestry, my Scottish heritage. And I think that everybody should be able to be proud of their heritage and their history. Everybody has scars on their history and their heritage. Everybody has those warts on their heritage but you don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater. And yes, it is true that slavery was legal in Virginia, but it was also legal in a lot of Northern states as well. And I think that Southerners and Virginians should be proud of their history and, of course, slavery was, was, was a, was, is a wart on our history, but you know that doesn’t mean that you, that’s not the totality of our heritage here in Virginia. There’s a lot more to it than just slavery.

Fenit Nirappil: But why have you made Virginia Southern heritage such a cornerstone of your campaign?

Corey Stewart: Because I feel that, you know, you know, when it came to that, when I saw the city of Charlottesville voting to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee that had been there since 1924, that’s the result of political correctness gone mad. And if, if we don’t stop it here, it’s going to take off. The, the very councilors, the city councilors in Charlottesville who said that those who voted for the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee said they’re coming after Thomas Jefferson. Pretty soon, you’re going to have the statues of Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Stonewall Jackson removed from the city of Charlottesville. Then it moves to Richmond then in moves to Alexandria and Petersburg and Williamsburg and then pretty soon we’ve lost all of these memories. These symbols of our heritage and history, and when we lose that in Virginia, we’ve lost our identity. And that’s why I think it’s so important.

Fenit Nirappil: How successful of a strategy is it to be, to embrace Donald Trump in Virginia when he lost the state by five points?

Corey Stewart: Well, a couple of things. I mean, you know I did chair his campaign until October 10th of 2016. I know quite a lot about this. I can tell you this. One, we knew in the campaign that as soon as Hillary Clinton chose Tim Kaine as her running mate, it was going to be very, very difficult to win in Virginia and partly because of that the campaign, the Trump campaign was out-funded by the Hillary campaign in Virginia by seven to one. They spent $21 [million], $22 million on the campaign in Virginia. We spent $3 [million]. Essentially the campaign, the Trump campaign, I had given up on Virginia because of the running mates status and everything else you know with Tim Kaine on the ballot. We’re not giving up on Virginia this time. And I’m not giving up on Virginia. I never did give up on Virginia. You know, Ed did. Ed Gillespie did. And you know as soon as Trump, you know in the aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” scandal, he condemned him and just assumed he was going to lose. I never lost faith, even after I got removed from the campaign. I stayed loyal.

Fenit Nirappil: What is your response to Ed Gillespie’s contention that he would be able to better work with President Trump in the White House because he wasn’t fired from the campaign as you were?

Corey Stewart: Well, he never – look, Ed Gillespie never wanted anything to do with the Trump campaign. He would never show up at a Trump rally. Ed Gillespie never showed up to a single Trump rally. He was one of the first Republican politicians in America to condemn President Trump and in the aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” scandal and that has not been lost. That message has not been lost with the Trump administration. Even after I got removed from the Trump administration, from the Trump campaign, I stayed loyal. Mr. Trump knows that. And I’m willing to work with him even to this day. Ed Gillespie will not show up with Donald Trump; he will not even mention his name. The only person he’ll show up with is Mike Pence. He won’t show up with Donald Trump. So you know I’m, I’m willing to embrace the administration, work with the administration. I’ve made that clear. Ed Gillespie won’t even touch Donald Trump.

Fenit Nirappil: How much, or how did the Trump campaign inspire your campaign?

Corey Stewart: Well, I mean, you know, there are a lot of things that are already similar between Donald Trump and myself. I mean, one of the reasons he selected me, you know, back in December of 2015 to chair his campaign – those similarities. Very similar, you know, bluntly honest dialogue and, you know, I speak, I speak my mind just the way it is and sometimes it doesn’t always come out all that pretty and – but that’s okay. That’s what people want. And illegal immigration, you know I led the nation’s toughest crackdown on illegal immigration, so there are already were some similarities there. But I’ve studied a lot of presidents throughout time. I love history. I have, I’ve wanted to lead ever since I was a little boy. And I’ve studied a lot of politicians over time to learn, you know, including Democratic ones. The former editor of The Washington Post wrote a book – Ben Bradlee – called “Conversations with Kennedy.” I remember reading that when I was a teenager and understanding John F. Kennedy’s style and the way, you know, how he interacted with the press, things like that. I studied him, I studied a lot, a lot of people with Donald Trump. There were some things that I just thought were absolutely brilliant. And one of the things – perhaps the most important thing – was he never backed off when he was attacked by the press or by the left. He just never, he just kept going forward. And I think that was, that was a big lesson because once you start backing up, once you start running in the opposite direction and cowering after the attacks, it’s like blood in the water. And then you’re done. I learned that from him – just keep doubled down, don’t back up.

Fenit Nirappil: Why do you think your campaign hasn’t been able to gain more traction in polls and campaign cash even after adopting techniques of the Trump campaign like being more blunt talking and not backing down?

Corey Stewart: Well, to a large extent, people haven’t started paying attention to the campaign yet, even during the, the last polls that have been done; the last poll was, I guess was the CNU poll, more than 50 percent of the voters are undecided. Now here’s the, here’s the thing that the, the Quinnipiac poll, which just came out last week – the Quinnipiac poll in December showed that among very conservative voters, Ed had 30 percent of them, I had four, that was in December. Now you’ve got to remember, very conservative voters are very likely to vote in a Republican primary. People who are somewhat conservative, are not sure whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, are probably not going to vote for Republican primary. Well, we went from 30 percent for Ed and 4 percent for me in December to last week here in April where Ed’s numbers actually declined among very conservative voters; he’s down to 28 and I moved up 15 points to 19 percent. So now we’re at a 28-to-19 percent range here among voters who are likely to vote in a Republican primary. And momentum is on my side. And as people start delving into it and they start researching, as the, as the election gets closer to June 13th and then educating themselves about, well, who [they] don’t want to vote for, people who vote in Republican primaries are generally very conservative. They’re going to vote for the more conservative, outspoken, conservative candidate. Even if I am more controversial than Ed Gillespie, who’s clearly an establishment person.

Fenit Nirappil: One of the things that Donald Trump had going for him is that there was intense familiarity with him because of wall-to-wall cable TV coverage, because he had a prime-time reality TV show that millions had watched. Is it possible for Republicans to replicate his success down ballot without those kind of advantages, or is he just a one-of-a-kind candidate and a one-of-a-kind campaign?

Corey Stewart: Well, it’s a very good question, and I don’t know the answer. We’re going to find out on June 13th. But I think so because of the increasing role of social media, and there is quite a lot of attention on this race by the mass media, by The Washington Post and others. It really is the only big political game in town in 2017 is the race for governor in Virginia in 2017. There’s a race in New Jersey, too, but it’s probably a foregone conclusion that the Democrats win that one. So there is going to be an increasing amount of press attention on this race. But here’s the thing, too, that 2016 showed us – the increased importance of social media. Social media is the great equalizer. It doesn’t cost a lot. And I can get my message out there. And when people go to vote, they’re not going to be listening to some glib commercial that Ed Gillespie puts on television. They’re going to be doing their research. They’re going to be reading about this and they’re going to go to social media to get that done. They’re not going to be moved by [a] television commercial. Ed has got $3 million in the bank. You can bet your bottom dollar that over the next two months he’s going to be running ad after ad after ad. Well, it didn’t work for Jeb Bush. Jeb spent $100 – Jeb Bush spent a hundred – over $100 million and barely move the needle. Ed Gillespie is going to try the same thing, and I’m betting that it will fail for him as well.

Fenit Nirappil: Looking ahead to the general election campaign, what would make you a better candidate against Ralph Northam or Tom Perriello?

Corey Stewart: I’m the only one who’s won in Northern Virginia. 400,540 residents in a majority-minority county – Prince William County. Not once, not twice, four times by increasing margins. I’m the only one has proven that he could do it. Ed Gillespie, he lost Prince William County; in fact, all of the Republicans have lost Prince William County. Donald Trump lost Prince William County. Ed Gillespie lost Prince William County. Ken Cuccinelli lost Prince William County. They all lost Prince William County. I’m the only one who’s been able to win. I’m the only proven one, the only one who has proven that he can win in Northern Virginia, and I’ve done it not by moderating myself to being a light Democrat like Ed has done. I’ve done it by staying strong on my issues, my conservative issues and people, even if they disagree with that, they respect it because they know where you’re going – you’ll lay out a very clear definition, a very clear vision. And if people want that, they want certainty, they want strength and that’s what I offer.

Fenit Nirappil: When Trump was blown out in Northern Virginia and when your race was more focused on pocketbook issues as opposed to social issues, is it possible to win Northern Virginia or at least reduce the margins in Northern Virginia in the general election for governor?

Corey Stewart: Well, I think that you know clearly the emphasis on the issues changes; you don’t change your position on the issues, but, you know, you know when I was running for – when I every, every four times when I’m running for chairman at large for Prince William County, 450,400 people, you have to stick to the issues that people care about the most and then you know, clearly you know, coming into the general election they’re going to be a little bit different than what they are in the primary and we’re going to be emphasizing those, especially the income tax cut to get more jobs in Virginia – people are very, very concerned about the economy. And, and I can speak because I’ve led on this issue. I’ve already cut spending. I’ve already been able to reduce taxes. I’ve already been able to build roads in Prince William County without increasing taxes. The biggest road-building program in the state, in fact; even though we’re half the size of Fairfax County, we’ve had we have a more robust, larger road-building program in Prince William County under my leadership than Fairfax does, and I think that says something.

Fenit Nirappil: Assuming that the Republicans hold on to the House of Delegates and the Republicans win the governor’s mansion, social issues will really be at play for the first time in four years. On the issue of abortion, do you support an exception for the life of a mother for the 20-week ban?

Corey Stewart: No. And here’s why. You know, abortion is the deliberate taking of the unborn baby’s life. It’s the deliberate killing of the unborn baby. If, if, if the mother’s life is threatened and that she cannot be brought to full term for the, for the birth of the baby and the baby has to come out early, if the baby has to be born early and as a result of that the baby dies, then that’s in the hands of God. But that’s the difference between an abortion and an early birth is that you know it is possible to save the baby at five months. It’s possible to save the baby at four and a half months, five months, six months. And but that’s very different from an abortion where you’re deliberately killing the baby. Now that’s the big difference. By the way, between Ed Gillespie and me, you know I think there should be no exceptions for late term, for a ban on late-term abortions. It’s a baby. It’s a baby. It’s clearly a baby. And so how can you possibly justify the killing of that baby for whatever reason? Ed Gillespie has got a different view. He’s, you know, he’s for, you know, exceptions for that, you know, for rape, incest, life of the mother. Sounds reasonable. But the problem is is that it destroys the entire prohibition because someone would just say or could say that they were raped or whatever several months ago and, of course, they wouldn’t have to prove it. And then the ban would be for nothing because we wouldn’t be prohibiting late-term abortions.

Fenit Nirappil: Let’s transition to some personal questions. Besides being governor, what was your dream job growing up?

Corey Stewart: To being chairman of the board supervisors – I’m kidding. You know, I, I, I studied at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. I’m very, very interested in foreign affairs and international relations, so I wanted to be a diplomat. You know, maybe being the ambassador of someplace. You know, I met my wife, Maria, in Japan when I was teaching English. I love traveling. I love, you know, other cultures and studying about them, and so if there weren’t politics, it would probably be, you know, working for the Foreign Service.

Fenit Nirappil: When you’re not doing your day job as a lawyer or attending county meetings or on the campaign trail, what is your guilty pleasure – what do you do to unwind?

Corey Stewart: Well, we, I, believe it or not, I like gardening. I, like, we bought a historic plantation named the, the Bel Air plantation back in 2012. I’ve got a tractor. I like working on the property and removing brush and, you know, taking care of the property. I love outdoors work now.

Okay.

See there’s something else that I missed – favorite band or –

What my favorite look, I mean, I’m a child of the ’80s, right?

So I love the cars. You know I love upbeat ’80s music. So all the cars. That’s by far my – but I also love, you know, Boston and Aerosmith and all the good classic rock bands as well.

Fenit Nirappil: Thank you very much for it.

Corey Stewart: Yeah, thanks a lot.