Corey Stewart’s Confederate-centric bid for Virginia governor has cost him the endorsement of a longtime political ally and prompted four of the five Republicans who serve with him on a county board to back his GOP rival.
Prince William County Sheriff Glendell Hill yanked his endorsement from Stewart over the weekend and announced he was backing former Republican strategist Ed Gillespie in the June 13 primary.
“All that Confederate stuff — I don’t think that’s really necessary for a person that’s running for public office,” Hill told The Washington Post on Monday. “It’s something that divided our country and the races, and we just don’t need that. We want a governor that’s going to represent and serve all the people.”
At the same time, four of Stewart’s Republican colleagues on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors came out for Gillespie.
Stewart (At Large) is the chairman of the county board, and the five other Republican supervisors had intended to stay neutral, even after Gillespie personally asked for their backing, Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (Coles) said. They made that decision partly as a “professional courtesy” and partly to prevent politics from complicating negotiations over the county budget, Nohe said.
But recent events — including Stewart’s participation in a Confederate-themed ball two weeks ago and the appearance of an airplane streaming a Confederate flag and Stewart banner Friday — led the four to reconsider, Nohe said. The fifth, Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (Dumfries), remains neutral.
Some of those colleagues stood with Stewart during other controversies, most notably during the crackdown he led against illegal immigration in the county about a decade ago. His embrace of Confederate symbols has caused them to wonder whether the veteran Prince William politician can survive reelection in his diverse county.
“Politics is a weird thing, but it is difficult to imagine someone who has so closely associated himself with symbols of segregation like the Confederate flag doing well in an election in a majority-minority community like Prince William,” Nohe said.
Last month, 62 percent of those in a straw poll conducted by the county’s Republican Party chose Gillespie, while 24 percent backed Stewart.
Stewart has made the preservation of the state’s Confederate monuments a central theme of his candidacy. After the Charlottesville City Council voted in February to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park, Stewart adopted it as a cause. Last week, a Stewart supporter flew a plane over an outdoor political gathering that streamed a Confederate flag and a banner reading, “Vote Corey Stewart June 13.”
That was a tipping point for Prince William County Supervisor Ruth M. Anderson (Occoquan). She said she immediately picked up the phone and offered her endorsement to Gillespie.
“When I saw that, it just did something to me,” she said. “It’s just too much, too much.”
Without naming Hill, Stewart issued a written statement that suggested he had rescinded his endorsement “amid pressure from weak-chinned Republican brass.”
“The Confederate flag is not the issue,” Stewart’s statement said. “The radical left’s obsession with tearing down historical monuments is about silencing all dissent, and weak-kneed establishment politicians like Ed Gillespie who refuse to stand strong and instead cave to the slightest hint of pressure from the left.”
Hill, an African American and Republican, said he has often campaigned with Stewart since they first won their respective offices 12 years ago. Until now, Hill said, they have generally seen eye to eye. Hill supported Stewart’s previous crackdown on illegal immigration, although he said he took issue with some of Stewart’s rhetoric, which included a pledge to “hunt . . . down” illegal immigrants who commit crimes in the county.
“We don’t need to be mean-spirited about it,” Hill said. “Just enforce the law.”
Hill announced his change of heart in a written statement issued by Gillespie’s campaign, but he said no one twisted his arm to make the change.
“Been around too long for that,” he said. “I had been thinking about it for a few days. It started out, you know, with the Charlottesville issue, and it moved on to other things. I just got tired of seeing it.”
Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and counselor to President George W. Bush, trumpeted the endorsements as proof of his appeal in vote-rich, racially diverse Northern Virginia.
“Prince William County is a diverse, growing part of Virginia, and I’m humbled to have the support of these strong leaders,” he said in the statement from his campaign.
Stewart and Gillespie are in a three-way race for the GOP nomination with state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach). On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello are vying to succeed Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who is prohibited by the state constitution from serving back-to-back terms. Both parties will pick their nominees in June 13 primaries.
Far behind Gillespie in fundraising and endorsements, Stewart has tried to grab attention by defying political correctness in the manner that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House. Stewart was Trump’s Virginia chairman until he went too rogue even for that unconventional campaign, which eventually fired him for participating in a demonstration against establishment Republicans.