Republican gubernatorial candidate Corey A. Stewart told an audience at a Northern Virginia synagogue Sunday night that he blames the political left for rising anti-Semitism, stunning many in the audience who felt Stewart excused bigotry coming from his own supporters.
“Today most of the anti-Semitic bigotry is not coming from the right. It’s coming from the left. We have to face it,” said Stewart, prompting a collective gasp and incredulous laughter from the crowd of about 400 at Temple Rodef Shalom in Fairfax County.
Stewart, who is significantly lagging in his campaign for the Republican nomination behind front-runner Ed Gillespie, has made the defense of the state’s Confederate heritage a mainstay of his bid and has attracted support from white supremacists.
But in his remarks, Stewart ticked off three instances — including one more than a decade old — in which Democrats had been labeled anti-Semitic or sexist.
“What about Keith Ellison from Minnesota?” Stewart said, referring to the Democratic congressman who has been criticized by some for his earlier support for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Audience members shouted back, “What about Trump?”
Stewart received the iciest reception of the four candidates who appeared at the forum, which was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. He participated with one of his Republican rivals, state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach), and Democrats Tom Perriello, a former congressman, and Ralph Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor.
The only missing candidate was Gillespie. His communications director said the candidate was attending a campaign event for state Del. Margaret Ransone (R-Kinsale). His campaign finance director delivered remarks on his behalf at Temple Rodef Shalom.
The candidates appeared one at a time to deliver remarks and then answer questions that had been submitted through an online forum.
Guila Franklin Siegel, the associate director of the JCRC, agreed that it’s important to address bigotry on all ends of the political spectrum but said she was disheartened by Stewart’s remarks.
“I thought it was disappointing he didn’t take the opportunity to speak about what he could do within his own sphere of influence to combat anti-Semitism and all other forms of bigotry and intolerance, instead of looking at what other people are doing in other parts of the political spectrum,” Siegel said.
The comments from Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William Board of County Superviors, come amid rising anxiety in the Jewish community about the increasing frequency acts of anti-Semitism, including recent vandalism at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. Police said the man arrested in the case had connections to the Aryan Underground.
Many attendees in this Democratic stronghold were less concerned with Stewart’s remarks and more focused on choosing between Perriello and Northam.
Sang Moore, a 42-year-old manager at a credit union who lives in Falls Church, said she was still undecided but leaning toward voting for Northam because of his experience in state government, where he served as a lawmaker before being elected lieutenant governor. In her eyes, it gave him an edge over Perriello, who lost his congressional seat in 2010 after one term and then worked for a left-leaning think tank before becoming a special envoy in Africa for the State Department.
“Perriello’s experience, while vast and impressive, is not Ralph Northam’s,” Moore said.
Perriello and Northam are locked in a neck-and-neck battle for the Democratic nomination, according to polls.
Perriello panned President Trump on Sunday and blamed his rhetoric for increasing acts of racism and hate in the region. He cited the vandalism at the Jewish Community Center, the harassment of a woman in a hijab at a Trader Joe’s in Reston, Va., and a torchlight rally organized by white supremacists in Charlottesville to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
“We have to be honest that we stand at a scary moment, where we’ve seen the kind of hatred and bigotry unleashed and enabled from the president himself, those around him and those who stand beside him,” Perriello said.
Perriello also touted his experience working as a negotiator in Africa, saying it demonstrates his ability to work through disagreements. “If we can bring together people who have literally been killing each other for years, we’ve got to find a way to find common ground,” he said.
Northam’s remarks garnered the most applause. The soft-spoken pediatric neurologist talked of treating toddlers for gunshot wounds after mishaps with firearms and domestic violence victims shot by their partners as evidence of the need for stricter gun control, including restricting gun purchases to one per month.
“Nobody needs to buy more than one gun a month,” Northam said.
Wagner, who is running third in the GOP race just behind Stewart in the latest Washington Post-Schar School poll, mentioned how he once ran a company with a prominent Jewish businessman. He spoke of his proposal to revamp the high school curriculum to give students the flexibility to take career and technical education courses.
“Somebody with a good career and technical background and industry credentials is going to earn more money than a college graduate,” Wagner said.
He also pitched his proposal to raise the fuel tax to improve the transportation infrastructure. “We have to make a bigger investment in transportation if we expect the Virginia economy to grow,” Wagner said.
Both parties will choose their nominees in a June 13 primary, and the general election will be in November. May 22 is the last day to register to vote in the primary.