Virginia GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie on Thursday called for aggressive action against gangs and a ban on sanctuary cities that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities, part of a policy rollout that appears designed to fire up his conservative base.
By highlighting gangs and crimes committed by immigrants living in Virginia illegally, Gillespie embraced an issue championed by Corey Stewart, who nearly beat him for the GOP nomination last month with a Trump-like agenda that took a hard line on immigration.
Gillespie’s rollout coincided with a Trump administration push this week to call attention to MS-13, a violent street gang that originated in Los Angeles and has taken root in some immigrant communities in the United States.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to El Salvador on Thursday as part of a mission to strengthen international cooperation in the fight against the gang. President Trump plans to visit Long Island in New York on Friday after the arrests of 15 gang members to discuss ways to eliminate MS-13.
After Gillespie’s razor-thin victory in the GOP primary, Republicans at the state and national levels have been urging him to listen to Trump strategists. A spokesman for the Gillespie campaign would not say whether it had coordinated Thursday’s policy rollout with the White House.
While Stewart used inflammatory rhetoric when discussing illegal immigrants, Gillespie spoke in technocratic language about seeking federal funding, establishing prevention programs and revising the state’s criminal code to increase prosecutions. He announced his anti-gang policies in front of the Loudoun County courthouse, a site he chose in part because of MS-13 activity in the area.
“Job number one is eradicating gangs and rewarding those who keep up safer,” said Gillespie, who will face Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in November. “If someone is here illegally and they commit a crime, they will be deported.”
Gillespie said MS-13’s rise accentuates the need for local cooperation with federal immigration officials. The Justice Department this week said it will no longer award grant money to cities that don’t provide access to jails or notify when prisoners in the country illegally are about to be released, escalating the Trump administration’s crackdown on sanctuary cities.
“A lot of those involved in [MS-13] are here illegally,” Gillespie said. “We cannot allow for the establishment of sanctuary cities.”
The commonwealth does not have sanctuary cities, and Gillespie and Northam have agreed on that point. But there’s no clear-cut definition of what constitutes a sanctuary jurisdiction, and different sheriffs vary when it comes to cooperating with federal immigration authorities.
Northam cast a tiebreaking vote in the state Senate to reject a bill banning sanctuary cities in Virginia, which he dismissed as a political scheme by Republicans. The measure later passed and was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who is barred from seeking consecutive terms under the state Constitution.
Northam has advocated for compassion for immigrants living in Virginia illegally and says they should be able to receive in-state tuition at public colleges and universities as well as driver’s licenses.
Northam agrees with several of Gillespie’s proposal regarding law enforcement, including higher wages for state police (a pay raise was in this year’s budget) and a return of Project Exile, a program that originated in Richmond in 1997 and shifted the prosecution of illegal gun possession from the state to federal court, which had a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison.
Although it was initially credited with reducing gun-related crimes in Richmond, the program was criticized as having a disproportionate effect on African Americans.
A spokeswoman for Northam said that must be considered.
“Dr. Northam is open to all ideas to help reduce crime, but they must be implemented in a way that does not exacerbate the racial disparities in our criminal justice system,” Ofirah Yheskel said. “Virginia also can foster positive relationships between law enforcement and the communities they represent, which will lead to increased rates of solving crimes.”
Gillespie echoed similar sentiments. “I talked about disparities in arrests and convictions, and it’s something I’m very aware of and cautious of,” he said Thursday.
He was joined by GOP attorney general nominee John Adams, whom Gillespie said he would name as his anti-gang chief. “This is a level of criminal activity that impacts the most vulnerable among us, including immigrant communities,” said Adams, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor.
Some Democrats said Gillespie’s message to bolster law enforcement is undercut by his call for an across-the-board income tax cut, which Republican lawmakers have said would be funded by diverting future revenue.
“Rather than talking about tax cuts for people who probably don’t need it, we need to be talking about how we are going to address some of these crisis situations we are dealing with,” said Newport News Sheriff Gabe Morgan.
Although he spoke of tougher sanctions for gun crimes, Gillespie has hinted about relaxing penalties for other crimes. During the primary campaign, he called for fewer prison sentences and more redemption.
About a dozen protesters organized by the Democratic Party of Virginia crashed Gillespie’s event Thursday, heckling him to condemn Trump and the GOP push for a health-care overhaul.
Gillespie later posted a photo that said his news conference was meant to promote policies “to fairly compensate law enforcement, combat gangs and keep Virginians safe. Apparently these are things the Ralph Northam resistance hate.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the MS-13 gang originated in El Salvador. The gang originated in Los Angeles.