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McAuliffe strikes softer tone on monuments, raising GOP hopes that Northam will be out on limb

A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, located at the center of Lee Circle along Monument Avenue in Richmond. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Gov. Terry McAuliffe struck a softer tone on Confederate monuments Thursday, two weeks after urging Virginia's cities and state legislature to move them to museums or graveyards.

McAuliffe (D) repeated his calls for removal — “Move ’em to museums. Move ’em to battlefields. Move ’em to cemeteries. Put a bunch in the Hollywood Cemetery” — but also said that is not likely to be a priority given the cost.

“Listen, if I’m the mayor of Richmond or I’m on the City Council, I’m faced with a tough decision,” he said on WRVA radio’s “Ask the Governor” program. “Do I spend — I don’t know, $5 [million] or $10 million — taking something down when I got schools — I’ll tell you my first priority has got to be schools, because I got to get people employed.”

He also indicated he would be satisfied with adding “context” to statues, such as plaques, as Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney proposed in July for Confederate statues that line the city’s Monument Avenue.

“Let’s go ahead and put some context to these things and move forward,” McAuliffe said.

McAuliffe’s shift buoyed Virginia Republicans, who have largely been forced to play defense on monuments in this year’s race for governor, despite polling showing that a majority of Virginians want Confederate statues to stay put — the position GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie has staked out in his race against Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

A string of GOP missteps — from President Trump’s widely panned response to the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville to a state Republican Party tweet that seemed to call Northam a “race traitor” for supporting removal — seemed to keep Gillespie from capitalizing on the issue.

The Democrat running for Va. governor wants Confederate monuments to come down. Republicans say he turned his back on “heritage”

On Thursday, McAuliffe’s remarks on his radio program gave Republicans hope that Northam would be left out on a limb on the issue.

“McAuliffe Breaks From Northam On Historical Statues,” the Republican Party of Virginia said in a news release.

McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said the governor had not flipped on monuments but had simply acknowledged “budgetary reality.”

“You can support the relocation of these things but also recognize there are many other urgent priorities that these governments have,” he said. “He agrees his first responsibility is to the living and breathing.”

At least some Democratic officials expressed concern that both Northam and McAuliffe were too quick to stake out hard-line positions in the wake of Charlottesville. Northam came out for moving statues Aug. 16, four days after the Charlottesville rally that claimed three lives. Stoney and McAuliffe followed hours later.

McAuliffe says Confederate statues should come down

“They got caught up a little in the excitement over Charlottesville and the need to do something, and maybe even the mistaken belief that everybody realized that the Confederate monuments are all about white supremacy. I believe they are, but I don’t think all Virginians agree with that,” said one Democratic elected official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being seen as criticizing party leadership.

Northam and McAuliffe — like Gillespie — acknowledge that the governor does not have the power to order removal under state law. Cities have jurisdiction over their own statues in most cases. The governor would have some say over state-owned statues, such as the likeness of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee towering over Richmond’s Monument Avenue, but the legislature would have to approve removal.

Northam pledged to be a “vocal advocate” for removal and “do everything that I can . . . to remove the statues at the state level.”

When asked specifically about the Stonewall Jackson monument at his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, Northam told the New York Times that removal would be up to the board. As governor, Northam appoints the members of VMI’s governing board, and his appointees would have control by the end of his term.

“I wouldn’t say we have walked back the language at all,” Northam spokesman David Turner said.

He said Northam is not concerned about polling showing that 51 percent of Virginia voters favor keeping the monuments in public spaces while 28 percent favor removal.

“There are obviously political consequences of every decision. but this is a conviction for him that it’s the right thing to do,” Turner said. “Charlottesville spurred a conversation about these monuments and what their role was in the public sphere. After Charlottesville happened, I think every official probably had a reckoning over what does it mean that they’ve become rallying points for neo-Nazis and white supremacists.”

In former capital of the Confederacy, debate over statues is personal and painful

However, the subject is clearly not one Northam wants to dominate his campaign.

“There’s been a focus on this issue that I think is disproportionate to what voters have voiced concern about in terms of issues that are important in Virginia,” Turner said.

Gillespie, meanwhile, has embraced the theme of protecting Confederate statues.

In an email to supporters this week, his campaign said, “Add your name if you agree with Ed Gillespie that these statues should stay right where they are and we should teach history — NOT erase it.”

Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.