CHARLOTTESVILLE — Republican gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart came to this town to defend its statue of Robert E. Lee in a downtown park, only to be swarmed by dozens of protesters who shouted him down everywhere he went.
It was the harshest reception yet for the provocative chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, who is campaigning for the GOP nomination for governor as Virginia’s Donald Trump, with a hard-line stance against illegal immigration.
A divided Charlottesville City Council’s decision last week to remove the statue of the Confederate general gave Stewart an opening to appeal to his base. On social media, he urged people to “defend Virginia’s heritage,” likening those who wanted to remove the statue to tyrants and Nazis.
But when he tried to take his message to this college town Saturday morning, protesters shouting “White supremacy has got to go!” drowned out his interviews and conversations.
Stewart took it in stride, frequently grinning and trying to chat up his detractors. In an interview, Stewart welcomed the protests and the attention they would bring, believing they would buttress his pitch as a conservative standing up to an intolerant left and “political correctness.”
“I am calling them out for who they are,” Stewart said. “It’s really a symptom of the problem of the left and their unwillingness to listen to alternative points of view.”
He recorded a Facebook Live video with Thaddeus Dionne Alexander, an African American veteran who became a conservative star online after his Facebook video railing against liberal protesters went viral.
Their latest video ran a little more than two minutes and had racked up more than 13,000 views by 3 p.m.
“They have no respect for our heritage,” Stewart said over shouts in the video. “They have no respect not only to Robert E. Lee, a great American, but they have no respect for Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington or any of the other great American and Virginia heroes.”
The demonstrators continued to follow Stewart, hoisting signs saying “Ban Bigots” and “No tolerance for white supremacy” over his head as they yelled at him to go back to Prince William.
“Do you need to be escorted to your car?” Toby Gray, 51, carrying a giant American flag, asked as Stewart walked down the stairs out of the park.
“I think I do,” Stewart responded, crossing the street to a parking lot.
Protesters didn’t follow, shouting “Whose town? Our town!”
The protesters outnumbered a group of supporters of the statue, some of whom carried Confederate flags. The statue supporters — who were angered by the wave of protests against President Trump nationwide — said the whole exchange left them feeling warmer to Stewart.
“I wasn’t sure about voting for Corey Stewart before, but I’d be very honored to vote for him after today,” said Isaac Smith, a 20-year-old Charlottesville resident who filmed the rally for a local blog.
He backed Trump for president but said he was uneasy about the prospect of having a mirror image in the governor’s mansion.
“I’d like to see something a little more tempered, a little more mild. Certainly the way Stewart dealt with these people, I think he was an absolute angel,” Smith said.
Fellow Republican candidate Ed Gillespie, a political strategist whom Stewart derides as “Establishment Ed,” said in a statement that he doesn’t support moving statues but that such decisions are local issues. Gillespie is leading the Republican field in polling and campaign cash for the June primary.
Republican distillery owner Denver Riggleman, who, like Stewart, is running a populist campaign, also denounced the statue move and instead recommended using money that would go toward demolition to add a statue of a prominent African American.
The fourth Republican candidate for governor, State Sen. Frank Wagner (Virginia Beach), says he opposes removing the statue, calling it “political correctness run amok.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello, who represented Charlottesville in Congress from 2009 to 2011, supports the statue’s removal as part of creating a more inclusive environment. Lt. Gov Ralph Northam, the Democratic front-runner in the gubernatorial contest, has said local communities should make decisions about Confederate symbols, but held up Charlottesville as a model for creating a “welcoming community.”
As Stewart hopped into his Toyota Tundra to go to his next rally in Winchester, he flashed a thumbs-up sign to the handful of supporters who escorted him to the park.
“This was fun,” he said.