RICHMOND — One act of defiance against President Trump launched Virginia Republicans and Democrats into a frenzy of accusations and fundraising this week.
The Republican Party of Virginia warned donors that “Democrats hate America.” State GOP leaders crowed that Democrats are in disarray. Democrats shot back that Republicans are ducking responsibility for their leader’s divisive comments.
The catalyst for it all was Del. Ibraheem S. Samirah (D-Fairfax), who interrupted Trump’s speech Tuesday at a historical commemoration in Jamestown by shouting, “Virginia is our home! You can’t send me back!” He was escorted out by police, then quickly boasted of his protest on social media.
The actions by Samirah, a dentist who has been in office for only five months, sparked internal dissent among Democrats and put party leaders in an uncomfortable spot. The protest grabbed attention away from more elaborate efforts by members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus to boycott Trump’s speech and stage a separate commemoration in Richmond.
Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), the head of the black caucus, made it plain Wednesday that he didn’t want to discuss Samirah and his protest. “Haven’t given it much thought,” he said via text message.
A few Democrats who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject said they were frustrated that Samirah had grabbed the limelight. Even before the protest, Democratic delegates had disagreed on Twitter about whether to attend the Jamestown event, given Trump’s record of racially divisive remarks.
By Wednesday, Samirah had catapulted himself into the national eye, appearing on MSNBC and drawing admiring comments from around the country. “So proud of @IbraheemSamirah. You’ve encouraged a LOT of good people today, man,” comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted. Samirah also encouraged donations in a pivotal election year when all 140 seats in the legislature will be on the ballot this fall.
The state Republican Party got just as much mileage out of it. Jack Wilson, the party chairman, sent a fundraising email in which he called Samirah “a proven anti-Semite,” reviving allegations that first surfaced when Samirah ran for office in a special election this year. Samirah has denounced them as a smear.
Wilson’s email said Democrats wouldn’t condemn the delegate’s protest of Trump because “Democrats hate America. . . . For Democrats, our history is only something to be ashamed of and never to be looked upon with pride.”
“Democrats just like Ibraheem could soon have total control over our government in Virginia” if they win majorities in the legislature in November, the email said. “What will prevent Socialist Democrats from rewriting our history books and tearing down our monuments?”
Referring to next year’s presidential election, Wilson said that “our very future as a country is at risk in 2020 but our future as a state is on the ballot THIS NOVEMBER!”
A spokesman for the House GOP declined to say whether leaders stand by the party’s comments. House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) wrote a memo to his caucus crowing about the apparent disarray among Democrats.
“Virginia Democrats are tearing themselves apart over the commemorative celebrations at Jamestown,” Gilbert wrote Wednesday.
He quoted a string of tweets that showed Democrats disagreeing with one another about whether to show up, some of them using pointed language to suggest that colleagues who chose to attend Trump’s speech were hypocrites. The day before the Jamestown ceremonies, the black caucus warned that “those who have chosen to attend and remain silent are complicit in the atrocities that [Trump] incites.”
Nonetheless, Gilbert said, 20 of the 48 House Democrats RSVP’d their intent to attend, “setting off very public intra-caucus fighting.”
Other Republicans joined in. Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) called Samirah “that ill-advised little bastard” in an interview with WCVE public radio after the event. A spokesman for Norment said Wednesday that he had nothing to add.
House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) warned that Samirah had broken the rules of the General Assembly, but in a radio interview seemed to shy away from taking action against him.
“I think they’ve got to police their own a little bit,” he said Wednesday on WRVA radio, referring to House Democrats. “It’s not always these formal censures. If that was a member of my caucus, we would deal with that internally, I can tell you.”
Cox said Samirah’s act was “deceitful” because “no one thought that a member of the House was going to do that.”
Radio host John Reid expressed sympathy and noted that Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) expressed views he didn’t agree with at a dinner celebrating Jamestown on Tuesday evening. Cox agreed but said he would never interrupt someone in such a formal setting. “That’s the way it is, you know, we were respectful,” Cox said.
But House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said Wednesday she had no plans to reprimand Samirah.
“There’s no sanctions,” she said. While Filler-Corn boycotted Jamestown and attended the events staged by the black caucus in Richmond, she said Samirah was not wrong to stand up to Trump.
She cited the president’s recent statements that four women of color in Congress should “go back” to where they came from, as well as Trump’s attacks on Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and his district in Baltimore and the treatment of immigrant children and families at the southern border. “I think it’s quite clear that the current president continues to demean many groups of people, including people of color, including immigrants — many different groups of human beings over and over and over again. And that’s worthy of speaking out against,” she said.
The real shock, she said, is that “the speaker and other Republicans in Virginia hesitate or fail to call [out] this hate and this rhetoric and this language. . . . We are better than this.”
Asked if the House leadership stands by Trump’s comments, GOP spokesman Parker Slaybaugh said via text message: “This is about Delegate Samirah’s disrespectful actions at the commemorative celebrations.”