Donald Trump’s main man in Virginia was winding down his pitch for the Republican nominee when a teacher in the audience asked whether Trump would ever forsake his fondness for rhetorical grenades and delve into policy.
Not to worry, replied Corey A. Stewart, Trump’s campaign chairman in the commonwealth, insisting that enough time remains for the candidate to immerse himself in the details of economics and national security.
“He is, as you might imagine, extraordinarily intelligent,” Stewart promised the gathering of Loudoun County Republicans on a recent night.
His audience’s silence did nothing to deflate Stewart’s enthusiasm.
“He’s a very quick study,” he said.
“He manages his time very well.”
“He’s Mr. Energizer.”
Over the past six months, as Trump emerged as the GOP’s nominee, many Republican leaders and political operatives have rebuked and otherwise disassociated themselves from the bombastic New York mogul.
Yet Stewart, 48, exhibits no such reticence, reveling in his role as Trump’s combative Mini-Me in Virginia and betting that his alliance with the Republican nominee will propel his own quest to win the commonwealth’s 2017 gubernatorial race.
With polls showing Trump trailing Hillary Clinton in the crucial swing state, Stewart acknowledges that his gambit is high risk, particularly in a place where seismic demographic shifts have helped Democrats capture every statewide race since 2009.
Yet as Virginia’s self-anointed face of “Trumpism,” Stewart contends that he stands to inherit a potent electoral base — the legions of white working-class voters propelling Trump’s candidacy.
“My fate is very closely tied with his — if he loses, my job is harder,” Stewart conceded. Yet even if Trump is defeated, he said, “I don’t think that diminishes the fact that there’s a movement here and that the Republican Party — and probably all of American politics — is forever changed. I want to be the leading edge of that spear.”
As Trump’s voice in Virginia, Stewart embraces the businessman’s caustic tone, at one point this summer writing on his own Facebook page, “Hey Hillary, you suck!” Indeed, Stewart is that rare surrogate who has managed to say something provocative enough that even Trump’s campaign felt the need to reproach him.
As the elected chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, Stewart a decade ago drew national attention promoting a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, a policy that presaged the tempest more recently caused by Trump’s own anti-immigrant barbs.
“I was Trump before Trump was Trump,” Stewart likes to boast, his grin suggesting no small amount of pride.
While he says he does not agree with all of Trump’s ideas, including his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States, Stewart exhibits little patience for those who express outrage over any number of the Republican’s provocations, including his recent assertion that President Obama founded ISIS.
“People are being too sensitive,” Stewart said. “I’m not concerned about the rhetoric. The problem in American politics is we’ve stopped being honest, and we’ve gotten all caught up and ultra-sensitive about the words people use instead of debating the ideas behind them. Trump is trying to blast through it.”
In his fourth term as chairman, Stewart is an affable pol who, as a Republican, has managed to maintain power in a county that was ground zero for the state’s population shifts and supported President Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Yet Stewart has failed to ascend politically, losing a 2013 bid for lieutenant governor. Even his friends suspect that his alliance with Trump is a desperate attempt to raise his statewide profile.
“It’s a risky ‘Hail Mary’ which, in my mind, will end up being a failure,” said David Ramadan, a Stewart friend and a former Republican state legislator in Virginia. “It's one thing to speak one’s mind plainly and to be candid, and it’s another to be a racist, fascist demagogue, which is what Trump is.”
“Corey made the wrong decision,” he said.
Stewart dismissed his friend’s verdict.
“I know he’s not a racist, and I know he’s not a fascist,” Stewart said of Trump. “What Trump is trying to do is break through the political [expletive]. Historically, we’re going to look back on that as a tremendous service to the country.”
On a Wednesday afternoon, more than 150 Republican women at a “Tea for Trump” in Fredericksburg laughed and applauded when an activist introduced Stewart to the crowd as a “little Trumpish” and recounted that he had recently “gotten into a little trouble for something he said.”
The speaker, Alice Butler-Short, was referring to Stewart’s July 8 Facebook post in which he wrote, after five Dallas cops were fatally shot, that Clinton and Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam “are to blame for essentially encouraging the murder of these police officers.”
Stewart’s post led to a Trump spokeswoman saying, “Corey does not speak for the campaign, and this is not something we agree with.”
“Did he say, ‘Oh dear, I’m sorry,’ ” Butler-Short asked the audience. “No! He double-downed! Good for you, Corey!”
Taking the stage, Stewart wasted no time bashing Clinton, saying, “There’s never been anyone more qualified to be in prison,” and praising Trump for having “woken us up.”
“Over the past 40 years, America has lost something — we have lost the virtue of candor,” he said. “Why? Because the left wing has belittled, embarrassed and ridiculed conservative speech. And when you stand up, what do they label us? Bigots and racists.”
“The only way we’re going to take our country back is to speak honestly about the issues,” he said.
Describing for the audience the origin of his involvement in the presidential race, Stewart recalled Trump’s answer when asked why he chose him as Virginia state chair: “You’re the only one who had the guts to crack down on illegal immigrants.”
Stewart uses his Trump appearances to remind the public that, amid a surge in the Latino population in Prince William County, he led a push in 2007 to enable police to ask people they stopped about their immigration status, a policy that was later relaxed to focus only on those arrested.
The clampdown caused a furor that vaulted Stewart to the center of a national debate over immigration and prompted accusations that he was encouraging racial profiling and bigotry to curry favor with voters.
Stewart, whose wife, Maria, is a Swedish immigrant, insisted then and now that he was motivated by his belief in enforcing the country’s immigration laws. Yet his role in the uproar cost him allies, including Elena Schlossberg, a Prince William activist who had thrown a fundraiser for him when he ran for chairman.
“He understood how you could have land preservation and still be a Republican, and he was that same engaging, very funny and affable guy,” she recalled. But after he backed the crackdown on undocumented immigrants, she recalled telling him, “ ‘Corey, you’re making a colossal mistake. You don’t want to attach yourself to this kind of ugliness. Save your soul.’ ”
At the time, Virginia was in the midst of a demographic upheaval, with the state’s Latino population having nearly doubled and the number of Asians increasing sharply. After the controversy quieted, Stewart turned to economic issues and cultivated the image of a leader seeking consensus. He forged relationships with leaders of the county’s immigrant groups, the growth of which had turned Prince William into a minority majority county.
After not speaking with him for years, Schlossberg said Stewart called her last year, asking for help defusing any tensions that might arise from a Muslim group’s plan to build a mosque.
“He said, ‘You know, Elena, I don’t want to go back to 2007 to that very ugly time,’ ” Schlossberg recalled. “He said he wanted to help the community come together.”
Soon after, she said, Trump announced that Stewart was his man in Virginia.
“He wanted to do something good, and then it was replaced with this need to be part of a big political show,” Schlossberg said. “How can you get on the Trump train and think all those people in the Muslim and Latino communities would have any trust in you?”
As a Trump acolyte, Stewart embraced the candidate’s call for a wall on the border between the United States and Mexico. After Trump supporters fought with protesters in California in June, Stewart posted on Facebook that he would not tolerate such antics in Virginia as governor.
“If they are illegal,” Stewart wrote, “we will kick their asses out of the country, just like we did in Prince William County.”
On a late Friday afternoon, Stewart sits at the kitchen table at his Woodbridge home, a one-time tobacco plantation built in 1740, where George and Martha Washington stayed during their honeymoon.
A portrait of Mother Teresa hangs on the wall. Stewart would prefer to remove the photo, he said, but it remains because his wife is “spooked” by the plantation’s “haunted history” and she says, “No one is going to mess with Mother Teresa.”
When Trump’s staffers asked him to join the campaign, Stewart said he took a week to consider the offer “because I knew there were going to be people disappointed when I made the decision.”
He made nearly two dozen phone calls, including to Muslim associates already infuriated by Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims visiting the United States. Stewart himself disagreed with the proposed ban because “I don’t think it’s right to label a whole religion of people because you have a few bad apples.”
Nevertheless, Stewart said he decided to support Trump because he was upending a stale political order, and he predicted that his focus on “pocketbook issues” would mean more to Americans than whether he offended anyone with his rhetoric.
“History is not formed by wallflowers,” Stewart said. “I want to be part of history. I don’t want to be some guy that’s a footnote.”
If nothing else, he said, Trump has reaffirmed his belief “that I can be myself.”
“And if you don’t like it, piss off,” Stewart said. “I don’t have to change my personality, and I can win at the highest levels.”