Corey A. Stewart, who is running for U.S. Senate and nearly won the Republican nomination for governor of Virginia on a pledge to preserve the state’s Confederate monuments, said white nationalists had been unfairly singled out for their role in the weekend chaos in Charlottesville that left three dead and dozens injured.
Stewart’s remarks Sunday ran counter to sentiments expressed by most other Virginia politicians, from both parties.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) — who is running to succeed McAuliffe — and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) denounced white supremacy during remarks at church services in Charlottesville on Sunday.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie, who is running against Northam after barely beating Stewart for the nomination, took a low-key approach, sending out two statements, one of which lamented the loss of life and decried “vile hate.” Gillespie initially did not mention white nationalists. But later, he did so when responding to a message from a fellow Republican, former delegate David Ramadan, who prodded Gillespie on Twitter to call the attack terrorism.
After Ramadan tweeted, “It’s a #terrorist attack Ed not just a loss of life. Time to call things as they are,” Gillespie responded, “Definitely tragic effect of vile neo Nazi and white supremacist actions.” He also attended Catholic church services in Charlottesville, but not did alert the media ahead of time or speak. However, after Mass, he tweeted: “We’ve seen evil in white supremacist torches and howling neo Naziism. God in the quiet service & sacrifice of Lt. Cullen, Trooper Bates.”
H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates of the state police died when the helicopter in which they were monitoring the violence crashed.
State Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, a Republican from Fauquier County who is running for lieutenant governor, called the events a “vile display of racism,” while GOP attorney general nominee John Adams described them as “Nazi-ideology on display.”
Democrat Justin Fairfax, who is running for lieutenant governor, and attempting to be the first African American elected statewide since L. Douglas Wilder served as governor, called for unity against “those who want to divide communities.”
“This moment is also a reminder of the need to tone down political rhetoric and the negativity we often see in our current politics,” Fairfax said.
But Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of Supervisors, blamed “half the violence” on counterprotesters and criticized fellow Republicans who condemned the white nationalists.
“All the weak Republicans, they couldn’t apologize fast enough,” Stewart said in an interview with The Washington Post. “They played right into the hands of the left wing. Those [Nazi] people have nothing to do with the Republican Party. There was no reason to apologize.”
However, Stewart has made several joint appearances with Jason Kessler, organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally that sparked the unrest in Charlottesville.
Stewart met Kessler at an event earlier this year to protest the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. And at one point during the primary race, Stewart attended a Charlottesville news conference with Kessler and Isaac Smith, founders of Unity and Security for America (USA), a fledgling group that calls for “defending Western Civilization.”
Smith sometimes introduced Stewart at events and appeared at his side with alt-right symbols. Kessler and Smith also joined Stewart at a protest at the University of Virginia.
Stewart told The Post on Sunday that he has not had any recent interaction with Kessler.
“He does his own thing,” said Stewart, who plans to challenge incumbent Tim Kaine (D) for a Senate seat next year. “He’s got to answer for himself.”
Rep. Thomas Garrett, a Republican whose district includes Charlottesville, faced criticism after a months-old photo of him posing with Kessler circulated on Twitter.
A spokesman for Garrett told the Charlottesville Daily Progress in May that Garrett had met with Kessler to discuss a town hall and an unrelated terrorism bill.
Garrett tweeted Saturday to condemn what he called the “despicable escalation of racist rhetoric in Charlottesville.” Later, in an interview with Fox News, he said, “The victims of this racist violence are my constituents. . . . It blows my mind that this many racist bigots actually exist in this country.”
Stewart said he had no regrets about making Confederate symbols the rallying cry for his campaign and rejected the notion that highlighting the issue fanned the flames. But he worries that the violence will lead Republicans to give in to demands for the removal of statues of Confederates.
“I am anticipating that the left will try to use the violence in Charlottesville as an impetus to removing that statue and all the others,” he said. “And they’re going to try to shame Republicans into agreeing to the removal of historical monuments.”
The Lee statue in Charlottesville has created a conundrum for Gillespie, a longtime party operative and former lobbyist who needs support from some Stewart voters if he is to beat Northam in November. Gillespie has said that he does not support removal of the Lee statue, but that such decisions should be left to local jurisdictions.
At the Mount Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Northam sat at the front of the church, as did McAuliffe and Herring, who is seeking reelection to a second term.
A low-key public speaker, Northam spoke quietly to reporters who pressed him for a comment on his way into the church. But he brought the congregation to its feet at times when his time came at the pulpit.
“We come to you to reassure you that the commonwealth of Virginia, and all of us that are in this together, will not and do not condone white supremacy,” Northam said, prompting the first ovation.
He condemned the groups “that brought their hatred and bigotry to the commonwealth of Virginia. That’s not what we’re about. I’m here as your lieutenant governor and also as a doctor to start the healing process.”
The occasion brought new passion to a well-worn passage in Northam’s stump speech, which draws on his work as a pediatric neurologist.
“I was pleased when I walked into your place of worship to see the children in the front of your church,” he said. “As a doctor and as a pediatrician, I’ve looked into the eyes of a lot of babies. And when you look into a baby’s eyes, you don’t see the hatred and the bigotry that we saw come to Charlottesville yesterday. And we have to ask, ‘Where does it come from? Who taught theses people?’ ”
He went on to talk about the need to “promote inclusivity” and equality, to teach “that we are all God’s people.”
“That’s the way God would have it. To God be the glory,” he concluded, once again bringing the congregation to its feet.