The threat of the transnational criminal gang MS-13 has become an issue in the hotly contested race between Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) and Democratic challenger Jennifer Wexton in Northern Virginia, where the gang is responsible for high-profile slayings.
Wexton this week accused Comstock of “fearmongering and race-baiting” for pushing legislation that would allow the federal government to deport immigrants on the suspicion of gang activity and fund task forces aimed at rooting out the gang.
In response, Comstock said Wexton, a state senator and former prosecutor, was “out of touch” with the gang problem and its victims.
The exchange suggests MS-13 will be used as a political tactic in the congressional race as it was in the 2017 governor’s race between Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Republican Ed Gillespie, and by GOP Senate nominee Corey Stewart and President Trump.
Trump has used the resurgence of MS-13 in the United States as one reason for his crackdown on immigration and has called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), an “MS-13 lover.”
The street gang known as MS-13, which stands for Mara Salvatrucha, was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by Salvadorans who had fled violence and civil conflict in their home country.
It has operated in the U.S. for decades, but violence surged in recent years in Virginia and Maryland communities surrounding the District as well as in Long Island, Boston and Houston. Law enforcement officers have linked the gang to dozens of killings.
Trump last month signed a bill sponsored by Comstock that devotes $50 million to gang task forces, including one in Northern Virginia. Reps. Gerald E. Connolly and Don Beyer, both Virginia Democrats who support Wexton, voted for the measure.
In September, the House passed a bill sponsored by Comstock that would expand the authority of the federal government to deport or detain noncitizen immigrants who are gang members or suspected of gang activity.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the American Civil Liberties Union slammed the bill, although four members of the Hispanic caucus supported it. Critics said it would promote racial profiling, erode due process and unintentionally affect others, such as clergy, who try to help gang members. It has not gotten a vote in the Senate.
Wexton on Tuesday night kicked off an effort to rally Latino support.
“For Barbara Comstock, the Latino community is nothing more than MS-13,” Wexton said at the event, according to Think Progress, a project of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.
“That’s the legislation she’s patroned. That’s the Republican playbook. That’s what we saw in 2017 races. That’s what we’ve seen with their pandering and fearmongering and race-baiting,” she continued.
Comstock responded with a lengthy statement that lists the names of MS-13 victims “beaten, stabbed and shot to death.” It marks the first time since the June 12 primary that the congresswoman has directly challenged Wexton.
“Wexton’s outrageous statements show how out-of-touch she is with the violent MS-13 gang threat and the victims they brutally target,” Comstock campaign manager Susan Falconer said in the statement.
In response, Wexton said as a prosecutor she went after child abusers and as a lawmaker she has made it easier to prosecute sex offenders. She accused Comstock of supporting Trump’s agenda.
“Instead of standing up to Trump, Comstock is embracing his type of lies and fear, because she’s terrified of talking about her record,” Wexton campaign manager Ray Rieling said in a statement that listed donations Comstock has taken from the National Rifle Association.
Early this year, Comstock challenged Trump at the White House over his desire to shut down the government to force a compromise on her legislation to curtail the gang.
Comstock, who is running in a district Trump lost by 10 points, has worked to distance herself from the president in hopes of appealing to independents and moderate voters, despite an almost perfect record of voting with her party. The 10th Congressional District is among the most diverse in the state; Hispanic residents make up about 14 percent of the population, according to census data.
Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said Trump’s anti-Latino stance hurts Comstock because, polls show, first-generation Americans feel an affinity for other marginalized groups. “Barbara Comstock would like to convert the anti-immigration issue to a law-and-order issue, which tends to be firmer ground for Republicans,” he said. “Whether that pivot will be effective will be up to the voters.”
Her exchange with Wexton echoes a debate that has played out in elections in Virginia and across the nation. In the 2017 governor’s race, Gillespie ran ads that called Northam “weak on MS-13” and flashed images of tattooed Latino men and the gang motto “Kill, Rape, Control.”
Northam accused Gillespie of “fearmongering,” and a Latino group supporting Northam aired an ad titled “American Nightmare” that depicts a pickup truck with a Gillespie sticker and Confederate flag, chasing minority children.
Farnsworth said it will be tough for Comstock to establish herself as separate from Trump on the issue of MS-13 when the president dominates news coverage.
“This is a challenge Republicans all around the country are facing,” he said. When trying to talk about issues important to their districts “they’re speaking into a windstorm.”