Recycled talking points from Republican Ed Gillespie’s gubernatorial campaign weren’t enough to save legislation to make it easier for Virginia localities to decide the fate of their Confederate statues.
On Wednesday, a House of Delegates subcommittee overwhelmingly voted down a series of bills to facilitate the removal or relocation of Confederate monuments.
Because another panel already voted down a similar bill in the Senate, Wednesday’s vote means that Virginia, a state steeped in Civil War history that has more Confederate monuments than anywhere else in the country, won’t be getting rid of its memorials to the Lost Cause any time soon.
Top Virginia Democrats, including Gov. Ralph Northam, called last year for Confederate statues to be taken down, saying they’re seen by many as painful reminders of racial injustice and white supremacy.
“William Faulkner said, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.’ And I think that’s how people see these memorials,” said Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, who sponsored a bill to allow statues to be moved to museums. Levine noted that in last year’s campaign, Gillespie, Northam and even “the third guy” — Libertarian Cliff Hyra — agreed localities should make statue decisions.
Only one non-lawmaker, city of Alexandria legislative director Sarah Taylor, showed up at the 7:30 a.m. meeting to speak in favor of bills that would let Alexandria move its “Appomattox” statue away from the middle of a busy intersection.
Several pro-statue speakers denounced the bills as part of a cultural purge akin to burning books or destroying art. Ed Willis of Richmond argued that removing statues is unconstitutional because it discriminates against “Confederate national origin.”
“If you open this Pandora’s box, future generations can judge us,” said Frank Earnest Sr., a leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Virginia chapter. “It’s history. It’s done.”
Members of the Republican-controlled House Counties, Cities and Towns Subcommittee that voted down the bills on 5-1 and 6-1 votes didn’t go into great detail on their reasoning, but they seemed to conclude that the statues are history worth preserving.
“All of them are Virginia as well as U.S. historic assets,” said Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin County, the subcommittee chairman.
House Minority Leader David Toscano of Charlottesville filed a Confederate statue bill on behalf of his city, which was rocked by a violent white nationalist rally last summer sparked by the city’s push to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a prominent downtown park.
Toscano’s bill would have amended a state law that seemingly bars cities and counties from removing or altering any war memorial to let local communities make their own decisions about whether their statues should stay.
“This is not about erasing the past,” said Toscano, a Democrat. “This is about giving localities the ability to do what they want to do given their specific historic circumstances.”
A lawsuit is pending in Charlottesville that seeks to block the city’s attempt to remove the Lee statue by invoking the state protections for war memorials. A judge has temporarily blocked the city from removing the statue, but the case could eventually be appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Toscano amended his bill to exclude memorials that have National Historic Landmark status, a change he said would leave Richmond’s Monument Avenue untouched.
Toscano’s bill also laid out a public engagement process, including possible voter referendums, so that small, vocal groups can’t “take over the process and just because they have the ear of the city council.”
“That’s what we want to do,” Toscano said. “Restore power to the people.”
Del. John Bell, D-Loudoun, was the only member of the subcommittee who voted to keep the bills alive.
Two other Democrats — Dels. Jennifer Boysko of Fairfax County and Steve Heretick of Portsmouth — left the meeting before the Confederate statue votes began. It’s not unusual for lawmakers to miss votes while shuttling between committee meetings.
In the state legislative system, Boysko was recorded as voting against killing the measures. Heretick returned in time to vote to kill Toscano’s bill.
The recorded vote tally for the four bills was 6-2.
In an interview, Heretick said he understands Confederate statues are a “highly charged issue,” but none of the bills he’s seen look like a solution. Heretick said he agrees with the idea of putting up more statues, noting that the Capitol building itself was built by slaves and “we need to respect those folks who gave us the foundation we build upon.”
“I don’t think that moving or tearing down statues or trying to cover up the vestiges of that history, good or bad, helps us carry forward what we’re here to do,” Heretick said.
Helen Marie Taylor, a 94-year-old longtime Monument Avenue resident who stood in front of paving machines in 1968 to prevent Monument’s paving blocks from being covered with asphalt, suggested adding monuments to prominent African-American Virginians. She specifically mentioned former Gov. Doug Wilder, the first elected African-American governor in U.S. history.
“I have witnessed myself the progress that Virginia has made in seeking a more perfect union,” Taylor said. “I hope you will vote against all of these bills. Because what these monuments portray is our history.”