Near the end of a recent campaign event at a seafood restaurant in Roanoke, Republican gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart called for somebody to bring out a prop that he joked could get the group “kicked out.”
“Whoaaaaa!” a woman in the crowd blurted out as a Confederate battle flag was pulled from a pouch and unfurled in full view of the camera being used to stream video of the rally on Facebook Live.
“Folks, this is a symbol of heritage. It is not a symbol of racism. It is not a symbol of slavery,” Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors who is running a fiery, anti-establishment campaign for governor, said at the March 18 event. “I’m proud to be here with this flag.”
Though recent Republican governors have approached Virginia’s Confederate history with caution and have at times been ensnared in controversy for stances seen as racially insensitive, Stewart is running Virginia’s most openly Confederate-friendly political campaign in recent memory, a strategy he attributes partly to the election last year of President Donald Trump.
He has vowed to defend Confederate monuments from liberals who want them gone, promised to bring back Confederate emblems on state-issued specialty license plates, and said he would “absolutely not” mention slavery in symbolic proclamations about Confederate history.
In a video posted to Twitter early this month, Stewart, who served as the Trump campaign’s Virginia chairman last year before being fired for defiantly protesting outside the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington and who was tapped by the state party to co-chair its 2016 turnout and communications efforts, sipped coffee from a Confederate-flag mug after declaring: “The only way that we can kill political correctness is to be politically incorrect.”
“I think things have changed,” Stewart, who also has shaped his campaign around hard-line stances against illegal immigrants but hasn’t drawn strong support in early polls, said in an interview this week. “I think the 2016 presidential race was a watershed moment where you saw voters — including white voters and black voters and Asian voters and Hispanic voters — just fed up with political correctness and these gotcha techniques that the left has used to shut down speech.”
Saying she did not want her head to “explode outright,” Linda Thomas, president of the Virginia chapter of the NAACP, took a moment to gather her thoughts in a phone interview before commenting on Stewart’s embrace of the battle flag as a campaign strategy. It may represent heritage to some, she said, but the flag “isn’t a representative symbol for all Virginians.”
“Mr. Stewart cannot pretend to be unaware of how it is viewed by African-Americans who see it as a reminder of the grimmest of times,” Thomas said. “It is a reminder of our enslavement. It is a reminder of those who wanted to maintain that dehumanizing and demoralizing system.”
Stewart’s professed devotion to preserving history has come under scrutiny due to supportive remarks he made last year when a Prince William school was renamed to shed its association with former segregationist Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr.
Stewart has made it clear that he intends to use his unapologetic defense of Confederate history as a major line of attack against GOP gubernatorial front-runner Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and 2014 U.S. Senate candidate trying to run a more inclusive, minority-friendly campaign to give Republicans a critical statewide win and halt Virginia’s Democratic shift.
Barry Isenhour of Virginia Flaggers, a group that works to promote Confederate displays, applauded Stewart’s position, saying there’s widespread support for preserving Virginia’s Confederate monuments and arguing Republican “attempts at appeasement” have hurt the party in recent elections.
“Virginians are inspired by a candidate with the backbone to stand up to the bullying tactics of the left,” Isenhour said.
Though Stewart is betting that his embrace of Confederate symbols will help his standing ahead of the June 13 Republican primary, a pro-Confederate message would be difficult to translate to a general election campaign in the only Southern state Trump did not win.
Both Democratic candidates for governor — Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam and former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello — denounced Stewart’s use of the Confederate flag when asked about it Tuesday.
In a statement, Northam said the flag represents history to some, but “hate, racism and bigotry to others,” adding that it belongs “in Virginia’s history museums, not on the 2017 campaign trail.” Perriello said Stewart’s campaign is “obviously flailing” and said its failure to break through shows “that old play towards racial hatred and division really does have a ceiling here in Virginia.”
“The problem is elections are won in urban, suburban and exurban areas,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Those are the people who would be most turned off by this approach to campaigning.”
Gillespie, Sabato said, is far enough ahead in the primary race that “he can afford to dance around this issue.”
In a statement, Gillespie’s campaign said he would not look to reverse the state’s “longstanding policies regarding the Confederate flag.”
“Corey is a desperate candidate trying to salvage his flailing campaign and is clearly hoping to use the Confederate flag, which has become a divisive symbol, to somehow get him more support,” Gillespie campaign spokeswoman Abbi Sigler said in a written statement. “Ed is focused on creating jobs, strengthening our economy — policies that benefit all Virginians.”
State Sen. Frank W. Wagner, a Virginia Beach Republican running third behind Gillespie and Stewart in recent polls, said he has no “qualms about the rebel flag.”
“But I do understand it’s offensive to some members of the community, and I think we need to respect their feelings,” Wagner said.
Painting Gillespie as an establishment squish unwilling to stand up on controversial issues, Stewart has promised to pursue stronger laws to prevent statues from being altered or taken down, highlighting a debate in Charlottesville over a council vote to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a prominent park.
Gillespie has said he opposes the council’s decision but does not believe it’s the state government’s role to supersede local officials.
A citizens group has filed a lawsuit to stop Charlottesville’s action on the statue, a case that could help settle the question of whether a state law passed in 1998 to preserve all war monuments applies only to monuments that have been built since or whether it also covers all memorials erected before 1998.
Stewart also has vowed to bring back specialty Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates with the group’s flag-based emblem, which Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe stopped in 2015 after the racially motivated killings of nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., by a shooter who had posed for photos with the flag.
Like two other recent Democratic governors, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, McAuliffe has not issued Confederate history month proclamations each April.
“Because it’s 2017,” McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said.
The proclamation was one of the first issues to trip up the state’s last Republican governor, Bob McDonnell. A few months after taking office in 2010, McDonnell issued a “Confederate History Month” decree that made no mention of slavery, an omission McDonnell called “an error of haste and not of heart.”
The onslaught of criticism that followed, including a public rebuke by then-President Barack Obama, ultimately forced McDonnell to atone via a do-over proclamation the next year that included recognition for enslaved African-Americans.
In 2013, McDonnell proposed $11 million in state funding for a slave history site in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom area, a project still evolving as city leaders weigh how to move forward.
Stewart said he would not reference slavery in Confederate history month proclamations, the symbolic gestures that have proven politically tricky for past Republican governors.
“That just emphasizes the argument of the left, which highlights the history of slavery in our state,” Stewart said. “Sure, slavery was legal in Virginia, and part of the Civil War was fought over that issue. But it’s not the entirety of Virginia’s heritage.”
Unlike other Southern states, Virginia has not continued to fly the battle flag on the Capitol grounds — which once served as the seat of government for the Confederate States of America — but Stewart said he would support displays of the flag on Capitol Square from “time to time.”
Though Virginia had a long string of Confederate veterans as governors after the Civil War and Reconstruction and the flag was once widely accepted by Southern politicians of all stripes, the flag has more recently put GOP politicians on the defensive.
Having to explain his past affinity for the Confederate flag during his unsuccessful 2006 U.S. Senate run, former Gov. George Allen said he had been “slow to appreciate” the flag’s emotional impact for African-Americans.
When Republican Oliver L. North was under fire in the 1994 U.S. Senate race over his refusal to denounce the Confederate flag, he countered by accusing his Democratic opponent, then-U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb, of wearing a suspiciously Confederate-esque necktie. Robb denied the accusation, saying he owned no such tie.
North later produced a photo and a mail-order catalog page suggesting the insignia on Robb’s tie was that of the Anglo-Confederate Society, a group of British Parliament members sympathetic to the cause.
A Minnesota native, Stewart acknowledged he has no deep-seated personal connection to the Confederacy, but said he has grown to love the history of his “adopted” state. Taking down a statue or prohibiting the flying of the flag, he said, is “like spitting on your grandfather’s grave.”
“Just because somebody finds it offensive doesn’t mean that they’re right,” Stewart said.