WASHINGTON — Five elected Republican officials in Prince William County are not endorsing their colleague Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, but instead have thrown their support behind one of his competitors in the party’s primary race for Virginia governor.
Two of those county officials, reached by WTOP, said they will support front-runner Ed Gillespie because of Stewart’s focus on symbols of the state’s Confederate past, and the use of the battle flag at rallies and events.
“I honor one flag and that is the Stars and Stripes,” said Supervisor Ruth Anderson, who represents the Occoquan District. “The Confederate flag is very painful for many people and it needs to be respected as part of our history, but certainly not celebrated as a main priority of a gubernatorial campaign.”
Anderson, who called Stewart a friend, along with fellow Supervisors Pete Candland, Jeanine Lawson and Martin Nohe joined with Sheriff Glendell Hill to endorse Gillespie.
“We’re very focused on the economy and bringing jobs to the county. That’s what I want my governor to do,” Anderson said.
The five officials’ backing only adds to the support for Gillespie in Stewart’s home county, where the former national party chair won a Republican straw poll last month.
Stewart, who was fired as Donald Trump‘s campaign chair in Virginia, has championed preserving the state’s Confederate symbols, like statues of Robert E. Lee and the Confederate flag, as part of his campaign.
In a statement emailed to WTOP, Stewart defended his position.
“Rather than being about the Confederate flag, this issue (is) about out-of-control political correctness that shames people for celebrating their ancestry and heritage, the radical left tearing down historical monuments, and weak-kneed establishment politicians like Ed Gillespie who refuse to do anything about it,” Stewart said.
Since the beginning of the year, he held a rally in Charlottesville calling on the city to keep its statue of Lee. Stewart also attended an event in Danville called the “Old South Ball” and posted a video on his Facebook page showing the candidate speaking below an enormous Confederate flag next to men and women dressed in antebellum-style clothing.
Last week, a Stewart supporter flew an airplane with a Confederate flag banner over the annual political event Shad Planking in Wakefield.
That was the last straw for Anderson, she said.
Gillespie’s campaign announced the support of county officials the next day, including Hill, the sheriff who had once backed Stewart.
“Today, I am pulling my endorsement of Corey Stewart for governor. He is a friend, but his campaign has become more focused on division rather than the unifying values and the history the Republican Party,” Hill said in a statement released on Saturday.
Both Anderson and Nohe heard concerns from constituents about the local lawmaker’s positions, especially regarding the Confederate flag, they said.
Nohe said he’d hoped to stay neutral out of professional courtesy to Stewart, but the candidate’s attendance and speech at the “Old South Ball,” changed his mind.
“Corey Stewart I think has just taken his campaign in the wrong direction and away from the values that we hold dear here in Prince William County. It was the right time to speak up,” said Nohe, who represents the Cole District.
Stewart has rebuked Gillespie repeatedly for not protecting Virginia’s historical monuments, even releasing a radio ad to spread that message last month.
Gillespie has said that the removal of Confederate monuments should be left to local officials to decide. Still, he doesn’t believe that they should be taken down.
Such a campaign platform might have made sense a quarter century ago in a Virginia primary. But in modern state politics, a Confederate-centric message is unlikely to attract voters, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.
“In fact, it’ll generate a lot of antipathy particularly where a lot of votes are cast in Northern Virginia and the suburban areas of Richmond and Hampton Roads,” Farnsworth said.
State Sen. Frank Wagner is also seeking the Republican nomination in the June 13 primary.