Virginia's Confederate history also bubbling up in governor race

Story highlights

  • Ed Gillespie is a New Jersey native who has lived his adult life in Northern Virginia
  • He's running for governor and Charlottesville has placed a hot button issue in his lap
  • It's not just Republicans that have struggled to navigate the issues
  • Among those: A statewide holiday that honors Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson

(CNN)The Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Virginia -- the removal of which helped spark the protests that turned violent last weekend -- is just one example of the hundreds of statues, monuments, highways and holidays designed to honor the Commonwealth's Confederate roots.

The controversial connection to Virginia's Civil War past is quickly becoming a flashpoint in the upcoming race for governor, and the Republican nominee in that race, Ed Gillespie, is at the center of this divide.
Gillespie, a New Jersey native who has lived his adult life in Northern Virginia, does not have a familial connection to the Old South. He has walked a careful line when it comes to the romantic view of the Confederacy that many Virginians both Republican and Democrat hold.
    At the height of the Republican primary earlier this year, Gillespie was being pushed hard about his stance on Confederate Monuments by his far right opponent Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chair, Corey Stewart.
    Stewart made the protection of these monuments -- specifically the Lee monument in Charlottesville -- a core tenant of his campaign. He accused Gillespie of supporting the decision to bring the monument down. In response to Stewart's attacks Gillespie ran targeted digital ads designed to correct his stance on the issue. The ads touted Gillespie's defense of the monuments and linked to a page on his official website outlining his stance.
    "Ed opposes removing the Lee Statue and believes the city council members who voted to spend $300,000 of taxpayer dollars to do so should be voted out of office," the website read. "But as a conservative, Ed also knows that a governor powerful enough to force one locality to keep a statute is powerful enough to make all localities take them down."
    The digital ads had a very short run and the Gillespie campaign would not disclose how much was spent. The website explaining his position on the monument still exists on his main campaign page, but has been removed from the "Get the Facts" blog where it was originally posted. Gillespie ended up narrowly beating Stewart in a surprisingly close GOP primary. Stewart has already launched a campaign to challenge Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, in 2018.
    In the wake of the Charlottesville demonstrations, Gillespie was quick to denounce the white supremacists that attended the rally and used much stronger language, much quicker than his fellow Republican, President Donald Trump did at the time.
    "Having a right to spew vile hate does not make it right. It is painful to see these ugly events in Charlottesville last night and today," said Gillespie on Saturday. "These displays have no place in our Commonwealth, and the mentality on display is rejected by the decent, thoughtful and compassionate fellow Virginians I see every day."
    Gillespie has still yet to directly criticize Trump's response to the Charlottesville rally. After the President's controversial press conference on Tuesday where he doubled down on his belief that there were bad actors on "both sides" of the protests, Gillespie sent out another tweet condemning white supremacists, but did not mention Trump.
    Gillespie was scheduled to hold a fundraiser with Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday, but the Vice President abruptly pulled out of the event in order to provide flexibility in his schedule in case the President needs his help after a high-level meeting that will take place Friday at Camp David.
    But as to the core issue that led to the violence in Charlottesville, Gillespie's position has not changed. His previously stated stance is that he personally thinks the monuments should stay in place, but believes it is the responsibility of the localities to make those decisions. On Wednesday, he released a lengthy essay on his position on his campaign website. He offered several qualifiers to explain where he stands, but ultimately concludes that the monuments are a necessary tool to explain Virginia's role in history.
    "There is a balance that can be struck here, one that recognizes the outsized role Virginia has played in our history while acknowledging that we have not always been on its right side," Gillespie wrote. "Rather than glorifying their objects, the statues should be instructional."

    Where do Democrats stand

    Gillespie's position is not dissimilar to prominent Democratic politicians in Virginia.
    There may be no greater example of the impact of Confederate heritage on the landscape of a city than in the Commonwealth's capital and the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond. Richmond's historic Monument Avenue is lined with grand statues honoring the likes of Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Stonewall Jackson. And while Democratic politicians have controlled city government in Richmond for a generation there has been no significant movement to remove or alter the displays.
    Richmond's current Democratic Mayor LeVar Stoney is African American. Stoney has called the monuments "very offensive," but at one point declared that he does not believe the monuments should come down. He originally pushed for the displays to include some context as to the impact these confederate figures had on Virginia and the United States.
    "It is about telling the complete truth," Stoney said recently at a groundbreaking for the new American Civil War Museum in Richmond. "I don't think removal of symbols does anything for telling the actual truth or changes the state and culture of racism in this country today."
    Stoney has formed a commission to study the issue and offer proposals to highlight the historical context of these figures and that original position was often by cited by Gillespie as an example of local control over the monuments.
    But Wednesday, Stoney reversed course. He plans to continue the work of the commission, but now personally is advocating for their complete removal. Removing the political cover his position provided Gillespie.
    "These monuments should be part of our dark past and not of our bright future," he said. "I personally believe they are offensive and need to be removed."
    The Democratic nominee Ralph Northam also believes that the control over Confederate monuments should be left to localities, but unlike Gillespie he personally supports their removal.
    "If there are statues that are divisive and you know breed hatred and bigotry then they need to be in museums," Northam said. "That's a decision that would need to be made at the local level."
    Virginia's Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, vetoed a measure in 2016 that would've prevented localities from deciding the future of monuments or war memorials erected before 1998. In his veto message McAuliffe said that he is in favor of the "constructive dialogue" regarding the monuments, but also said that his administration "strongly supports historic preservation efforts, including the preservation of war memorials and monuments." McAuliffe also announced on Wednesday that he is personally advocating for the removal of Confederate monuments in Virginia.
    The veto was held up, but the bill itself initially pass the House of Delegates by an 86-16 margin which included several Democrats supporting the legislation.
    Northam has said he also would've vetoed the legislation, while Gillespie has yet to give his position.

    The Lee-Jackson Holiday

    While Northam and Gillespie both are effectively punting on the decision over the future of Confederate monuments there is one glaring example of Confederate homage they both would have a level of control over if they are elected: The State's controversial Lee-Jackson Holiday.
    It is an official State Holiday created in the late 1800's. In 1983 the state merged the holiday to coincide with the Federal Holiday honoring Civil Rights Leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 2000, the holiday was split. Lee-Jackson Day is now celebrated on the Friday before MLK Day meaning State Government is shut down for a long four-day weekend.
    Northam supports getting rid of the holiday, while Gillespie at this point refuses to take a stance.
    "We are mourning the murder or deaths of three of our fellow Virginians, Heather Heyer, Lt. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke Bates, and celebrating their lives." Gillespie said in a statement to CNN. "We understand the media's constant demand for content, but there will be ample time for policy decisions and pronouncements over the next three months."
    Gillespie said he would not comment on his policy positions through Saturday to give the families time to grieve.
    And as this issue moves forward, nuance may be a key for Republicans and Democrats. The potential for more rallies and violence exists and the support for Confederate symbols remains a divisive issue, with strong support on both sides. Richmond City leaders were bracing for a similar rally in support of Confederate Monuments in mid-September but Stoney announced Tuesday morning that the group organizing the rally had pulled their permit request.
    But what will never go away is Virginia's deep and unbreakable connection to a difficult time in American history. A connection that exists more than 150 years after the last shot in the Civil War was fired. It is something the current candidates for governor will now be forced to directly confront.