A tall or­der for ‘Trump’s Mini-Me’ in Vir­ginia

Prince Wil­liam County fire­brand Corey Ste­wart strug­gles to gain trac­tion in gu­ber­na­to­rial race

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY PAUL SCHWARTZMAN

At a pub­lic cel­e­bra­tion last sum­mer, Corey Ste­wart, Prince Wil­liam County’s top Repub­li­can, praised his county’s di­ver­sity and wel­comed the re­nam­ing of a mid­dle school once chris­tened for a promi­nent seg­re­ga­tion­ist.

Five months later, in the throes of his cam­paign for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion for gov­er­nor of Vir­ginia, Ste­wart joined a group rail­ing against the planned re­moval of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park in down­town Charlottesville.

“We’ve got to de­fend our cul­ture. We’ve got to de­fend our her­itage,” Ste­wart barked be­fore sup­port­ers that in­cluded men hold­ing Con­fed­er­ate flags, ac­cord­ing to a video on his Twit­ter page.

With a rav­en­ous ap­petite for rhetor­i­cal bom­bast, Ste­wart is cam­paign­ing as an un­apolo­getic dis­ci­ple of Pres­i­dent Trump, echo­ing the pres­i­dent’s pop­ulist di­a­tribes against the Repub­li­can es­tab­lish­ment, un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and the me­dia.

Yet in pur­ple Vir­ginia, the only South­ern state that Trump lost to Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton, Ste­wart is strug­gling to cap­ti­vate vot­ers. Three months be­fore the June 13 pri­mary, polls show him in sin­gle dig­its, far be­hind fron­trun­ner Ed Gille­spie, a former lob­by­ist and ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, in a field that also in­cludes state Sen. Frank W. Wag­ner (Vir­ginia Beach).

Hop­ing to raise his pro­file, Ste­wart, 48, has adopted Lee’s statue as a cause cele­bre and de­ployed show­man­like an­tics such as raf­fling off a semi­au­to­matic weapon to raise cam­paign cash. On Twit­ter, he lac­er­ates Gille­spie with Trumpian flour­ish, re­fer­ring to the former chair­man of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com-

mit­tee as “Es­tab­lish­ment Ed.”

Yet Ste­wart had only a quar­ter of the nearly $2 mil­lion that Gille­spie amassed by the start of this year, ac­cord­ing to cam­paign fi­nance records, and re­cently sent out fundrais­ing pleas that he said would “help cover” the cost of gas, a sound sys­tem and se­cu­rity needed to stage a rally.

“Corey has la­beled him­self as Trump’s Mini-Me, but the mojo ain’t there,” said Shaun Ken­ney, the former ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Vir­ginia’s Repub­li­can Party. “Trump had the ad­van­tage of mo­nop­o­liz­ing the na­tional nar­ra­tive. Corey is the echo of that, but no one likes what they’re hear­ing. Vir­ginia is barely a state that voted for Trump.”

Even in his own county, where for a decade he has served as chair­man of the Prince Wil­liam Board of County Su­per­vi­sors, Ste­wart has en­coun­tered re­sis­tance. On a re­cent Satur­day, 62 per­cent of those in a straw poll con­ducted by the county’s Repub­li­can Party chose Gille­spie, while 24 per­cent backed Ste­wart.

At a su­per­vi­sors’ meet­ing on Valen­tine’s Day, dozens of speak­ers — in­clud­ing a woman dressed as the Statue of Lib­erty — crit­i­cized Ste­wart af­ter he made a pub­lic show of en­cour­ag­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to de­port un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants re­sid­ing in the county.

The speak­ers in­cluded Rafi Ud­din Ahmed, a leader of the Mus­lim As­so­ci­a­tion of Vir­ginia who has do­nated $1,500 to Ste­wart’s pre­vi­ous cam­paigns. “I’m not happy when there’s any­one who can di­vide us and put a mi­nor­ity un­der the mi­cro­scope,” Ahmed, the owner of a car re­pair shop, said in an in­ter­view. Asked if he would sup­port Ste­wart in the fu­ture, Ahmed said, “I’d rather not com­ment.”

Ste­wart, in a tele­phone in­ter­view, ex­pressed no con­cern about dis­agree­ments with al­lies, say­ing they are a rou­tine fact of his com­bat­ive po­lit­i­cal life. He of­fered a broad re­buke of those who crit­i­cized him at the su­per­vi­sors’ meet­ing as “the same old lib­eral wack jobs who have been protest­ing me for 10 years.”

Ste­wart’s cre­den­tials as a self­styled voice of Trump­ism may seem du­bi­ous, since the pres­i­dent’s own cam­paign dis­missed him as its Vir­ginia co-chair­man in Oc­to­ber. Ste­wart had ig­nored the cam­paign’s or­der to re­frain from protest­ing the na­tional Repub­li­can Party’s treat­ment of Trump.

“He got fired for not fol­low­ing di­rec­tions,” said John Fred­er­icks, Trump’s Vir­ginia co-chair­man. “He may own the Trump style, but he doesn’t own the Trump brand. The Trump peo­ple don’t like him.”

Told about Fred­er­icks’s re­marks, Ste­wart said, “I hate that guy,” and con­tended that he was fired “be­cause I was too loyal.” He re­mains de­voted to Trump, he said, and is con­fi­dent that he can ride the anti-es­tab­lish­ment spirit the pres­i­dent un­leashed to the gov­er­nor’s man­sion.

“In-your-face con­ser­vatism,” Ste­wart said, de­scrib­ing Trumpian pol­i­tics. “I’m the anti­estab­lish­ment can­di­date who’s go­ing to burn the s---house down.”

Mixed reviews of ap­proach

Four years ago, dur­ing Vir­ginia’s pre­vi­ous gu­ber­na­to­rial race, a civil war erupted within the state’s Repub­li­can Party be­tween the busi­ness-ori­ented es­tab­lish­ment and grass-roots ac­tivists who in­cluded lib­er­tar­i­ans and tea party loy­al­ists.

The ac­tivists won the strug­gle, nom­i­nat­ing at the party’s con­ven­tion Ken Cuc­cinelli II, then the state’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, though the di­vi­sion helped lead to Demo­cratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s vic­tory. Del­e­gates also anointed E.W. Jack­son as the party’s choice for lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, over a field that in­cluded Ste­wart.

The rift within the state’s GOP, Repub­li­cans say, has largely dis­si­pated. A key rea­son is that Gille­spie forged re­la­tion­ships with grass-roots ac­tivists once aligned with Cuc­cinelli dur­ing his un­suc­cess­ful 2014 run for the U.S. Se­nate, they say.

“Gille­spie has been the mar­riage coun­selor that the Repub­li­can Party needed,” said Quentin Kidd, direc­tor of the Wa­son Cen­ter for Pub­lic Pol­icy at Christo­pher New­port Univer­sity. “He has man­aged to spread him­self across the di­vide. He has in­oc­u­lated him­self be­cause he has talked to a lot of peo­ple.”

Ste­wart’s strat­egy rests on the faulty as­sump­tion that Trump’s blue­print will work in Vir­ginia, Kidd said. “I don’t think Trump­ism is as pow­er­ful a force in Vir­ginia as it is else­where,” he said. “And where it is pow­er­ful — in south­west, for ex­am­ple — a lot of peo­ple don’t know about Ste­wart be­cause he’s from North­ern Vir­ginia.”

Ste­wart has cul­ti­vated his own net­work of grass-roots al­liances, a group that in­cludes vet­er­ans of Trump’s Vir­ginia cam­paign such as Waverly Woods, former chair of the Hamp­ton Roads tea party. Woods, now work­ing for Ste­wart’s cam­paign, said the can­di­date’s loy­alty to Trump is a virtue.

“The peo­ple who turn out at the polls are the Trump sup­port­ers,” she said. “The peo­ple who liked Trump know what Corey was do­ing” dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. The pas­sion Ste­wart ex­udes for is­sues such as the Lee statue helps en­dear him to vot­ers, she said. “I love the fact that he talks about stick­ing up for our her­itage,” she said.

Dur­ing a rally for the statue in mid-Fe­bru­ary, coun­ter­demon­stra­tors shouted Ste­wart down. He cited the al­ter­ca­tion with what he de­scribed as “rad­i­cal left-wing ag­i­ta­tors” in sub­se­quent fundrais­ing pleas.

While he was at the rally, Ste­wart met the lead­ers of a fledg­ling right-wing group known as Unity and Se­cu­rity for Amer­ica, who asked him to re­turn the fol­low­ing week for a news con­fer­ence. He ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion.

The group, which has fewer than a dozen mem­bers, sup­ports immigration laws “that re­quire that most im­mi­grants come from Western coun­tries,” ac­cord­ing to its web­site. Ja­son Kessler, the leader of the group, tweeted in Novem­ber that Trump is “the sav­ior of Western Civ­i­liza­tion” and that “his acts of brav­ery have in­spired a move­ment that will out­live us all.”

“Corey Ste­wart showed up when we needed him,” said Isaac Smith, a spokesman for the group. “He stood by us.”

Yet other Repub­li­can ac­tivists, in­clud­ing those who agree that the statue should re­main in its spot in down­town Charlottesville, said Ste­wart should be more fo­cused on sub­stan­tive is­sues. The statue “does not get me a job or re­duce taxes — I’m against mov­ing it, but it’s not some­thing I would cru­sade on,” said Rich Buchanan, chair­man of Vir­ginia’s tea party, who is back­ing Gille­spie.

Buchanan, who sup­ported Ste­wart’s un­suc­cess­ful bid for lieu­tenant gov­er­nor in 2013, de­scribed his cur­rent cam­paign as “one of the most deroga­tory, neg­a­tive I’ve seen in a while.”

“I don’t think it’s work­ing,” he said. “There’s no one in my cir­cle who’s say­ing, ‘Hey, look at Corey go!’ ”

Ste­wart equates the re­moval of Lee’s statue to “his­tor­i­cal vandalism” and said “it’s about po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness gone mad. This is an op­por­tu­nity to crush the throat of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness.” He also noted that a video clip of him de­fend­ing the statue had drawn “over 100,000” views on Facebook.

Since his for­ays to Charlottesville “there has been a pal­pa­ble change in the di­rec­tion of the cam­paign,” he said, pre­dict­ing that his stand­ing in fu­ture polls “will have dra­mat­i­cally shifted.”

‘He rein­vents him­self ’

Af­ter his 2006 elec­tion as Prince Wil­liam’s chair­man, Ste­wart cap­tured na­tional at­ten­tion with his pub­lic cam­paign to de­port un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants — or “crim­i­nal il­le­gal aliens,” as he calls them.

At the same time, Prince Wil­liam was grow­ing more di­verse and its pol­i­tics shifted left­ward, en­abling Pres­i­dent Obama to win the county in 2008 and 2012. While he never changed his po­si­tion on immigration, Ste­wart chose to fo­cus on more prag­matic con­cerns, such as ed­u­ca­tion, traf­fic and bud­getary is­sues.

Ste­wart, a lawyer who grew up in Min­nesota, has won elec­tion as chair­man four times in cam­paigns fu­eled by con­tri­bu­tions from de­vel­op­ers and other es­tab­lish­ment types. He said that qual­i­fies him as “part of the Prince Wil­liam es­tab­lish­ment but not the Vir­ginia es­tab­lish­ment.”

“The es­tab­lish­ment in Vir­ginia is in Rich­mond and all those guys are sup­port­ing Ed,” he said, re­fer­ring to Gille­spie.

At var­i­ous points in his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer in Prince Wil­liam, Ste­wart told re­porters he did not want to be known as the “immigration man” and said he hoped to build ties to Lati­nos and other mi­nori­ties. To win in North­ern Vir­ginia, Repub­li­cans needed to be in­clu­sive and em­u­late his mi­nor­ity out­reach, he said two years ago.

In Au­gust, Ste­wart spoke at the re­nam­ing cer­e­mony for the Mills E. God­win Mid­dle School, a Wood­bridge build­ing orig­i­nally named in honor of a former gov­er­nor who, as a state law­maker in the 1950s, led the “mas­sive re­sis­tance” move­ment against school in­te­gra­tion. The county’s board of ed­u­ca­tion re­named God­win for an African Amer­i­can phi­lan­thropist, Ge­orge Hamp­ton.

“It’s been a long, long, long time in com­ing, that’s for sure,” Ste­wart told the au­di­ence at the cer­e­mony. “A lot of things have changed in Prince Wil­liam County since 1970, and let me tell you some­thing: Those changes have been good.”

He de­scribed Prince Wil­liam as “the most pro­gres­sive, fu­tur­ist county in the United States.”

Re­call­ing the mo­ment, Wil­lie Deutsch, a con­ser­va­tive school board mem­ber, said it sug­gested that Ste­wart “is more fo­cused on win­ning over au­di­ences he is speak­ing to than stick­ing with a core set of prin­ci­ples.”

“At times he may be hard right, at other times he may be more of a prag­matic con­ser­va­tive,” Deutsch said. “He rein­vents him­self to cre­ate the ver­sion of him­self he thinks he needs to be to move to the next level.”

Ste­wart waved off that de­pic­tion, say­ing that his views on immigration and di­ver­sity have re­mained con­sis­tent. He said he had op­posed re­mov­ing God­win’s name from the school de­spite his re­marks at the cer­e­mony.

“I wasn’t go­ing to rain on the pa­rade,” he said.

STEVE HELBER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Corey Ste­wart’s cam­paign pitches mir­ror those used by Pres­i­dent Trump in his race.

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