Candidates find little common ground in Va. Senate forum

Republican senate candidate Corey Stewart. Photo by Jared Foretek.

The stark contrast between the two candidates for one of Virginia’s two Senate seats was on full display at Congregation Olam Tikvah Sunday morning, as incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, flaunted his support for Israel and Republican challenger Corey Stewart railed against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement active on college campuses.

The candidates took the stage at the Conservative synagogue in Fairfax just a week after a vandal spray-painted 19 swastikas on the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia less than a mile away. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s Darcy Hirsh pressed each candidate about addressing the reported rise in hate crimes committed against Jews in the commonwealth.

Kaine, who spoke first, talked about policy and politics, citing homeland security grants he’d pushed for that help cover the cost of security improvements for religious institutions while also tying the uptick in hate crimes to a broader politics of hatred directed at religious minorities.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.)

“Those in public life have a big burden on our shoulders, which is fight hate without being hateful, resist evil without being consumed by it — and that’s a challenge,” Kaine said.

In his answer, Kaine did not mention Stewart, the chair of Prince William County’s Board of Supervisors and former Virginia state chair of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. But the Republican has a history of staunchly opposing efforts in Virginia to remove Confederate symbols and has had relationships with white nationalists in the past.

In January 2017, he called Wisconsin politician and known anti-Semite Paul Nehlen “one of my personal heroes,” according to The New York Times. The next month, he appeared with Jason Kessler at an event organized by Kessler’s “Unity and Security for America” group. Kessler would go on to organize the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last year, and Stewart would ultimately disavow both men.

Kaine used the Fairfax incident this month to revisit what happened in Charlottesville.

“There’s a false narrative about Charlottesville that it’s about [attempts to remove Confederate] statues,” Kaine said. “But when you really hear what people were chanting, there’s nothing about statues that makes people want to chant something out of a Nazi youth rally. … I think it’s a tiny minority, but they are emboldened, and so we need to speak against it.”

Stewart, who took the stage after Kaine — the two men shared a brief handshake as Kaine left the room — condemned anti-Semitism and quickly turned the discussion to the BDS movement when asked about the vandalism at the JCC.
“Anti-Semitism in this country is on the rise, there’s no question that it is. And it’s coming from all corners and it’s coming from the normal characters, the neo-Nazis … you see that and all of us condemn that, absolutely, 100 percent,” Stewart said. “But there’s a rising anti-Semitism movement that’s coming from our universities today and we need to recognize that. … That movement is called the boycott, divest and sanctions movement, and it’s occurring at our universities and it’s not coming from the right wing of the spectrum, it’s coming from the left.”

Stewart received a noticeably cooler reception than Kaine or even his counterpart on stage, the Republican candidate in Virginia’s 11th congressional district, Jeff Dove. Nearly every time Dove — an Iraq war veteran and businessman who polling experts at FiveThirtyEight give a less than one percent chance of unseating incumbent Democratic Rep. Gerald Connelly — finished speaking, he was given a mild applause. When Stewart finished answering a question, the room was silent.

On Israel, Kaine spoke personally about his connection with the Jewish state, frequently comparing it to his ancestral home of Ireland.

“I am stone Irish. I’m probably about the most Irish person you would meet. All eight of my grandparents were born in Ireland, and I still have family there. But I have visited Israel more than I’ve visited Ireland,” Kaine, who serves on the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, said. “The U.S.-Israel relationship means a lot to me. … Like anything, I have issues with which I’m passionately in agreement and support of with Israel. And there are issues where I have challenges and concerns. … But the relationship matters deeply to me.”

Later, he used the relative peace that has come over the Irish island after generations of conflict as an analogy for what he hopes will occur between Israelis and Palestinians. He reiterated his support for a two-state solution, criticizing both sides of the conflict for not forging a permanent resolution.

“I think Israeli leadership often shows a lack of will and Palestinian leadership often shows a lack of capacity,” Kaine said. “Here’s what should give us hope. Israeli/Palestine; tough, tough issue. Ireland; tough, tough issue for hundreds of years. … There are now children in Ireland who know nothing of the troubles. We can never give up hope, we have to keep pushing for the two-state solution.”

Stewart said less about the Jewish state, mentioning that he’d visited in his professional capacity as an international trade attorney and answering Hirsh’s question about the U.S.-Israel relationship by talking mostly about his support for Trump’s trade tariffs. Stewart did, however, praise the president’s decision to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the American embassy there.

Stewart presented himself as a staunch conservative on issues like immigration and climate change. When Hirsh asked about the separation of migrant families at the nation’s southern border with Mexico, Stewart launched into a discussion of the dangers of the MS-13 street gang, saying that after a string of gruesome murders committed in Prince William County at the hands of MS-13, he led the way in strengthening immigration enforcement.

“If you commit a crime and you’re apprehended in my county, we check your immigration status. We don’t care what race you are, we don’t care what ethnicity you are, we don’t care what language you speak. We’re going to check your immigration status,” Stewart said. “You’ve got one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. in Fairfax, but it has one of the worst MS-13 gang problems in the area. They come into the U.S. posing to be teenagers, but they’re actually in their early 20’s. … [Immigration] has to be done through the front door, not the back door. I believe in a very high wall and a very wide gate.”

He also said that he did not believe climate change was the result of human action, comparing recent trends to the Middle Ages.

Most observers see Stewart as a longshot to unseat Kaine, who polls show is still fairly popular in the commonwealth after serving as governor and mayor of Richmond. A University of Mary Washington poll conducted in early September showed Kaine with a 16-point lead.

Outiside of mentioning the embassy move, Stewart did get one other round of applause Sunday, when he said “[Kaine’s] instinctively and automatically a ‘no’ to every single thing that President
Trump proposes.”

“He’s an automatic ‘no’,” Stewart said as the crowd began to clap. “Some of you may like that. … But he’s an automatic ‘no’ to President Trump because he’s bitter about the 2016 elections and he’s voting no even if it damages Virginia and Virginians.”

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