Politics can be a pretty amoral game. Despite the constant rhetorical appeals to high-minded ideals, the order of the day where actual campaign tactics are concerned seems to be “if it hurts your opponent, do it.” Concerns about veracity and integrity come in second to scoring points, regardless of who gets hurt in the process.
And the sad part is: it works. The latest evidence can be found in Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam’s declaration to Andy Fox of Norfolk’s WAVY-TV that he’d sign a bill banning sanctuary cities in Virginia if it came across his desk. “If that bill comes to my desk, Andy, I sure will. I’ve always been opposed to sanctuary cities. He knows that,” Northam said, referring to his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie.
Gillespie’s been making a big deal out of sanctuary cities ever since this summer. Sanctuary cities are generally understood as localities which refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities in deporting undocumented residents. None currently exist in Virginia as of this writing, for the record. Nonetheless, the issue has remained at the forefront of the current gubernatorial race.
Gillespie has continually hammered Northam for a vote that took place this past February in the General Assembly. A bill to ban sanctuary cities came up to a vote, and when the result was a tie, Northam in his role as Lt. Governor was called in to cast the deciding vote. He voted against the bill, though a later vote ultimately passed it out of the General Assembly–at which point Gov. McAuliffe voted against it.
It’s a similar form of support that the Latinx community has been hoping to receive from Northam if he is elected as McAuliffe’s successor. However, Gillespie has continually turned up the heat on Northam where this issue is concerned. It began with an attack ad at the end of August that referred to “Ralph Northam’s risky policies” and specifically cited Northam having “cast the deciding vote in favor of sanctuary cities that let illegal immigrants who commit crimes back on the street.”
If that sounds like a misleading claim about what sanctuary cities actually do, you’re on the right track. As Randolph Macon Associate Professor of Political Science Rich Meagher wrote in a previous RVA Mag article, “What we call “Sanctuary cities” are not actually a real thing. Different localities commit to different levels of cooperation with immigration authorities throughout the Commonwealth.”
But the claim seemed to work in Gillespie’s favor, so much so that he went back to the well with a recent ad featuring the tattooed faces of MS-13 gang members above the words “Kill, Rape, Control.” Our own Political Director Landon Shroder called the ad “an obvious racist dog whistle” intended to “fear-monger in suburban and rural spaces by trying to make Northam look weak on crime.”
Latino Victory Fund fired back at all of Gillespie’s recent fear-mongering around the issues of sanctuary cities and undocumented Latin American immigrants with a recent ad depicting Gillespie supporters as Confederate flag-waving white nationalist terrorists. The ad may have been a bit “over the top,” in Governor McAuliffe’s words, but it seemed to strike a chord with Northam. Speaking to WAVY-TV, he said, “The MS-13 gang commercials against me have been very offensive to a lot of communities in Virginia, and so these communities have responded to that, and that is their right.”
It’s a fair point. But it wasn’t enough to keep LVF from bowing to negative pressure from Republicans and pulling the ad. And now, it seems to have pushed Northam into dropping his previous nuanced stance on sanctuary cities–that he never specifically supported them, that Gillespie was stirring up outrage around a fake issue, and that his February General Assembly vote was more complicated and less black-and-white than Gillespie made it seem. Instead, in the same WAVY interview, he came out for the first time and said that as governor, he’d sign the same sort of bill he voted against in the General Assembly less than a year ago.
Ta-daa! It worked. Gillespie hammered Northam on the overblown sanctuary cities issue until Northam finally caved and said what the Republicans want to hear. Rather than seeking the votes of young people outraged to see the harm Trump’s DACA repeal has caused their peers, rather than seeking to lock in the growing Latinx presence in Virginia by showing that he sees Gillespie’s racist fear-mongering for what it is, rather than giving other marginalized Virginians reason to believe that he will protect them, Northam has shown that for the majority of the voters who made up the celebrated “Obama coalition” and turned Virginia blue for the first time in nearly half a century, he’s going to be more of the same old same old.
If Northam’s unwillingness to stand up to Gillespie’s continued attacks is any indication, all young people, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other threatened minority populations can expect are vague reassurances, the occasional derailing of the GOP’s worst excesses, and a continued erosion of even the tiny victories these groups have worked for years to gain.
Issues like this one will make the difference in this election, and by failing to stand behind the vulnerable populations who ostensibly have the most to gain from a Democratic victory, Northam and the Virginia Democrats may very well seal their fate. Because let’s face it–uninspired people don’t worry too much about making it to the voting booth.
*Photo by David Streever