RICHMOND, Va. — A deadly rally over a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee has brought memorials to Virginia’s past to the forefront of the state’s closely watched race for governor.
White nationalists rallied on Aug. 12 in protest of the city of Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Lee, leading to violent clashes and the death of three people. One woman was killed when a car plowed into a group of people protesting against white supremacists and two state troopers who were monitoring the protests died when their helicopter crashed.
The violence led to calls for the removal of other Confederate monuments in Virginia and discussions about state policy regarding the monuments. Other city governments besides Charlottesville are now considering whether to remove their Confederate monuments, including the five soaring statues on Richmond’s iconic Monument Avenue.
The next governor will likely have to grapple with questions of what to do with those monuments. Republican Ed Gillespie, Democrat Ralph Northam and Libertarian Cliff Hyra are all running to replace Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who cannot seek a consecutive term.
Much of the Civil War was fought in Virginia and its legacy can be felt all over the state. Virginia has as many as 360 Confederate monuments on public and private lands in the state, according to a 2016 state report.
The state government has wide sway over what local governments can and cannot do, including when it comes to monuments.
In 1998, the state passed a law preventing local governments from removing Confederate monuments, but there’s an open legal question about whether the law applies to monuments built before the law was passed.
Last year, the Republican-led General Assembly passed legislation clarifying that the current law applies to statues built pre-1998, but McAuliffe vetoed it.
McAuliffe has said he’s also likely to push for legislation for removal of the state-owned statue of Lee on Monument Avenue.
All three candidates say that local governments ought to decide what to do with their statues. But the differences end there.
Gillespie has been grappling with questions about the monuments the longest. Gillespie was forced to spend significant time and energy in the GOP primary refuting accusations from his opponent that he wanted monuments removed.
After the violence in Charlottesville, Gillespie released a lengthy statement reiterating his view that Confederate monuments should stay, but adding that they should also be “placed in historical context.”
He’s taken a less nuanced tone on social media.
“The choice in this election is clear. I will keep the monuments,” Gillespie said on Facebook recently.
His campaign declined to say whether he would support legislation that his party passed last year that would block local governments from removing monuments.
Northam has said he personally thinks monuments should be removed and put in museums. Following Charlottesville, Northam issued a statement saying he’d be a “vocal advocate” to get monuments removed and said the state should do more to memorialize civil rights icons.
His campaign said he would sign a bill removing the Lee statue from Monument Avenue.
Hyra also believes that local governments should decide what to do with their monuments. “I personally am not crazy about monuments to Confederate war heroes on public land, secured and maintained with public funds, but my personal preferences take a back seat to the democratic process,” he said in a statement.
This is the first in a series that will look at issues facing Virginia ahead of the Nov. 7 election.