The two candidates running for Virginia governor, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam (D) and Ed Gillespie (R), appear to have dramatically different views on the commonwealth’s Confederate monuments. However, a deeper look into their positions on the state law regarding those monuments reveals that they may actually be close to agreement.
The two candidates discussed the issue in a recent debate. Here is what Gillespie said:
“When you are on the side of preserving the institution, the evil institution of slavery, you are on the wrong side of history. But our history is our history, and I believe that we need to educate about it, and that we need to teach about it. So my view is that the statues should remain and we should place them in historical context so people can learn.”
This is the view of Northam:
“If these statues give individuals, white supremacists like that, an excuse to do what they did, then we need to have a discussion about the statues. Personally, I would think the statues would be better placed in museums with certainly historical context, but I am leaving it up to the localities.”
While the two candidates seem far apart on what they think should happen to the monuments, focusing on this aspect of the issue may mask a deeper agreement. While they can express their wishes for the monuments to stay or go, the real question is what they propose when it comes to the law governing these monuments.
A state law dating back a century prohibits county governments from removing monuments. A 1997 laws applies that same prohibition to city and town governments. However, there is a dispute over whether that law can be applied retroactively. This is the issue in Charlottesville’s attempts to remove its statues honoring the Confederacy, which were erected before 1997.
In the 2016 legislative session, legislators approved a bill that would definitively ban any local government from interfering with these monuments. Here is how VoteSpotter described it:
House Bill 587 Restrict local authority over monuments: Passed 82 to 16 in the House and 21 to 17 in the Senate
To prohibit local governments from removing or interfering with monuments or memorials erected for a war or conflict, such as the Civil War.
Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed this bill, and legislators failed to override that veto.
Northam has been clear that he would like to see local governments have the power to remove monuments. Gillespie, too, has expressed support for local authority over them, according to a report from the Hill:
Dave Abrams, a spokesman for Gillespie’s campaign, said that, if elected, Gillespie would ensure that statues and monuments under the state’s control would remain up while being placed in the proper historical context.
Local jurisdictions would be free to choose for themselves whether to leave the statues standing, Abrams said.
While Northam and Gillespie stress different aspects of their view – Northam generally condemns the monuments, while Gillespie thinks they should remain – the two candidates do not appear to be far apart on policy issues. Both express support for local authority over what happens to them, regardless of their personal feelings on the monuments’ disposition. The major difference is that Gillespie does not stress this aspect of his position as much as Northam, and it is unclear if he would actually support a law that gives this power to local governments.
Do you think that local governments should remove these Confederate monuments? Or should they stay in place?