A liberal activist group on Thursday labeled Ralph Northam’s campaign "racist," criticizing the Virginia Democrat running for governor a day after he declared that he would not support "sanctuary cities" for undocumented immigrants.
"Let's be really clear: If Ralph Northam wins next Tuesday, it won't be because he publicly backtracked on his commitment to protecting immigrant families, but in spite of it," said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, a grassroots progressive activist based in Vermont.
Chamberlain went on to say the Northam campaign was running "the same old, broken, and racist playbook that lost Democrats over 1000 elected offices since 2008."
The statement, issued Thursday night, drew a swift and strong rebuke from many Democrats and liberals, including its founder, Howard Dean, who blasted the statement as "incredibly stupid” and one that “discredits” the group.
But it highlighted the pressure now facing many Democratic candidates, who must choose between adopting a politically controversial position — support for sanctuary cities — or risking the wrath of the party’s increasingly vocal liberal faction.
It also comes in the same week as a new TV ad from the Latino Victory Project, which showed a pickup truck adorned with a Confederate flag chasing down young children of color. The controversial ad has become the talk of the Virginia gubernatorial race, with Democrats nervous that its message has slowed Northam’s momentum in a race many expected he would win.
In an interview, a DFA spokesman defended the group’s criticism of Northam’s campaign, saying Democrats face both a moral and political imperative to stand up to President Donald Trump.
"In an era where you have a bigot running the federal government, and someone like Jeff Sessions in charge of the Justice Department, you cannot stand up to racism and hate if you’re not, at every opportunity, standing up for struggling immigrants being threatened by the federal government," said Neil Sroka, DFA spokesman.
Sroka declined to say if his group would call any Democratic candidate who opposed sanctuary cities a "racist." DFA’s job, he said, is "not to run around labeling people racist willy nilly."
But in this case, the group felt compelled — and reserves the right to do so with other Democratic candidates.
"We’re not going to shy away from it either," Sroka said. "We have a moral responsibility to do it."
On Wednesday, Northam told a Virginia TV station that he would sign legislation banning sanctuary cities, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The issue has been an explosive one in Northam’s race against Republican Ed Gillespie, who has run a series of TV ads criticizing the Democrat over the policy.
DFA (and many Democrats) considers Gillespie’s ads racist. But Sroka said the group still felt compelled to speak out against Northam because Democrats need to realize that, politically speaking, defending the rights of minorities is essential.
"Given how important and essential black and brown communities are to Democrats, isn’t it important to be a candidate who stands with those communities unequivocally when they’re under threat?" Sroka asked. "That should be the question to any candidate running for office."
He added: "Until we fully absorb that the strength of this party is in black and brown and progressive white voters … we are going to have a very difficult time winning elections."
In its statement, DFA also announced it had ended its assistance to Northam’s campaign.
Despite the controversies, Northam’s campaign has a small but significant lead in most polling. The election is Tuesday.
Virginia Del. Alfonso Lopez, a Northam supporter, issued a statement through the campaign saying that the candidate has always “fought for the Commonwealth to have immigration policies that are fair and compassionate.”
“He opposes deputizing the State and local police to take on the duties of federal immigration agents,” Lopez said. “He opposed localities having to hold undocumented Virginians longer than prescribed by warrant, statute, or a judge’s order. He has also consistently supported protecting undocumented immigrants so that they can report crimes and assist law enforcement without the fear of being interrogated about their immigration status. He understands that without such protections immigrant populations and the entire community would be less safe.
“More importantly,” Lopez added, “he knows the difference between real legislation and ‘dog whistle’ policies crafted only to instill fear and create division. He hasn’t changed his positions – he has always been consistent. And he has always been a consistent friend to the Latino and New American communities.”