Editor’s Note: The original version of this report, posted November 4, erroneously stated that Peter Gemma, former media director of the National Policy Institute, had met with neo-Nazi leader Bill White. That reference has been removed. The Nation regrets the error.
Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore has made illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign, promising an aggressive crackdown on day laborers and undocumented immigrants attending state universities. “Will we reward illegal behavior with hard-earned dollars from law-abiding citizens?” he asked a campaign rally crowd this August. “I say the answer to this question should be an easy one: no!” While Kilgore accepts the financial support of an anti-immigrant group with racist ties, he also has taken massive contributions from companies notorious for exploiting undocumented immigrant labor.
Virginia Republican Attorney General candidate Bob McDonnell has declared himself “a drug dealer’s worst nightmare,” while appearing in ads slamming imaginary crooks behind prison doors and pledging to protect Virginians from sexual predators. McDonnell has not only financed his campaign through a possibly illegal slush fund but has hired three former associates of indicted Republican über-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. One of them, who once served as McDonnell’s campaign manager, is now in prison for soliciting sex with a young boy.
With friends like these, it’s hard to imagine how Kilgore and McDonnell expect their law-and-order message to be taken seriously. Without such friends, however, it would be difficult for them to plaster their message on TV screens throughout the Old Dominion. And so they have eagerly racked up contributions from controversial and at times contradictory interests, hoping that wedge issues and pseudo-populist rhetoric will paper over their sordid finances. Thus far, with Kilgore running neck-and-neck with his Democratic challenger, Tim Kaine, and McDonnell enjoying a comfortable lead over Democrat Creigh Deeds–and with less than a week left until election day–the strategy seems to be working.
Kilgore’s overt nativism has elicited support from the innocuous-sounding US Immigration Reform PAC, which donated $2,000 to his campaign. The PAC is headed by Mary Lou Tanton, wife of John Tanton, a Michigan-based ophthalmologist the Southern Poverty Law Center says has “either formed, led or otherwise made possible…the vast array of America’s anti-immigration groups.”
Tanton founded what is now the largest anti-immigration lobby in the country: the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform (FAIR). Under his leadership, FAIR struck up a relationship with the Pioneer Fund, an organization dedicated to advancing the discredited pseudo-science of eugenics, and which promoted Nazi propaganda films during the 1930s. Between 1985 and 1994, the Pioneer Fund bankrolled FAIR with $1.2 million.
Today, the Tantons continue to ally themselves with racist figures and organizations. Just last year, US Immigration Reform PAC paid a far-right activist named Peter Gemma more than $7,000 for consulting services. According to the Center for New Community, a Chicago-based civil rights group, Gemma has helped organize numerous Holocaust denial conferences, at which he has spoken alongside the likes of David Duke and fascist author David Irving. Gemma is the former media director for the National Policy Institute, an avowedly white nationalist think tank in Northern Virginia posing as the answer to the question it asks presumably white visitors to its website: “Who speaks for us?”
The preceding paragraph has been corrected, to remove an erroneous statement in the original version, posted November 4, that Peter Gemma had met with neo-Nazi leader Bill White.
By introducing the anti-immigrant movement’s extremist agenda into a high-profile statewide race in barely warmed-over form, Kilgore has not only added an expedient wedge issue to his arsenal; he has sought to neutralize the criticism other pro-business Republicans have earned from the right for embracing the immigration-friendly policies that insure their corporate donors a steady pool of cheap labor. Kilgore has attempted this political high-wire act by homing his attacks on state-funded forms of assistance to undocumented immigrants, such as a public day laborer center in northern Virginia. He has studiously shied away from criticizing the corporations that lure the bulk of illegal labor to Virginia, however, reflecting a central contradiction of his candidacy.
Kilgore’s donation from US Immigration Reform PAC is dwarfed by those he has received from companies that habitually prey on the state’s ever-increasing population of undocumented laborers. One of them, Smithfield Foods, has stuffed Kilgore’s campaign coffers with $36,000. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers’s Justice@Smithfield, “Smithfield Packing [a subsidiary] has created an environment of intimidation, racial tension, fear and sometimes, violence, for workers who desperately want a voice on the job.” In 2000 Judge John H. West ruled that Smithfield committed thirty-six labor violations during a union-busting campaign in the 1990s, which included threatening to report Latino workers to the Immigration and Naturalization Services if they joined union ranks.
While McDonnell has echoed Kilgore’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, pledging among other things to block undocumented immigrants from receiving driver’s licenses, he is better known as Taliban Bob, a nickname his critics gave him for his reactionary stance on social issues. A graduate of Pat Robertson’s Regent University who owes his election to the Virginia House of Delegates to the support of Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition, McDonnell tried to block a judge from appointment in 2003 for allegedly being a lesbian. That same year, when a reporter asked McDonnell if he had ever committed sodomy, he refused to give an unequivocal answer, replying, “Not that I can recall.”
Though like Kilgore, McDonnell has taken contributions from controversial donors like Smithfield Packing, which donated more than $100,000 to his campaign, many of his corporate contributors have opted to remain anonymous. Thanks to a slush fund set up by the Republican State Leadership Committee, a tax-exempt 527 organization, McDonnell has taken in nearly $1 million from donors he won’t have to identify until after the November 8 election. While the Virginia Democratic Party has filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections, the Deeds campaign accuses McDonnell of using the fund to conceal donations from the gambling industry. They have yet to offer proof, but the accusation hints at McDonnell’s proximity to gambling interests.
Two of McDonnell’s top consultants and his former campaign manager used a Virginia-based Christian-right organization, the Faith and Family Alliance, to launder casino lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s money. The Alliance was founded by two former business partners of Ralph Reed, Tim Phillips and Phil Cox, and was directed by Robin Vanderwall. In 2000, Vanderwall was instructed by Reed to deposit a $150,000 check sent by conservative antitax activist Grover Norquist, then write a new check for the same amount and send it back to Reed’s consulting firm, Century Strategies. Both Norquist and Reed were being paid by Abramoff to lobby against a congressional antigambling bill on behalf of his client, e-Lottery.
“I was operating as a shell,” Vanderwall told the Washington Post of his role in Abramoff’s operation. “I regret having anything to do with it.”
Vanderwall is a longtime associate of McDonnell. They attended Regent University together, and in 1999 Vanderwall managed McDonnell’s campaign for Virginia’s House of Delegates. Today, while McDonnell campaigns for draconian penalties against sex offenders, Vanderwall serves a seven-year sentence in state prison for soliciting sex with a 13-year-old boy who turned out to be an undercover cop.
Phillips and Cox, meanwhile, have been hired as consultants by the McDonnell campaign to the tune of nearly $2 million. McDonnell has also tapped American Marketing and Publishing Company, a subsidiary of Reed’s Century Strategies, paying the company $355,716 for its services.
So far, McDonnell has managed to sidestep questions about his revival of this Abramoff-oiled machinery for his campaign. Asked by a reporter if he knows who the anonymous donors to his slush fund are, McDonnell responded with a slight variation of his reply to the 2003 question about his sexual history: He claimed he didn’t know.
While McDonnell and Kilgore stake their candidacies on wedge issues, the people and groups operating in their shadows remain unexamined, allowing them to operate on separate tracks: one overt, the other covert. Thus, each tough-on-crime commercial serves to conceal the sleazy lobbyists and front groups who financed it. Like their corruption-laden counterparts across the Potomac River, the Republicans at the top of Virginia’s ticket cannot and do not acknowledge the real nature of their campaigns.