Political conventions, like the one that the Republican Party of Virginia held in Richmond on Saturday, exist for hardcore partisans and speechifying. So it follows that E.W. Jackson, a far-right reverend with a little YouTube cachet, delivered a thundering address on Saturday that won him the party nod for lieutenant governor. “It was something for the history books,” said Raynard Jackson, a D.C.-based Republican consultant and E.W.’s longtime friend. (The two are not related.) “I could describe it to you all night and you would never fully understand.” The speech, on the bullying nature of the federal government, buoyed his supporters through ten hours of balloting—four rounds in all—long after the consultant class of Republicans had tired out and gone home. “When you think about who was left by the time it was late at night, it was the Republican activists who don’t want somebody in the ‘mushy middle,’” said Bob Holsworth, a Republican political consultant in Virginia. “That won the day for him.”
Now Jackson, who won just 5 percent of Republican voters in his primary bid for Senate last year, is essentially the running mate of Ken Cuccinelli, the firebrand attorney general and GOP nominee. A fine match—although Cuccinelli occasionally feints toward the center, they appear to be in sync on their hatred of big government—except that by Monday, Jackson had become listicle fodder. Salon rounded up Jackson’s ten most “deep, crazy thoughts” on subjects like Obama’s shared worldview with the Muslim Brotherhood, while BuzzFeed posted ten nasty things he’s said about gays alone. At his most egregious, Jackson, who is black, has said that homosexuality, through HIV/AIDS, is “killing black men by the thousands,” and that liberal groups supporting gay rights “have done more to kill black folks whom they claim so much to love than the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and slavery and Jim Crow ever did.” He also has said that the Democratic Party has “an agenda worthy of the Antichrist.”
There’s more where that came from. In a promo for a radio show he taped in Boston in the early ‘90s, Jackson bragged that he was broadcasting from the “land of the freebies and the home of the gays—Barney Frank and Gerry Studds country.”1 He has drawn awkward similes between sin and HIV/AIDS, telling a Christian Coalition gathering in 1996 that racism is a “symptom” of sin just as sure as pneumonia is a symptom of AIDS. He has moralized for torture (“As a man of God, I’m not in favor of hurting anybody. But I’m not an idiot. … Waterboarding doesn’t go that far.”) and inveighed, somewhat mystifyingly, against Seinfeld (“This comedy is about a group of amoral, irresponsible—funny, yes—but selfish, self-centered people who think that having masturbation contests is great entertainment.”). Jackson is also as staunchly pro-life as he is anti–single mothers. When Liz Walker, a Boston news anchor, announced her pregnancy in 1987 and sparked a debate over black role models and single motherhood, he was unequivocal in his disdain: “What she’s doing is wrong.”
“This guy just makes me want to take a bath,” said Dave Marsden, a Democratic Virginia state senator. “That he vilifies the opposite party in almost primal terms, that he would refer to people who are gay and lesbian in the terms he refers to them, and still be nominated by a major political party—it just defies belief.” He certainly spells trouble for Cuccinelli, who enjoys an edge against Democrat Terry McAuliffe, but that’s partially because voters know “little” to “nothing” about Cuccinelli and his own far-right social leanings. (In Virginia, the lieutenant governor and governor are voted for separately, rather than as a single ticket.)
And yet, Holsworth said, the GOP now has little choice but to back Jackson—and enthusiastically. If elected, he will have the power to break ties in the even-split Senate, making the stakes of his election very high.2 As Holsworth pointed out, Jackson proved wholly unable to raise much money in his 2012 Senate primary bid, when he didn’t have establishment support. So Cuccinelli on Tuesday held Jackson at arm’s length without denouncing him. “We are not going to be defending our running mates’ statements, now or in the future,” he said.
The GOP is remaining cautiously positive. A spokesperson for the Virginia Republican Party told Politico on Sunday, “The race for lieutenant governor will be fought on economic ground as opposed to social policy.” But while such triangulation away from culture-war minefields may work on behalf of other candidates—yes, Cuccinelli supports fringy notions like a law criminalizing sodomy, but his supporters can still point to his stance on broader policy matters—it may not work for Jackson. We know where he stands on the issue of same-sex love, but he does not appear to have any other conservative bona fides besides his warnings of American anomy.
Until 1982, Jackson was a Democrat, even serving as the deputy state banking commissioner for Democrat Edward J. King, the governor of Massachusetts from 1979–1983. In that role, Jackson was in charge of promoting the Community Reinvestment Act, a 1977 act of Congress that prohibited banks from redlining low-income neighborhoods. It was a job he quit in 1979 because his boss was loath to regulate the industry—King was “soft on banking,” as Jackson put it at the time. Jackson would grow to despise government efforts to pass new laws protecting marginalized groups. He told the Boston Globe in 1997, “Welfare has been a curse on many poor minority people.” Last summer, he explained his opposition to equal pay measures by saying they “add nothing to the dignity and equality of women. In fact, it may make some businesses leery of hiring women for fear of the litigation that may eventually result.” But that does not appear to have been what caused him to embrace the GOP in the early 1980s. According to that same Globe piece, “The Democratic Party’s liberal takes on abortion and homosexuality were the two defining issues that made Jackson look at other liberal Democratic views and eventually switch parties.” Jackson, in other words, may be all dog whistle, and no bone. Even Raynard Jackson concedes that the Virginia pastor is green when it comes to issues beyond gay marriage. “What he’s saying today about traditional marriage and being pro-life, he’s been saying from day one, unlike a lot of Republicans who are famously ‘evolving,’” Jackson said. “His challenge is going to be, he also has to be able to speak to the economy, to education, to job creation and crime. So he has room to grow.”
Jackson has a few things going for him—like a Harvard Law degree he earned in 1978. His life story is inspiring. He spent a latchkey childhood in foster homes until his father, a stern but loving man, took custody of him and raised him into a Marine and high-achieving college student. In the mid-'90s, Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition recruited him to run the Samaritan Project—the group’s well-received effort to distribute $500,000 to poor and minority ministries for youth-oriented assistance programs. And yet, his financial past is checkered. The IRS filed a tax lien against him in the mid-'90s for $8,559, and Virginia court records reveal long-running disputes with a landlord over more than $6,000 in rent. FEC records from 2011 and 2012 show that a PAC Jackson formed to support black conservative candidates, STAND America PAC, spent several thousands more on consulting fees for Jackson—about $17,000—than on mailing and emailing campaigns and donations to other political campaigns. STAND America also appears to have been paying two public-relations staffers for Jackson’s Senate campaign, Natalie Brown and Melody Scalley, in the form of consulting fees—a legal but unseemly activity. On FEC filings, their names are misspelled Natali Brown and Melody Sculley. (A phone call to Jackson’s campaign went unaswered.)
But to what extent will voters in an off-year election care about the dark marks on his record? Larry Sabato, an election forecaster, says that it is the GOP’s hope that Jackson will rev up the conservative base—while not revving up enough Democrats to vote against him. It's a fine line Jackson will have to walk. As his convention speech proved, he knows how to juice an audience. Holsworth, the GOP consultant, recalled moderating a debate during last year's Senate race, in which he asked candidates where they stood on the candidacy of an openly lesbian judge. Jackson replied, “I stand with the Lord,” to thunderous cheers. “He’ll be the craftsman of the most stunning lieutenant governor debate we’ll ever see,” Holsworth said dryly. Raynard Jackson said, “He reminds me a lot of Clarence Thomas. Publicly, both of them have these caricatures that are totally opposite of what they’re like in private settings. He’s not as bombastic when you talk with him one-on-one. He’s got a great sense of humor and he’s very back-slapping.” Even a Mother Jones reporter who trailed Jackson in 1997 found him “open and soft-spoken” and pleasantly self-deprecating.
By his own assessment, E.W. Jackson is “Virginia’s Herman Cain”—someone who will bring outsider energy and diversity to the GOP, while also defending core conservative values. But the Cain comparison has a flip side: The more Republican voters learned about his past and weak grasp of policy, the more ground he lost in the polls. Raynard Jackson warned that his friend has a way with words. “Can he be hyperbolic? Yes. But he can also be electric.” But so can Cain, a fleeting candidate whose main audience today—much like Jackson's, perhaps until last weekend—is on the Internet.
Molly Redden is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.
Studds was the first openly gay member of Congress, and was censured for an affair with an underage page.
The only Virginia Senate election taking place this year is to fill a safe Republican seat, vacated by a Republican.