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Virginia’s education culture wars could decide its next governor

Education is roiling the Virginia governor’s race. For some in the commonwealth’s Jewish community, it’s a longstanding issue

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin arrives to a campaign rally at the Nansemond Brewing Station on October 25, 2021 in Suffolk, Virginia. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

In the closing days of a dead-heat race for governor, Virginia is looking less like a blue state than a black-and-blue one. Demographic changes that have altered the makeup — and the politics — of the Old Dominion have touched off emotional, and sometimes violent, battles in America’s culture wars.

Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who once occupied the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, are having to step through minefields on charged issues like critical race theory, parents’ roles in what their children are taught in school, transgender rights and even school calendars. Pocketbook issues have taken a back seat. Much of the divisiveness is being fueled by an increasingly diverse electorate in Northern Virginia that is calling for greater equity, and is coming to define the final days of a race that is being seen as a bellwether for 2022 and even 2024.

“People used to refer to [Northern Virginia] as purple. Then they started referring to it as solidly blue,” said Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “But in reality, there is a significant backlash in Virginia to these changing demographics, which is why you’re seeing these culture wars being instigated as part of the campaigns across the Commonwealth.” 

All of this has come together in the final weeks of the gubernatorial campaign, with Youngkin seizing on a comment by McAuliffe in a recent debate: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe said last month — a sentence that has now been blasted to airwaves all around the state in Youngkin TV ads as an example of McAuliffe’s supposed lack of support for parents. 

“He holds these rallies on education issues out in Loudoun County. It’s like a rock star. Big, enthusiastic turnouts. He’s hit a chord here,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Youngkin’s focus on education draws a contrast with McAuliffe, who “has been running much like a nationalized campaign, bringing in national political figures [like President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama] to campaign for him and trying to tie Glenn Youngkin to Donald Trump,” Rozell added. 

U.S. President Joe Biden (C) campaigns with Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (2nd R) at Virginia Highlands Park on October 26, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia. Also pictured (L-R) are Democratic candidate for Attorney General Mark Herring, Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor Hala Ayala, and Dorothy McAuliffe. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

McAuliffe has opted to make his closing argument about the former president, calling Youngkin an “extremist” and tying his “politics of hate and divisiveness”  to Trump. Trump is reportedly planning a virtual rally for Youngkin on Monday night, although Youngkin said that Trump will not be joining the campaign in person. 

Youngkin, meanwhile, is arguing that he will defend the rights of parents in the face of critical race theory and other policies pushed by progressives. (A recent Youngkin ad featured a Republican activist who had pushed to have Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved removed from the reading list of her son, then a high school senior who went on to intern in the Trump White House.)

In Virginia, like in the rest of the country, Jewish voters are overwhelmingly Democrats. But some recent polls have given McAuliffe only a one-point advantage over Youngkin, a remarkable turn of events for Republicans after Biden defeated Trump in Virginia by 10 points last year. A poll released by Fox News on Thursday showed Youngkin ahead of McAuliffe.

Youngkin’s campaign is hoping that winning independents and converting even a relatively small number of disillusioned suburban parents can catapult him to the governor’s mansion, which has not been occupied by a Republican in eight years.  

“My gut instinct is that the Jewish community continues to be solidly Democratic voters. That’s what every single poll has continued to show. I think it’s important to take that reality check,” said Franklin Siegel. “Having said that, I think that Jewish parents, in many respects, are no different than a lot of other suburban parents. And it seems that Youngkin has had a lot of success with using education as a wedge issue.”  

For Jews in the greater Washington, D.C., area, the center of regional Jewish life has shifted in recent years from Maryland’s Montgomery County to Northern Virginia, and Fairfax County in particular. 

Data from the 2020 Census confirmed that the region is growing, and getting more diverse; Fairfax County is now the second most diverse in the state. Yet the rapidly changing demographics in Northern Virginia have also led to growing pains for the region. In recent months, political tensions around heated national issues like racism, transgender rights and mask mandates have spilled into local conversations around education in the region. 

In exurban Loudoun County, which grew by more than a third between 2010 and 2020, volatile school board meetings about equity efforts have turned violent. Recall efforts against several liberal school board members are underway

Siegel, as a community relations official, has a front-row seat. “This fracture really manifested itself in the [school] calendar fight earlier in this calendar year in 2021.”

In Fairfax County, the JCRC has been pushing the school board to adopt a district calendar that gives students days off for major non-Christian holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid and Diwali. Montgomery County already does this, with a day off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as do Loudoun County and Arlington County in Virginia. Fairfax County has refused to do so. “The interesting phenomenon here is that the Fairfax County School Board are all Democrats,” Franklin Siegel pointed out. 

“A school’s calendars are a function of its values,” Franklin Siegel said. “There is a sense of normalization that comes with recognizing significant minority faith populations within a school system that I think really can’t be underestimated.” 

In May, JCRC was set to recognize Fairfax County school board member Abrar Omeish with an award for her work on the school calendar issue. But the organization rescinded the honor after Omeish accused Israel of apartheid and “desecrating the Holy Land” during the recent violent flare-up with Hamas in Gaza. 

“What I have seen over the last several months are suburban parents being very concerned about a perception that the Democratic Party is increasingly being populated by candidates and elected officials who are perceived to be less responsive to Jewish concerns,” said Franklin Siegel. 

William Kilberg, a retired partner at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher who served as solicitor for the U.S. Department of Labor in the Nixon administration, told Jewish Insider that the recent debate around critical race theory, and a controversial decision to get rid of an entrance exam at the prestigious Thomas Jefferson for Science and Technology in Alexandria to increase diversity at the school, have concerned him. 

“Jews in Virginia like Jews everywhere care about education. They want a merit system,” Kilberg said. “They don’t want a system which is based on somebody else’s notion of equity.” 

Kilberg and his wife, Bobbie, recently hosted a fundraiser for Youngkin that drew 200 people to an outdoor tent, in a rainstorm, at their McLean, Va., home. “People were very excited and came out, so there’s clearly excitement there among moderates. It was an overwhelmingly moderate group.”

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks at a campaign event outside the Prince Edward County Courthouse on October 28, 2021 in Farmville, Virginia. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Jewish Democrats have their own concerns about education, particularly after a Texas school district advised educators to teach “both sides of the Holocaust” to be compliant with an anti-critical race theory bill passed by Republican legislators. 

“The implications of this strategy for education mean that a Texas community now has to teach both sides on the Holocaust. They have to teach that it was good and it was bad,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who grew up in Richmond. “Jewish voters believe that there should be a role for parents in education, but not that there should be a role for white supremacists to write curriculums.” 

Charges of antisemitism have also emerged, both in the education debate and beyond. Julie Perry, a Fairfax County teacher and a Republican candidate for the House of Delegates, said at an Educators for Youngkin event that “to come out and say you’re a teacher on the right is almost as dangerous as … going through Germany in the 1930s and saying, ‘I’m Jewish.’ It’s gotten that bad.” She later apologized for the remark. 

A campaign mailer sent by Harold Pyon, a Republican running against Del. Dan Helmer in Fairfax County, featured a photo of Helmer with a photoshopped nose staring at piles of gold coins. “Republicans, like my opponent Harold Pyon, other candidates for the House of Delegates and Glenn Youngkin have leaned into using antisemitic stereotypes and tropes,” Helmer told JI. 

The JCRC called the flyer “​​yet another incident of campaign-related antisemitism in Virginia.” In June, the Youngkin campaign released a plan to combat antisemitism. 

For Cookie Hymer Blitz, a Democratic activist who has served on the boards of organizations including Jewish Federations of North America and the Washington JCRC, abortion is a bigger issue for her than education in this election. But the actions of some parents have concerned her. 

“I live in Fairfax County, not far from Loudoun County,” Hymer Blitz said. “Loudoun County has been the site of board meetings where school board members have been threatened. The police have had to be called. It’s really disturbing to make that a partisan issue to me.” 

Still, she senses that Youngkin is swaying some voters in her neighborhood. “What I can tell you I see, since [McAuliffe’s] comment [about parents] is sort of going viral with those commercials, which apparently are playing every 10 seconds, I have seen more signs for him in my area than I did before,” Hymer Blitz observed.

Other Jewish voters told JI that bread-and-butter issues like the economy — a relatively strong suit for both candidates, although they take different approaches — are bringing them to the polls. 

“I think McAuliffe’s position on economic development has always been really stellar. That is where he’s really shined,” said Jody Wagner, a Democrat who served as state treasurer of Virginia in the early 2000s and last year mounted a failed run for mayor of Virginia Beach. 

Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe greets supporters as he arrives to speak at Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Democratic Party headquarters during a campaign event October 28, 2021 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Wagner expressed concern that a Republican governor would roll back abortion access and LGBTQ rights, which she asserts have been good for the state’s business climate. 

“We’ve really made a lot of progress moving forward. It’s been great for economic development,” Wagner said. “Unlike North Carolina, where you had this rollback in freedom and liberty [for] LGBT [people], Virginia has gone the other direction. And it’s paid off. Virginia was listed as the best state to do business in.”

Jeffrey Brooke, a Republican-leaning attorney in Norfolk, is voting for Youngkin after spurning Trump in 2016 and 2020. He cited Youngkin’s support for existing right-to-work laws that limit the power of labor unions, while McAuliffe has expressed a desire to repeal the policy. “I think that would probably knock us out of contention as one of the better places to do business,” he argued. 

Brooke, whose children attend Jewish day school, is not swayed by Youngkin’s comments on education. “I think Youngkin has been unfair to McAuliffe about that one comment at the debate. I’m sure that he doesn’t want schools to be places where parents’ opinions don’t matter,” he noted. 

In a toss-up race, turnout is key, and Republicans have the advantage, some observers say. “I think that the idea of being close has really energized Republican voters in Virginia, and that’s why you see the Republican enthusiasm advantage,” said Quentin Kidd, dean of the College of Social Sciences at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. 

A poll released by his university this week found that 80% of Republican likely voters are “very enthusiastic,” compared to just 65% of Democrats. “Democrats are shell-shocked in some ways. Like, ‘Wait, we’ve been winning by eight or 10 points, what’s going on?’” Nearly a million people have voted early already, and early voting benefited Democrats in Virginia last year — although it is hard to make a comparison due to the influence of COVID-19 last year, and the fact that Virginia has expanded early voting dramatically since the 2017 gubernatorial race.  

Jewish voters agree that the state’s 150,000 Jews (out of a total population of 8.5 million) probably won’t decide the election. “I don’t think either party has energized the Jewish vote,” said Art Sandler, a Norfolk native who works in real estate and has been active with AIPAC. He has voted for politicians of both parties, but is supporting McAuliffe in Virginia. 

Yet in a race that has been within the margin of error for months, every vote — and every Jewish vote — will count.