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Republican Ed Gillespie: A Reagan conservative tries to appeal and prevail in the age of Trump

Republican Ed Gillespie: A Reagan conservative tries to appeal and prevail in the age of Trump


When he was attending Catholic University of America, Ed Gillespie worked three jobs, one in a campus dining hall, one as a short-order cook and one parking cars at the U.S. Senate.

Through the job as a parking lot attendant, Gillespie learned of an internship opportunity that led to a job on Capitol Hill, and he has not stopped working in politics and public affairs since.

Gillespie, communications ace, former lobbyist and senior aide to President George W. Bush, will find out Tuesday if Virginia voters will send a Reagan conservative to the Virginia governor’s mansion in the era of Donald Trump.

Should Gillespie succeed, he would become the first Republican elected statewide in Virginia since Bob McDonnell led his party’s sweep of statewide offices in 2009. He would likely have a GOP-controlled legislature to pass a broad agenda of bills he could sign into law.

“Job creation, getting Virginia growing again, is central to my campaign,” Gillespie said in an interview Thursday. “I truly think we should be first in the country. ... I’ve been talking about this from day one.”

The race between Gillespie and Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam is considered close. Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 5.3 percentage points in Virginia in November, but with lower turnout expected in this year’s governor’s race, Gillespie has given hope to Republicans.

This is Gillespie’s second run for statewide office in Virginia, after narrowly losing to U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., in a low turnout 2014 election.

To position himself to win, Gillespie has run two campaigns simultaneously.

In person and on the stump, there’s the Gillespie who walked a public housing community in Richmond on Thursday, listening to neighborhood activists discuss drug addiction and how to improve quality of life. Gillespie touts his 20 “detailed, substantive” policy plans, including a 10 percent cut in the state income tax, if revenue proves sufficient.

This Gillespie appeared in Loudoun County on Monday at a rally with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., where Rubio talked about how all Americans, at some point in their past, came from somewhere else. The next day, Gillespie brought Halloween candy to children with special needs at a facility near Vienna called Jill’s House.

Outside the Rubio rally, protesters carried signs with pictures of Gillespie calling him “racist.” The protesters criticized the Gillespie that saturated markets with TV ads linking immigrants to violent crime and touting his desire to protect Confederate monuments, which came under heightened scrutiny after the August weekend in Charlottesville when white supremacists infiltrated the city under the pretext of protecting the Robert E. Lee monument, and violence turned deadly.

Gillespie said the press has chosen to highlight those TV ads while paying little attention to others.

“I noticed there’s not been a lot written about the numerous ads that I’ve run on my tax plan. Or the ads that I’m running on education. Or the ads that I’ve run on the lieutenant governor’s attendance, poor attendance record,” he said.

“There’s a mix of messages that resonate with voters, and I cannot control ... which ads the media chooses to write about and which ones they don’t.”

One message in Gillespie’s mix relates to so-called “sanctuary cities.” They are loosely defined, and Virginia doesn’t have any, but the Gillespie campaign has attacked Northam on this issue, saying he wants to help illegal immigrants who commit crimes avoid deportation and remain free.

“I’m focused on issues, and the issues are important and there are very significant differences in policy,” Gillespie said. “When it comes to sanctuary cities, I think the lieutenant governor and I have a difference of opinion; maybe that’s changed over the past 24 hours. But I don’t think we should allow for them. He cast a tie-breaking vote against a ban on them.”

State Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., the GOP Senate majority leader, set up that vote, initially siding with Democrats in order to force Northam to break a tie. Norment then changed his vote so the bill could pass.

The bill, in its final form, said Virginia localities could not adopt any policy that restricted enforcement of federal immigration law. Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed it, saying such an action by a locality is already illegal and that the bill sent a hostile message to immigrant communities.

Democrats have tied Gillespie to his party’s unpopular president, who endorsed Gillespie and attacked Northam on Twitter. And Gillespie’s strategy of trying to earn support from Trump voters while appealing to everyone else has earned him some critiques from friends.

David Ramadan, an outspoken Republican former state legislator from Loudoun, tweeted late last month of Gillespie: “known him for 15+ years & consider him a friend — he is much better than a statues & sanctuary cities focused campaign & I told him so.”

“David is responding to news reports,” Gillespie said. “And I cannot help that the media focused on this ad on statues, which are an issue because the lieutenant governor came out for taking down all of the statues in the commonwealth of Virginia. And a lot of people asked me, ‘Do you agree with him?’ And I don’t agree with him on that. I disagree with him. And my position on statues is that they should remain up.”

In an interview, Ramadan said he considers Gillespie “a shining star of what Republicans should be like” — conservative yet mainstream, a policy expert, someone who has lived the American dream.

But “no gubernatorial campaign in Virginia should be about sanctuary cities and statues. This is not what people care about in Virginia,” he said.

Ramadan said he believes his friend was forced into negative campaigning by consultants and “this political climate that doesn’t cater to reason anymore, or to policy.”

He said Gillespie will be an excellent governor focused on the economy, jobs and education.

“I know him. I know his policies,” Ramadan said.

Should Gillespie win, he would have a state Senate that the GOP controls 21-19 and a state House that’s currently under 66-34 GOP control, although all 100 seats are up for election Nov. 7 and Democrats hope to make gains.

When asked how he would handle legislation on social issues such as a government mandate on which bathrooms people can use, Gillespie said he does not support a state mandate.

“I think I’m going to keep the legislature pretty busy if you look at my policies,” Gillespie said. “Which is in sharp contrast to Lieutenant Governor Northam. He doesn’t really have much policy.”

Gillespie’s policies include a plan to improve Virginia’s ethics laws, including a ban on personal use of campaign funds by state lawmakers, and elimination of state regulations Gillespie believes hurt job creation.

“He is a man always in search of the truth. Always trying to get the right answers,” said Louis Cironi, a Loudoun real estate broker who had not gotten involved in politics until recently and volunteers for Gillespie’s campaign, speedwalking the Leesburg Kiwanis Halloween parade with him on Tuesday.

“He’s a self-made man. That’s what I like. He worked hard.”

Cironi said that in sales, he’s skeptical of people. But not Gillespie.

“To all his success, most people would be cocky. They might even be arrogant. Ed is about as humble of a man that you’ll ever meet.”

Irish roots

Gillespie, 56, lives in the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax County. His father was an Irish Catholic immigrant, and Gillespie grew up in New Jersey, where he and his siblings worked at the family’s J.C. Market, named for their parents, Jack and Conny.

As a teenager, Gillespie spent a summer as the maitre d’ at the Show Place Ice Cream Parlour in Beach Haven, N.J., where he would welcome customers.

Gillespie’s career in Capitol Hill included working as press secretary to Rep. Dick Armey, the Texas Republican who was House majority leader.

Gillespie was a chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia and the Republican National Committee, where he often appeared on TV alongside McAuliffe, who headed the Democratic National Committee.

Gillespie helped craft the GOP’s hugely successful Contract with America, which helped the party flip control of Congress in 1994.

In 1999, he traveled the country with then-U.S. Rep. and now Ohio Gov. John Kasich, as Kasich considered a presidential run.

The next year, he co-founded lobbying firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates with Democratic operative Jack Quinn. The firm’s work for Enron earned Gillespie a nickname from detractors that’s still in use: “Enron Ed.”

Gillespie’s political career included a stint as chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia from December 2006 to June 2007. He served as a counselor to Bush from July 2007 to until Bush left office in January 2009. That year, he was general chairman of McDonnell’s successful campaign for governor.

In 2010, at the Republican State Leadership Committee, Gillespie helped lead a national effort for Republicans to win state legislatures and then redraw congressional district lines in favor of Republicans.

Last year, as a communications consultant with his company Ed Gillespie Strategies in Alexandria, Gillespie’s clients included the conservative Institute for Energy Research and its affiliate American Energy Alliance. He said he gave advice on a carbon tax.

Gillespie and his wife, Cathy — “my closest political adviser” — have three adult children. Gillespie stopped taking clients at his consulting firm this year to run for governor.

Reagan realignment

In his 2006 book “Winning Right,” Gillespie wrote about how he changed from Democrat to Republican in 1984, at age 22, along with his boss, then-U.S. Rep. Andy Ireland of Florida.

“My boss and I personified the Reagan Realignment — a middle-aged Southern conservative and a young northeastern ethnic Catholic who no longer felt comfortable in the party of their heritage,” Gillespie wrote.

Years later, McAuliffe, whom Gillespie now wants to succeed as governor, was a sparring partner on CNN when the two were their parties’ national chairmen, he wrote.

“McAuliffe and I had become like the sheep dog and the coyote in the cartoons. We’d beat the hell out of each other when we were on the clock, but got along fine after we punched out.”

Gillespie also wrote in his book: “Voters mean it when they say they can’t stand ‘negative’ ads, but at the same time they often take more information away from well-done negative ads than the positive ones, and that information affects their vote.”

Reaching out

In Richmond on Thursday, Gillespie arrived at Fairfield Court Elementary School for what his campaign thought would be a tour of the school. But it had not been approved by the school division so no one could go inside.

Gillespie then went on a walking tour of the Fairfield Court public housing community with some neighborhood activists. He had already visited the neighborhood for a community day earlier in the year.

“Those are gunshots,” John Goode, an activist and former heroin addict, told Gillespie as they looked at bullet marks on a side of the Charles and Wanda Gill Center. Goode said later that the center is not used to its full capacity.

“We’ve got to focus on the kids now. We’ve got to get to them in like third grade,” said Gillespie, who told Goode he’d return to the neighborhood as governor.

“The amazing thing is that the Republicans are always reaching out,” Goode said after Gillespie had left. “Monuments don’t matter here. ... We’re trying to get our people up out of this.”

Although many politicians have recently addressed opioid addiction, he said, addiction is an old problem in poor black communities.

Before he left, Gillespie invited Goode to his election night party at a hotel in Short Pump.

“I’m planning on a celebration,” Gillespie said.

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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