A group of about 75 protesters pushed back against Corey Stewart’s controversial campaign rhetoric Thursday by taking aim at one of the gubernatorial hopeful’s top political donors: the Potomac Nationals.
The group gathered outside Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge at about 6 p.m. April 13, just as fans were arriving for the team’s home opener against the Wilmington Blue Rocks.
Carrying signs with messages such as “P-Nats drop Corey, drop the hate!” and “Corey, stop pretending your racism is patriotism,” the group chanted “Don’t pay for hate!” as fans trickled toward the gates. But opening-day baseball was implicated only indirectly in the protest.
The recently formed Coalition to Battle Discrimination's real target was Art Silber, owner of the Class A, Minor League Washington Nationals farm team and a longtime supporter of Stewart’s political career.
Silber has contributed $95,000 to Stewart since 2007 for his campaigns for chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, lieutenant governor and now governor. Most recently, Silber made a $10,000 donation to Stewart’s gubernatorial effort in December 2016.
The protesters included several active members of the local Democratic committee, which has long found reasons to oppose Stewart’s conservative politics.
But Stewart’s recent statements on the campaign trail have given his opponents – and even some in his own party -- fresh reason to recoil from his political rhetoric. Stewart has made defending the Confederate Flag and statues of Civil War generals a cornerstone of his campaign against fellow Republicans Ed Gillespie and state Senator Frank Wager, of Virginia Beach. Last weekend, Stewart attended the “Old South Ball” in Danville, the third and final capitol of the Confederacy, and spoke of protecting the state’s “heritage” in a ballroom festooned with Confederate Flags.
Stewart’s use of “cuckservative,” an insult tied to white supremacists, during an online forum, sparked calls for his resignation from Prince William School Board member Willie Deutsch and criticism from Supervisor Marty Nohe, both Republicans representing the county’s Coles District. Stewart’s pledge during a recent candidate forum to sign a “Virginia version of the HB2 law,” if elected governor, brought fresh condemnation from local advocates for LGBTQ rights.
Coalition organizer Atif Qarni said the group’s goal goes beyond opposing Stewart’s campaign for governor in the upcoming June 13 Republican primary. They’re working to ensure Stewart is not re-elected to Prince William’s highest elected post in 2019.
“It’s his hateful rhetoric in general. It started with immigration, but he’s just getting worse and worse,” Qarni said in an interview before the protest. “We want all his hate speech eliminated because it just stirs the pot and brings up all these emotional things from the past and we want that completely gone.”
Qarni and a handful of other protesters spent six hours before the evening event walking 16 miles from the Manassas Battlefield to Pfitzner Stadium in a show of solidarity with immigrants who endure long journeys to the U.S.
Qarni himself immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan as a child. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps before going to college and becoming a teacher. He now teaches social studies at Beville Middle School in Dale City and says Stewart’s tough talk on illegal immigration, echoing that of President Donald Trump, is affecting his students.
“I’ve had, on multiple occasions, kids talk to me about this in tears, asking, ‘What’s going to happen to me if my parents get deported?’” Qarni said. “It is really, really stressful for my students.”
In an April 3 letter to Potomac Nationals, the coalition asked the team to stop supporting Stewart and to denounce Prince William’s current 287(g) agreement that authorizes sheriff’s deputies at the county jail to detain undocumented immigrants at the request of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
In a statement issued last week, the Potomac Nationals affirmed their commitment to the community but declined to specifically respond to the coalition’s requests.
"Diversity and inclusivity make our team, our organization, and our community better,” the P-Nats’ statement read, in part. “We have a strong history of celebrating and supporting residents as reflected in our many partnerships, sponsorships and volunteer efforts.”
The event drew two counter protesters, a Gainesville woman and her 15-year-old son, who joined the crowd with signs supporting Stewart. "Build a wall. Deport them all," the boy's sign said. They declined to share their full names.
The P-Nats will continue playing at Pfitzner Stadium, which is owned by Prince William County, until at least the end of the 2018 season. The team is in negotiations with Stewart and the rest of the board of supervisors to build a new $31 million, 4,600-seat stadium behind Wegmans at Stonebridge at Potomac Town Center.
Qarni said the protest was not about the new stadium but rather Silber’s support of Stewart’s political ambitions, news of which came as a surprise to some protesters who said they had been loyal fans of the local team.
Ann Cannon, a board member of Equality Prince William, said she enjoys attending both P-Nats and the Washington Nationals games but joined the protest when she found out the team supports Stewart.
“It’s very hard for me” to protest the team, Cannon said. “But it was also very hurtful for me to find out they support Corey Stewart. It will definitely keep me from going to games here.”
Ray McMillan, a resident of Woodbridge, said he joined the protest after hearing about it on social media. McMillian said his wife is an immigrant from El Salvador and has friends and relatives who are undocumented.
“Some of them are afraid,” McMillan said. “They’re good, hard-working people and they’ve been in the country for years.”
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com.