In a new ad released Friday, Virginia’s Republican candidate for governor, Ed Gillespie, falsely accuses Democrat Ralph Northam of calling “restoring the rights of unrepentant sex offenders one of his greatest feats.”
The 30-second TV spot focuses on John Bowen, a repeat offender who most recently pleaded guilty to possessing “one of the largest child porn collections ever found in Virginia,” according to the ad. Current Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Northam, his lieutenant governor, restored Bowen’s right to vote last year after he served time for a separate offense but before he was convicted on the porn charge.
The issue of rights restoration for former felons has become a contentious one in the race. Earlier this week, Gillespie hit Northam in a separate 60-second TV ad for granting clemency to ex-felons who had served their time, calling the policy “reckless.”
Friday’s add takes the attack to a new, and dishonest, level.
Northam’s comments, taken out of context in the ad, actually come from a May event in which Northam highlighted the McAuliffe administration’s decision to grant clemency individually to tens of thousands of ex-felons after the state supreme court shot down the governor’s attempt to restore rights to 200,000 people en masse.
“It’s one of our greatest feats, I think, in the last four years — restoring the rights of over 156,000 Virginians,” Northam said, according to a video shared by the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel. “I’ve had so many people come up to me and just say ‘Thank you. Thank you for letting me get back to society. Thank you for letting me have my self esteem back.’ It’s so important.”
Northam was not referring to unrepentant sex offenders when he made the remark.
Gillespie’s campaign has previously claimed that their candidate, like other Virginia Republicans before him who have worked with Democrats to expedite the process, supports the rights of ex-felons to regain their civil rights after they complete their sentences. On Tuesday, campaign digital strategist Eric Wilson referred ThinkProgress to Gillespie’s website, which says the candidate supports “the restoration of rights to those who have paid fully their debts to society and the victims of crime.”
But Wilson also claimed that Bowen was “not law-abiding and should not have had his rights restored.” When Bowen regained his rights, he had not yet been convicted of the second offense. Denying him civil rights would have been a violation of the U.S. justice system’s presumption of innocence. Bowen lost his voting rights for the second time in January, after he plead guilty to the crime.
Virginia has one of the most difficult processes for felons to regain their rights, written into the state constitution after Reconstruction to specifically target African Americans and shut them out of the political process. Today, roughly one in five of the state’s African-American voters is disenfranchised.
Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, told ThinkProgress earlier this week that the winner of November’s gubernatorial race will decide the fate of civil rights for tens of thousands of current and future felons.
“Right now, the state of felony re-enfranchisement lies in the hands of the governor,” she said. “The entire rights restoration process is on the line with this November election.”