John Crane, Danville Register & Bee
Danville officials walked out of a speech by senatorial candidate Corey Stewart in Hampton on Monday morning after he singled out the city for its economic woes.
Stewart was speaking at the Virginia Municipal League conference when he made the statements.
After acknowledging city councilmen and city managers seated on the front row, Stewart mentioned Danville by name and then alluded to small towns across the state that are hurting, with boarded up shops.
“You see closed-down factories, you see where young people have left,” Stewart said in a video provided to the Danville Register & Bee. “What happened in the city of Danville is unacceptable.”
That is when the seven councilmen, city manager and deputy city manager all stood up and walked out of the room. Councilmen Adam Tomer and Fred Shanks were not at the conference.
“We have a lot of wonderful things going on in Danville,” Mayor Alonzo Jones said from the conference Monday morning via telephone. “He didn’t talk about any of that. He didn’t mention anything about the revitalization of downtown or about how the police chief is addressing crime.”
Stewart doubled down on his statements Monday afternoon when contacted by the Register & Bee.
“I understand that officials in Danville are doing the best they can, but it doesn’t do any good to put your head in the sand and ignore the disastrous consequences of unfair trade agreements supported by Sen. Kaine,” he said in a prepared statement. “NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] killed manufacturing in Danville.”
Stewart, a Republican, is running to unseat Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine in the senatorial race. Kaine also spoke at the conference. His campaign, which provided the video to the Register & Bee, declined to comment Monday.
Vogler said the walkout was not planned and called Stewart’s statements “kind of bizarre.”
“He talked about his own county, but the only city he singled out and trashed was Danville,” Vogler said. “He could have just said we went through tough times. He just trashed Danville, left it hanging there and then just moved on. It was very unusual.”
Stewart, in his interview with the Register & Bee, said he anticipated they might walk out.
“I saw it as a political stunt,” he said when asked what he thought when the walkout occurred.
His statements are not a slight against Danville, he said, but are about the city being devastated by the failure of Washington to negotiate a fair free trade agreement.
“The anger should not be directed at the messenger but the politicians who failed to stand up for them,” Stewart said.
City Councilman Sherman Saunders called the walkout “a very proud moment.”
“We are united, we are together,” Saunders said. “This did nothing but make us even more committed to make more progress. I’m proud of our city. I’m just proud of everybody here from Danville. We will defend Danville anywhere at any cost.”
He added that he hoped Stewart would follow up his negative statements with comments about how Danville was “undergoing a renaissance.”
“That’s what I was waiting for, but it never came,” Saunders said.
“We couldn’t take it anymore and just walked out,” Miller said. “He just bashed us again.”
In July, Stewart referenced an article in the conservative online news site Breitbart that characterized Danville as a bleak, boarded-up city with few jobs and high crime, resulting from the creation of NAFTA among the United States, Canada and Mexico in 1994.
He elaborated on those points during a visit to Danville later that month.
City Councilman Campbell pointed to more than $100 million in private and public money invested in the River District, and plans for a river front park as examples of progress in the city.
“It was a complete insult to the city, to the mayor and vice mayor and city council,” Campbell said of Stewart’s statements at the conference. “We all walked out. No one slaps Danville in our face.”