By Patrick Wilson
Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed legislation Thursday that would have stopped local governments from removing Confederate monuments.
In a news release about his veto, McAuliffe also said he was directing Molly Ward, the state secretary of natural resources and former mayor of Hampton, to create a work group to study how to balance preserving history "with the legitimate concerns many Virginians have about certain types of monuments and memorials."
McAuliffe's veto could affect Portsmouth, where some City Council members and residents want to remove the Confederate monument from its spot in Olde Towne, calling it a "vestige of racism."
Portsmouth Councilman Mark Whitaker called for the removal in June and said if the monument is to be celebrated, it should be on private property. Mayor Kenny Wright said he supported Whitaker and that he wanted to root out hate.
In response, monument supporters hired a lawyer and sent a warning letter to the city. Attorney Fred Taylor said his clients intend to pursue all available legal remedies.
Whitaker recently called for the city to solicit bids to determine how much it would cost to move the Confederate monument. He did not get the necessary votes and some council members said they wanted to waitand see how the situation played out in court.
McAuliffe's veto statement reads in part:
"There is a legitimate discussion going on in localities across the Commonwealth regarding whether to retain, remove, or alter certain symbols of the Confederacy. These discussions are often difficult and complicated. They are unique to each community's specific history and the specific monument or memorial being discussed. This bill effectively ends these important conversations."
The bill, HB587 by Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin County, passed the House of Delegates 82-16 and the Senate 21-17.
Because of confusion over whether current law forbids localities from removing war memorials erected before 1998, the bill clarified the law by saying localities could not remove war memorials "regardless of when erected."
Debate over Confederate monuments and images intensified last year after Dylann Roof was charged with fatally shooting nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, S.C. Roof had posed for pictures with a Confederate flag and posted a racist manifesto.
McAuliffe, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and others took steps to remove Confederate images.
In Virginia in June, McAuliffe began a recall of Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates that had a flag symbol on them. In South Carolina, Haley called for a Confederate flag to no longer fly outside the state Capitol, and the legislature passed a bill in July to take it down.
Confederate images are present in cities across Virginia including Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy that still honors Confederate commanders on Monument Avenue.
"I really thought the Civil War was over, but I guess this is Virginia," said state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, when the bill was debated Feb. 29. "Localities might have good reason for wanting to remove or change a memorial or monument ... political reasons, social reasons, economic reasons, urban renewal, revitalization of a district."
"The locality should have that authority if they want to."
Sen. Tom Garrett, R-Buckingham County, however, supported the bill. "This is about history. It's about heritage. It's about conflict, and culture, and knowledge and awareness and legacy."
Taking down Confederate memorials would equate to erasing history, he said.
Whitaker, who is leading the effort to remove the Olde Towne monument, in a statement praised the veto as reaffirming the right of localities to determine land use.
And, he said, the veto "demonstrates moral leadership and allows socially conscious leaders to further address symbolic racism while continuing to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice."
(c)2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)