Democrat Terry McAuliffe brazenly inserted himself into the sensitive debate over Virginia’s heritage, condemning the flying of a Confederate flag and renewing a cultural debate that has ensnared governors of both parties for decades.
Responding to a Virginia group’s raising of a 15-by-15-foot banner of the Stars and Bars at a site off Interstate 95 near Richmond over the weekend, Mr. McAuliffe issued a blistering condemnation of the divisive Civil War-era symbol.
“This is not representative of the values that we as a Commonwealth hold dear,” he said.
The forceful denunciation is at odds with recent Virginia administrations that typically have attempted to balance the pride among some residents in their Confederate heritage with the solemn acknowledgment of the state’s history of slavery.
“While we can’t force this group to take down the flag flying over I-95, we can join together as a community to express our displeasure and commitment to fighting for justice and tolerance,” said Mr. McAuliffe. He encouraged everyone to “take a moment and fly an American flag to show the world the true spirit of Virginia.”
The comments were similar in nature to a statement issued three days earlier by Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones. Mr. Jones, a Democrat, said he’s not looking to re-fight old battles and is not interested in symbols that divide Richmond.
“I’m interested in promoting symbols that unite people and would rather rally around the American flag than one that divides so many in our city,” he said. “I encourage all Richmonders to do the same.”
Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, said it’s politically safe for Mr. McAuliffe to condemn the Confederate flag because the state has changed so much — demographically, culturally and politically — in recent decades.
“It would have been a much different story 25 years ago than it is today,” Mr. Rozell said. “But he may help mobilize some of his base that understands the flag is a powerful symbol and, for some of them, something they deeply detest.”
The flap started with a group called the Virginia Flaggers, which organized in 2011 and insists it is about reclaiming a Southern symbol that more recently has been associated with racism and intolerance.
The campaign of Republican Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, who is running against Mr. McAuliffe, declined Wednesday to comment on the issue.
A spokesman for Gov. Bob McDonnell said in response to the incident that the Republican “believes in a diverse, modern and welcoming commonwealth” and noted that Virginia recently had been named the best state for business by a national magazine.
“That’s the Virginia the world sees,” said J. Tucker Martin. “The actions taken by a particular group on private property shouldn’t be interpreted as an endorsement by the locality, the state, citizens or businesses.”
Confederate history was the source of one of Mr. McDonnell’s first stumbles in office in 2010 after he revived the dormant tradition of naming April Confederate History Month. But he took blistering criticism for omitting any mention of slavery in his proclamation. He apologized, amended the statement to condemn slavery as “an evil and inhumane practice,” and later said that the omission “was an error of haste and not of heart.”
In 2011, he issued a lengthy, inclusive proclamation dubbed Civil War History in Virginia Month. Mr. McDonnell that year was roundly praised for his address marking 150 years since the Civil War — a speech that commemorated Union and Confederate soldiers while condemning slavery as an “evil and inhumane” institution.
But the handling of the state’s heritage has proved thorny for Virginia governors for decades.
L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first black elected governor, in 1990 ordered a Virginia Air National Guard squadron to stop using an emblem that for 45 years had featured a Confederate battle flag. A poll taken the next month said the Democrat’s approval rating dropped 7 points, in large part because of the flap.
George Allen, a Republican, embraced Virginia’s Confederate heritage in his youth but decided to remove a Confederate flag from his log cabin office in 1993 after word of it spread during his successful gubernatorial campaign. A civil rights groups later criticized Mr. Allen for issuing Confederate History Month proclamations while he was governor of Virginia.
Former Gov. James S. Gilmore III walked a finer line but seemed to leave all sides grumbling. He proclaimed April Confederate History Month three of his four years in office but added a condemnation of slavery. In 2000, Mr. Gilmore replaced the proclamation with one commemorating both sides of the Civil War after threats of an economic boycott.
Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, declined to recognize April as Confederate History month as governor but won grudging respect from heritage groups in the process. Mr. Warner is now a U.S. senator.
“The Governor was honest and up-front with us,” Henry E. Kidd of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said in a statement at the time. “We impressed him as honest Virginia citizens who want to take back our heritage from hate racist groups who have dishonored our beloved flags and symbols and used them for their own political agendas. If we gained nothing else, we did gain his respect.”
In 2007, Gov. Tim Kaine marshalled the imagery of the state’s Confederate heritage and gave President Obama’s nascent candidacy a shot in the arm by becoming the first sitting governor outside Mr. Obama’s home state of Illinois to endorse him.
“Here we are in the heart of what was the Confederacy,” Mr. Obama said in front of the Executive Mansion in February 2007. “For me to be able to stand here as an African-American reflects the enormous progress this country has made.”