Former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder accused Vice President Kamala Harris of illegally campaigning for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe by having churches play a video endorsement asking attendees for their support.
Mr. Wilder, who is the only Black governor in Virginia’s history, joins the chorus of critics who raised ethical and legal questions about Ms. Harris’ video.
“Well, it’s very good for her to do that, causing these churches to lose their tax-exempt status,” Mr. Wilder told the Washington Examiner. “If this is legal, then it’s surprising to me.”
Legal scholars agree with Mr. Wilder, saying the video runs afoul of the Johnson Amendment in the tax code that forbids nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
“The problem is the ‘Johnson Amendment’ makes such political pitches in churches a violation of federal law,” said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University.
Mr. McAuliffe is in a neck-and-neck race with Republican Glenn Youngkin in recent polls. Black voter turnout will be crucial for Mr. McAuliffe.
Ms. Harris appears in a roughly two-and-a-half minute video message set to play at more than 300 Black churches across Virginia in the run-up to the Nov. 2 election, telling the congregations that they need to go out and cast their votes, praising Mr. McAuliffe’s record.
“I believe that my friend Terry McAuliffe is the leader Virginia needs at this moment,” she says in the video.
Mr. Wilder has been critical of Mr. McAuliffe’s candidacy since he announced his intentions to run again for Virginia’s governor in December.
The 90-year-old former governor accused Mr. McAuliffe of blocking the chances for candidates of color to seek the seat, adding that he will need to secure Black voters to be victorious in the deadlocked race.
“In Virginia, the Democratic candidate has to have a strong turnout of Black Americans,” Mr. Wilder said. “If [McAuliffe] doesn’t get that, you’re going to see some problems.”
Ms. Harris, who stumped for Mr. McAuliffe in Dumfries on Thursday, is hoping to boost turnout among Black voters.
“In 2020, more Virginians voted than ever before. And because you did, you helped send President Joe Biden and me to the White House,” Ms. Harris says in the video. “This year, I know that you will send Terry McAuliffe back to Richmond.”
The vice president encouraged congregants to cast their ballots after their church service, noting that Virginians can vote on Sundays. Early voting in the state started in mid-September.
“Please, vote after today’s service,” Ms. Harris said. “And if you cannot vote today, make a plan to go vote.”
A spokesperson for Ms. Harris directed The Washington Times to Mr. McAuliffe’s campaign for comment about the potential legal issue, but the request for a response went unanswered.
The churches would face penalties, not the White House or the McAuliffe campaign, for airing the video The penalty would involve the loss of tax-exempt status for the churches.
“I think this is illegal,” said Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law. “The only way I think this works is if the churches [also] give a promotion for the Republican candidate.”
The Biden administration also recently came under scrutiny for potentially violating the Hatch Act, a law that bans officials from engaging in political activities while working under their titles.
Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, touted Mr. McAuliffe from the White House podium during a press briefing.
“I think the president, of course, wants former Gov. McAuliffe to be the future governor of Virginia,” she said. “We’re going to do everything we can to help former Gov. McAuliffe, and we believe in the agenda he’s representing.”
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a left-of-center watchdog group, filed a complaint about her comments.
Mr. McAuliffe, who served one term as Virginia governor from 2014 to 2018, is having former President Barack Obama and failed Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, turned voting rights activist, campaign for him in the state ahead of election day next month.