An Islamophobic debate question directed at a Muslim candidate in Virginia prompted condemnation and outrage on Tuesday night.
In the only televised debate of the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, WJLA TV anchor Dave Lucas asked state Del. Sam Rasoul (D), Virginia’s first Muslim state lawmaker, to affirm his commitment to serving Virginians of all faiths.
“The Washington Post reported your fundraising effort is ‘category leading,’ because of some out-of-state donors connected to Muslim advocacy groups. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that was the case,” Lucas said. “Talk a little bit about your fundraising efforts and can you assure Virginians you’ll represent all of them regardless of faith and beliefs?”
“I’m proud to have a campaign that’s 100% funded by individuals with the majority of contributors coming from Virginia,” Rasoul replied, ignoring the idea that anyone would question his principles because of his faith.
He then pivoted to emphasizing his support for campaign finance reform and opposition to corruption, two central themes of his stump speech and his career in the state legislature.
“As your next lieutenant governor, you can count on me as a decisive tie-breaking vote to ensure that the interests of the people are represented more than any other special interest,” he said.
After the debate, Rasoul tweeted a photo of Virginia’s statute for religious freedom, which the state legislature adopted in 1786. The text of the statute is the only document hung on the wall of the House of Delegates in Richmond.
“American religious freedom began with the Statute For Religious Freedom in part because of the persecution of Baptists by the Anglicans,” Rasoul wrote in the tweet. “We serve all people. Of all faiths. We welcome you & love you as you are.”
Lucas’ question was referring to a Post story about Rasoul’s fundraising. He’s raised nearly $1.3 million, more than his competitors. According to the article, Rasoul’s top two donors are Manal Fakhoury, a board member of the Council of American-Islamic Relations’ Washington chapter, and Mohannad Malas, a California real estate investor on the board of the Orange County Islamic Foundation. Fakhoury has contributed more than $74,000; Malas has contributed more than $69,000.
Nothing in the Post article indicated that Virginians should be wary of Rasoul because of the financial support his campaign has received from Muslim donors. In fact, it is common for candidates for public office to receive donations from people living in other states. For example, in 2013, two-thirds of the donations to Terry McAuliffe (D) and Ken Cuccinelli (R), the gubernatorial candidates, came from out of state.
If elected, Rasoul would be the first Muslim lieutenant governor in Virginia history and the highest-ranking Palestinian American state elected official in the country.
The Democratic Party of Virginia selected WJLA to host the debate because it was one of the few stations capable of hosting an in-person event in compliance with COVID-19 public health guidelines. Every candidate signed off on the broadcaster serving as host, and none of the questions were made available to the party beforehand, according to the state party.
WJLA is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Company, the largest owner of local TV stations, which has elicited criticism for its one-sided conservative commentary and editorial slant.
HuffPost reached out to Lucas and Cheryl Carson, WJLA’s news director, for comment and did not immediately receive a response.
No other faith practitioners face similar questions about their loyalty to constituents, a fact that a number of Virginia Democrats, including Rasoul’s rivals, pointed out in their condemnations of the question.
“We don’t ask about Christian donors, Jewish donors, etc. Ok to look at donor funding, but making it faith based is discriminatory and inexcusable,” tweeted Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. “Major fail on the part of the moderator and that was personally conveyed to the moderator tonight after the debate.”
Virginia state Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D) compared the question to the skepticism that John F. Kennedy faced before becoming the first Catholic U.S. president. After securing the Democratic presidential nomination, Kennedy delivered a speech to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston in September 1960 affirming his support for the separation of church and state, and rebutting the idea that he would use the presidency to advance a narrow set of Catholic interests.
“Contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic,” Kennedy said. “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”
Likewise, Rasoul, who grew up helping his Palestinian immigrant parents run a corner store in Roanoke, does not often mention his identity on the campaign trail.
Rasoul is instead campaigning on the kind of economic populism that has marked his career in the legislature since 2014. He has taken sometimes-lonely stands against the outsize influence of Dominion Energy, Virginia’s most powerful electric utility monopoly, and promises to use his position as lieutenant governor to advance an “intersectional” Green New Deal for the state.
Rasoul is the favorite of progressive activist groups like the Sunrise Movement and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whom he endorsed for president in 2020. But he also has the backing of The Washington Post editorial board, which endorsed him, praising his “guts.”
In addition to presiding over the state Senate and breaking any tie votes, the lieutenant governor role has historically been a springboard for higher office in Virginia. As a result, there is stiff competition in the race. Rasoul’s most formidable rival is Del. Hala Ayala, who has the backing of much of the state’s Democratic establishment, including current Gov. Ralph Northam.
But Rasoul has a fundraising edge and led the field in a late April poll.
Rasoul and Ayala are also competing against state Del. Mark Levine, attorney and civil rights activist Sean Perryman, Norfolk City Councilwoman Andria McClellan and businessman Xavier Warren.
Virginia’s Democratic primary will take place on June 8. The winner will face off against the state’s Republican nominee in the general election on Nov. 2.
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