Politics

Charlottesville voters saw a chance to make a statement

Supporters of Democrat Leslie Cockburn reacted as early results came in at a Charlottesville, Va., pub during Tuesday’s election. Republican Denver Riggleman won.
Zack Wajsgras/AP
Supporters of Democrat Leslie Cockburn reacted as early results came in at a Charlottesville, Va., pub during Tuesday’s election. Republican Denver Riggleman won.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Tonia Hugus, 69, threw up her arms under the purplish lights of an election night party at a brewery here.

On first glance it was hard to know why.

Leslie Cockburn, the Democratic House candidate Hugus supported, had lost by 6.5 percentage points. President Trump had shored up the Republican majority in the Senate. But there was a bright spot.

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“I’m so happy we got the House,” Hugus said.

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Hugus became more politically active after white nationalists unleashed open racism, grief, and fear in her city two summers ago. Since then, Charlottesville has become shorthand in American parlance for violence, for the nation’s racial divide, and for the president’s tendency to divide — rather than soothe — with his words.

So, after a campaign season that concluded with more dark rhetoric from the president, the midterms held a particular resonance for some residents of a city who had watched an all-too-real incarnation of hatred and fear spill into its streets.

Voting here surged over the last midterms, and residents watched as Trump’s fear-mongering closing message helped repulse enough voters around the country to deliver the House back to Democratic hands, even if their own anger was not enough to wrest the sprawling Fifth District from Republican control.

“A midterm is not going to solve all of the racial tension and the problems that we have, the deep-seated issues in America,” said Lakisha Mozie, 35, a corporate administrator, the morning after she brought her daughter to watch as she voted for all Democrats.

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But, she added, “We needed the midterms, we need something, some kind of gratification to say this is worth the fight, keep going, keep pushing, keep fighting against evil and racism and all the things that are tearing our country apart right now.”

It was nearly 15 months ago that a group of white supremacists descended on this town of 50,000 where local officials had voted to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. (The City Council later voted to remove a statue of General Stonewall Jackson.)

The rallies turned violent and ultimately resulted in the death of Heather Heyer when a car, allegedly driven by a man who prosecutors said had expressed white supremacist views during the rally, rammed into a group of antiracist counterprotesters. Days later, Trump further stoked the country’s racial divide when he declared there were “very fine people on both sides.”

It changed the city, home of the University of Virginia, and the lives of people here, though there is much that looks like it did before the rally on Aug. 12, 2017. This week, the picturesque downtown mall, where tourists and residents dine al fresco in the warmer months, was dotted with fallen leaves. The Lee statue is still standing, since efforts to remove it have been tied up in lawsuits, and it is ringed with orange fencing.

But the street where Heyer died has been named after her, and, this week, there were fresh flowers in hues of cream and purple marking the spot where she was killed. The brick walls around it are covered in chalked messages urging kindness and an end to hate, but some of the messages had political overtones. “Remember in November,” read one note, in blue and purple chalk. “Love trumps hate,” said another.

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“I cross that section weekly,” said Pronta Anderson, 47, a beautician who lives in Charlottesville, after she voted for Democrats on Tuesday. “I’m crossing over where someone actually lost their life due to hatred.”

The rally has changed people’s lives in ways large and small. Hugus said she calls out her friends when she hears them making racist comments. She said that she makes a point now of telling more people she’s Puerto Rican, when in the past she didn’t tend to mention it.

Mozie, who was at the rally that day, said she was determined to vote. “The car, it almost hit us. Just to be in the middle of that. To feel the hatred. It’s one thing to know that exists, it’s quite another to see that it does,” she said.

Since the rally, a great deal of political activism has unfolded locally, and outside of traditional Democratic politics. The City Council elected a new mayor, Nikuyah Walker, an independent and local activist whose campaign slogan was “unmasking the illusion,” and who has made the city’s racial disparities in housing, education, and income a major focus of her efforts. City Council meetings have become deeply tense.

“Our city has literally awakened,” said Wes Bellamy, the vice mayor. “That’s been difficult for some. Not everybody wanted us to wake up. Some people wanted us to be quiet and quaint.”

Still, residents saw their midterm votes as opportunities to send a message to a president whose rhetoric they believed, in recent weeks, to be just as divisive as it had been in the days after white supremacists came to their city.

Trump released a national closing TV ad that featured an undocumented immigrant who killed several law enforcement officers. Many networks refused to air it, saying it was racist. The president also derided a black gubernatorial candidate as unfit for the job.

“If we can win, if we can change the numbers in Congress, that would be a clear message that he doesn’t understand people,” said Felice Key, a special education instructional assistant who attended Cockburn’s election night party.

The city saw a surge in voters. In Charlottesville, more than 20,000 people cast ballots in the Fifth District contest on Tuesday. That’s twice as many as were cast in the city in the same contest in the 2014 midterms.

David Toscano, a former mayor of Charlottesville who is now the minority leader in the House of Delegates, ascribed the voting uptick to the lingering anger in this Democratic stronghold about the Unite the Right Rally and the president’s response.

“People here who had to go through what we went through on Aug. 11 and 12, and then be subjected to his continuous racially insensitive and incendiary comments, got people very upset,” Toscano said, referring to weekend of the rally. “That’s activated people to come out to the polls.”

Some wanted to keep litigating the issue at the heart of the white nationalist rally.

“If you try to erase your history, you will repeat it. I don’t agree with the way we are trying to erase our history and forget the past,” said Wade Robinson, a Republican from Harrisonburg, Va., who was at a party for the Republican House candidate, Denver Riggleman, about 25 minutes way in Afton, Va.

The violent rally has been cast in racial terms, but the anti-Semitism on display deeply affected Jews living in the area.

As she handed out Democratic sample ballots to voters outside the polls, Sherry Kraft, 70, a local Democratic activist and the vice chair of the school board, said there are some things Charlottesville residents understand better now.

“Racism. Racism. And anti-Semitism. Our synagogue was threatened. We had Nazis across the street doing ‘Heil Hitler’ and ‘Jews will not replace us.’ I live down there,” Kraft said. The president’s words, both after Charlottesville and in recent weeks on the subject of immigration, had unsettled her further.

“To hear the president encouraging racism the way he does, and not taking responsibility for his words, it makes me sick,” Kraft said. “I hope he is soundly rebuked by the Republicans losing as many seats as possible.”

But by 7:30 the next morning, as she sat in the back room of a coffee shop for a weekly meet-up with her friends, she was not sure he had been. She wished the country’s two star African-American gubernatorial candidates — Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida — had won. (Both candidates were trailing their opponents.)

And Cockburn’s loss to Riggleman, a businessman backed by Trump, stung.

“He’s supporting Trump, and his white supremacist agenda, almost,” said Sheldon Anderson, 70, a Democratic retiree who had joined the morning coffee klatch.

Jess Bidgood can be reached at jess.bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.