On Tuesday night, an Islamophobic debate question posed to a Muslim
candidate in Virginia
sparked outrage and condemnation.
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 in the Democratic primary
for lieutenant governor
during the only televised debate of the Democratic primary.
“The Washington Post
reported your fundraising effort is ‘category leading,’ due to some out-of-state donors connected to Muslim advocacy groups; there’s nothing wrong with that, but that was the case,” Lucas said. “Can you talk a little bit about your fundraising efforts, and can you assure Virginians you’ll represent all of them regardless of faith and beliefs?” Lucas asked.
“I’m proud to have a campaign that is entirely funded by individuals, with the majority of contributors hailing from Virginia,” Rasoul replied, dismissing the notion that anyone would question his principles because of his faith.
He then shifted his focus to his support for campaign finance
reform and his opposition to corruption, two major themes of his stump speech and his legislative career.
“As your next lieutenant governor, you can count on me to cast the deciding tie-breaking vote to ensure that the interests of the people
are prioritized over any other special interest,” he said.
Following the debate, Rasoul tweeted a photo of Virginia's religious freedom statute, which was adopted by the state legislature in 1786 and is the only document that hangs on the wall of the House
of Delegates in Richmond.
“American religious freedom began with the Statute For Religious Freedom in part because of Anglican persecution of Baptists,” Rasoul wrote in a tweet. “We serve all people. Of all faiths. We welcome and love you as you are.”
Rasoul’s top two donors, according to the article, 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 is a board member of the Council of American-Islamic Relations’ Washington chapter.
Nothing in the Post article suggested 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, two-thirds of the donations to gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe (D) and Ken Cuccinelli (R) came from people living in other states in 2013.
Rasoul, if elected, will be Virginia's first Muslim lieutenant governor and the country's highest-ranking Palestinian
American state elected official.
According to the state party, the Democratic Party
of Virginia chose WJLA to host the debate because it was one of the few stations capable of hosting an in-person event in accordance with COVID-19 public health
guidelines. According to the state party, every candidate signed off on the broadcaster serving as host, and none of the questions were made available to the party beforehand.
WJLA is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Company, the largest owner of local television
stations, and has drawn criticism for its one-sided conservative commentary and editorial slant.
Stardia sought comment from Lucas and Cheryl Carson, WJLA's news
director, but did not receive a response right away.
No other faith practitioners face similar questions about their loyalty to constituents, as a number of Virginia Democrats
, including Rasoul's opponents, noted in their condemnations of the question.
“We don’t ask about Christian donors, Jewish donors, etc. It’s fine to look at donor funding, but making it faith-based is discriminatory and inexcusable,” said Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, in a tweet. “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 president of the United States
. 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 rejecting the notion that he would be the first Catholic president of the United States.
“I am not the Catholic candidate for president; I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens to be a Catholic,” Kennedy said. “I do not speak for my church on public issues, and the church does not speak for me.”
Rasoul, who grew up helping his Palestinian immigrant parents run a corner store in Roanoke, also avoids mentioning his ethnicity on the campaign trail.
Rasoul is instead running on the economic populism that has defined his legislative career since 2014. He has taken sometimes-lonely stands against Dominion Energy
, Virginia's most powerful electric utility monopoly, and promises to use his position as lieutenant governor to advance an "intersectional" Green
for the state.
Rasoul is a favorite of progressive activist groups such as the Sunrise Movement and Sen. Elizabeth Warren
(D-Mass. ), whom he endorsed for president in 2020, but he also has the support of The Washington Post editorial board, which endorsed him and praised his "guts."
The lieutenant governor role, in addition to presiding over the state Senate
and breaking any tie votes
, has historically been a springboard for higher office in Virginia, so there is stiff competition in the race. Rasoul's most formidable opponent is Del. Hala Ayala, who has the support of much of the state's Democratic establishment, including current Gov. Ralph Northam.
Rasoul, on the other hand, has the advantage in fundraising and led the field in a late April
Rasoul and Ayala will face state Del. Mark Levine, civil rights
activist and attorney Sean Perryman, Norfolk City Councilwoman Andria McClellan, and businessman Xavier Warren.
The Democratic primary in Virginia will be held on June 8; the winner will face the Republican
nominee in the general election
on November 2.