Lieutenant governor nominee E.W. Jackson speaks with supporters at the… (Jill Nance/Associated…)
As midnight approached on the eve of the Republican convention in Virginia, party loyalists were tipping beers and listening to country music at a rollicking fete hosted by Pete Snyder, a front-runner for the nomination for lieutenant governor.
Down the hall at the Marriott in Richmond, a minister also running for Virginia’s second-highest office, E.W. Jackson, was lingering at his own party, where a Bible and a cross were displayed at the entrance. The ballroom was largely empty. If the excitement at Snyder’s gathering suggested momentum, the quiet at Jackson’s spelled a looming return to obscurity.
Twenty-four hours later, after delivering a thunderous speech that seized the convention, Jackson was the Republican nominee and the party’s first black candidate for statewide office since 1988.
Jackson’s improbable rise, one that has astonished Republicans far and wide, is the latest of a number of incarnations, including foster child, Marine, Harvard law school graduate and even Democrat. But the minister who is now GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli II’s running mate has long used his booming voice to endear himself to conservatives.
Still, Jackson’s words — sometimes eloquent, sometimes raw, often impassioned — are causing anxiety for many Republicans as the resurfacing of his past statements about homosexuality and abortion have threatened to disrupt the campaign.
Instead of promoting their new ticket, Republicans have answered for Jackson’s once calling gays “perverted” and “sick” and saying Planned Parenthood has been “far more lethal” to blacks “than the KKK.”
“The Republicans I’m talking to are saying, ‘What the hell are they doing in Virginia?’ ” said Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “Is this, ‘101 ways to lose an election’? You’re coming out of the gate with comments everyone has to explain. You’re wasting a lot of time and energy batting that back when you should be doing other things to get the guy known.”
Although unknown to many Republicans, Jackson in recent years has built a following among the most activist of Virginia’s conservatives, many of whom were delegates at the convention. But Republicans are now concerned, Steele said, that Jackson will turn off the party’s own voters. “You can’t have a situation where Republicans say, ‘You know what? I can’t have this’ and they stay home or vote for the other guy,” he said.
Raynard Jackson, a Republican political consultant who has known Jackson since the 1990s, said the minister’s voice has long been his most potent tool. That was the case at the convention Saturday, when thousands of delegates roared when he shouted: “Get the government off our backs! Off our property! Off our guns!”
But Raynard Jackson also said the minister has to be “more careful in the articulation” of his message. “The message will resonate if he can control his verbiage,” Raynard Jackson said. “The question is: Will he control his verbiage? He has the ability. But will he?”
Over the years, Jackson, 61, has thrust himself into the most divisive of issues, beginning in Boston, where he was a pastor and radio host during the 1980s and ’90s, and later, in Virginia, where he moved in 1998 because “we thought our values would be mainstream.” During the mid-1990s, Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition hired him as a liaison to minority communities.
All these years later, Jackson seems uninterested in moderating himself. He paused between whirlwind campaign stops this week to tell reporters that he doesn’t have “anything to rephrase or apologize for.”
“I say the things I say because I’m a Christian, not because I hate anybody, but because I have religious values that matter to me,” he said. “Attacking me because I hold to those principles is attacking every churchgoing person, every family that’s living a traditional family life, everybody who believes that we all deserve the right to live.”
Married for more than 40 years, Jackson and his wife, Theodora, an elementary school teacher, have raised three children. In a 2011 federal financial disclosure statement, the minister, who travels in a gold Cadillac, reported an income of about $40,000, including $15,772 from his church. He listed “no reportable asset worth more than $1,000.”
On the campaign trail, the minister has captivated audiences with colorful stories of growing up as a “juvenile delinquent” in Chester, Pa., where he was born Earl Walker Jackson to parents who were splitting up. After he spent years with a foster family, Jackson has recalled, his father, a welder, took custody of him and pulled him away from street life.