McAuliffe’s plan draws mixed reaction

A Confederate flag flies outside Cedar Creek Mercantile in Middletown as a car passes along Valley Pike on June 23. Rich Cooley/Daily

Reactions from local lawmakers to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s intention to remove the Confederate battle flag from a state license plate were hard to come by Tuesday.

Phone messages left on voice mail or with aides to delegates and state senators representing the area were not returned, except for Del. Mark Berg, R-Winchester, who said he needed some time to research the issue.

“All I can say is his administration has done a number of unlawful and unconstitutional things,” Berg said of McAuliffe, adding that he was unsure whether the governor had the authority to ban the flag by himself.

Berg was unseated in the Republican primary earlier this month, but his opponent, Winchester attorney Christopher Collins, is still months away from taking office.

Nathan Taylor, a campaign spokesman for Collins, said the flag is “a cultural and heritage question” that should remain an option on license plates.

“He obviously is completely against and never should it be used as a symbol of hate, and that is the real question,” Taylor said of Collins. But, Taylor added, the flag remains “a large part” of state history and is viewed by many residents as a symbol of their heritage.

Virginia’s two U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, issued written statements supporting McAuliffe’s action.

Warner said he is “very glad that the governor is removing Confederate flags from Virginia license plates. This divisive emblem doesn’t belong on state-issued plates.”

Kaine said the flag’s use “by public bodies is integrally connected to the celebration of the cause of the Confederacy, which is inimical to American values.”

Kaine cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week allowing Texas to refuse to issue a Confederate flag license plate as rendering “obsolete” earlier court decisions requiring Virginia to offer the flag on its plates.

Jeff Marschner, Comstock’s communications director, said she “agrees with the governor, and she also appreciates the leadership of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott in removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds.”

Phone and email messages left with the office of U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, were not returned.

Data from the state Department of Motor Vehicles show a slow but steady slackening in demand for the Sons of Confederate Veterans vanity plate in recent years. There are 1,594 of the plates in circulation now, compared to 1,638 in 2014; 1,680 in 2013; 1,745 in 2012; 1,796 in 2011 and 1,807 in 2010.

The state’s most popular vanity plate, decorated with a scenic landscape, was issued to 234,800 vehicle owners as of June 30, 2014.

Brandy Brubaker, a spokeswoman for the DMV, said the agency was still sorting through how to execute McAuliffe’s order. Unanswered questions include the exact date when the agency will stop issuing the Sons of Confederate Veterans license plate and whether current license plates with the Confederate flag will have to be returned.

Brubaker said members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans can still order the plates.

“We’re still accepting applications for the license as required by law,” Brubaker said. “However, order fulfillment may be delayed pending adoption of new designs.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is not the only Virginia license plate with a Confederate theme. The state also issues a license plate honoring the memory of Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia was the largest and most successful of the Confederate forces. There were 1,627 active Lee plates as of May 31.

Another state plate salutes The Citadel, a military college in Charleston, South Carolina that once stood around the corner from the church that was the site of last week’s shooting massacre. The school’s first home after its establishment in 1842 was an arsenal built years earlier to protect the white population of the city in the aftermath of a slave revolt. Citadel cadets served intermittently with Confederate forces during the Civil War.

Richard Kleese, the commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter in Strasburg, said he does not have a Confederate flag license plate because he thinks tags are already too expensive in Virginia.

Kleese said he does not consider the flag racist. He also said the state has a right to control what appears on license plates, but doubts that banishing the flag will do much to inhibit its display on vehicles.

“I don’t think it makes anything go away,” Kleese said. “You can still have a bumper sticker or a window sticker.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com