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Battle over 'Beloved': McAuliffe criticizes Youngkin for ad he calls 'racist dog whistle'

The Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Toni Morrison is at the center of a raging argument in the closing days of the race for governor of Virginia.

One of the great American novels that recounts the horrors of slavery has erupted as a flashpoint in the closing days of Virginia's race for governor, with Democrat Terry McAuliffe and his allies accusing Republican Glenn Youngkin of "racist" campaigning.

A woman who advocated to ban Toni Morrison's "Beloved," a staple of high school English programs, from Virginia schools appeared in a Youngkin ad released Monday.

The woman, Laura Murphy, identified as a mother from Fairfax County, recalls McAuliffe's opposition to legislation she pushed for that would have allowed parents to prevent their children from studying sexually explicit literature — an effort known at the time as the "Beloved Bill."

The book Murphy objected to, which is never mentioned by name in the minutelong spot, was "Beloved," the winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction by Morrison, the late celebrated Black writer who later won the Nobel Prize for literature.

"There's only one thing that is disgusting and gross here, and it's Glenn Youngkin's newest racist dog whistle," Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said Tuesday on a call the Virginia Democratic Party arranged for reporters. "Black Virginians know it when they see it and know it when they hear it."

Youngkin's campaign dismissed the accusations of racism by calling attention to the Black Virginia legislators who voted for the measure, which was included in similar bills in 2016 and 2017. The bills passed with bipartisan support before McAuliffe, in his first term as governor, vetoed them on free speech grounds, saying he was concerned about censoring the teaching of classics deemed offensive.

"Are these Democrats racist?" Youngkin spokesperson Matt Wolking asked in an email.

McAuliffe is seeking to return to the office he held from 2014 through 2018, and polls indicate that the race is tied. Youngkin, a former CEO of the private equity giant Carlyle Group, has made education a central issue in his campaign. Virginia law prohibits governors from serving consecutive terms.

Youngkin has seized on a remark at their last debate, when McAuliffe, defending his vetoes, said he didn't think "parents should be telling schools what they should teach."

In the Youngkin ad released this week, Murphy recalls having worked with Virginia legislators to address her concerns about the book.

"As a parent, it's tough to catch everything," she says. "So when my son showed me his reading assignment, my heart sunk. It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine. I met with lawmakers. They couldn't believe what I was showing them. Their faces turned bright red with embarrassment."

McAuliffe, Murphy says, "doesn't think parents should have a say," adding: "He said that. He shut us out."

"Beloved" centers on a Black woman haunted by the young daughter she killed to spare her a life of enslavement. The book, which was adapted into an Oprah Winfrey film, has been a fixture in high school curriculums, although scenes of rape and bestiality have triggered complaints from activists and parents like Murphy.

Since the ad's debut Monday, McAuliffe and his allies have framed Youngkin's strategy as an effort to ban books by Black writers, although the realities involving the legislation are more nuanced. Democrats also see an opportunity to tie Youngkin's attack to their core argument: that he is a newer version of former President Donald Trump, who used racist rhetoric in his campaigns.

"In the final week of this race, Glenn Youngkin has doubled down on the same divisive culture wars that have fueled his campaign from the very beginning," McAuliffe said in a statement late Monday. "Youngkin's closing message of book banning and silencing esteemed Black authors is a racist dog whistle designed to gin up support from the most extreme elements of his party — mainly his top endorser and surrogate, Donald Trump."

Youngkin hasn't campaigned with Trump, but Democrats — including former President Barack Obama at a rally with McAuliffe last weekend — have criticized him for not doing more to distance himself from Trump's rhetoric. Youngkin has called for auditing voting machines, a pitch that plays into Trump's lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

"People wanting to ban books about slavery and racism, that's who Glenn Youngkin has said he will stand up for if elected. That's who Glenn Youngkin wants to elect him," Louise Lucas, the Democratic president pro tempore of the state Senate, said on Tuesday's call with the state party. "While this kind of rhetoric that has been coming from Glenn Youngkin is disgraceful, it's hardly new."

Lucas, responding to a question from a reporter, also rebuked the Democratic legislators who supported the "Beloved Bill."

"I would hope that they have learned the lesson over time that these are truly attempts to try to silence the voices of Black authors and turn us back to a time when the works and the progress of Black people will not be recognized," she said. "And for those of us who know our history, we're just not going to stand by and let that happen."