Kellen Squire says he wants to “set the record straight” after his challenger in the Democratic primary made much of online comments Squire made in 2017 identifying himself as “fervently and unashamedly pro-life.”
Now a candidate in the Democratic primary for the House of Delegates’ 55th District, Squire said on Wednesday that writing those words online years ago — when he was a running for office as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district — was “a mistake.”
“I was trying to get people who would consider themselves pro-life to vote for a pro-choice Democrat,” he told The Daily Progress. “Obviously, it didn’t hit the mark and I got in a bunch of trouble for doing it.”
Squire has provided a number of explanations since his 2017 remarks were published in The Daily Progress last month, previously chalking it up to “poor framing” while also claiming it was a “Democratic counter operations” strategy he was trying to deploy.
Now, Squire is more blunt: It was political miscalculation.
“It’s a mistake that I made and I can either try and excuse it away or I can be like, ‘Nope, that’s my mistake that I made.’ And I can take it and move forward, because that’s the only way that you learn,” he said Wednesday after a press conference at Northside Library just north of Charlottesville to address “dishonest attacks being levied against his campaign.”
Sara Ratcliffe, a Democratic candidate for the House of Delegates’ 62nd District, attended the press conference to stand by Squire. The embattled candidate made “a rookie mistake,” she told The Daily Progress.
“He was not a politician, and his messaging was very confusing,” she said. “I think it backfired and people got confused.”
Squire’s rival in the race has used his past remarks against him. In mailers sent to voters and in statements online, Laufer has questioned his commitment to reproductive rights.
The spat between the two Democrats has attracted the attention of local and state leaders and even national lobbying groups.
One state Democratic Party insider, who asked not to be named, went so far as to call the race a “s—tshow.”
The political food fight began when Laufer, a former Charlottesville School Board member, sent out mailers over Memorial Day weekend, quoting Squire’s 2017 writing and claiming, “Kellen Squire’s own words show you can’t trust him to protect reproductive rights.”
Emily’s List, a political action committee that supports Democratic pro-abortion women in elections around the country and has allied itself with Laufer, told The Daily Progress that Squire “has proven he is willing to flip-flop on women’s fundamental freedoms.”
Roughly 30 supporters attended Squire’s press conference at the Northside Library, where he was flanked by local officials including Charlottesville City Council members Michael Payne and Brian Pinkston.
“Last week the Laufer campaign used false and misleading campaign literature,” Pinkston said, reading a statement signed by himself and those sticking by Squire. “We are sad that a Democrat would attack a colleague in this way.”
Laufer’s campaign has been unmoved by the explanations provided by Squire and his surrogates.
“Voters deserve to know that Kellen said in his 2017 race he was unashamedly pro-life,” the campaign said in a statement to The Daily Progress on Wednesday. “There is no context that makes those words acceptable.”
While Pinkston and Payne are defending Squire, their fellow City Council member Leah Puryear is not.
“His explanation about his past stances defies believability,” Puryear said in a statement sent to The Daily Progress. “He either was lying then or he’s lying now. Either way, voters need to be able to trust their representatives to be honest with them.”
Squire said the criticism is rehashing a conversation he had with pro-abortion groups in 2017, when he was confronted by Planned Parenthood and others pro-abortion groups about his online remarks.
“They grilled me pretty hard in 2017,” he said.
Squire claimed that, after a difficult discussion, Planned Parenthood stood behind his 2017 candidacy because he “owned up to” his comments and they knew him as a “fierce protector of choice and abortion access.”
“I said, ‘I didn’t do it the way I should have. I thought I was the smartest person in the room and I’d be the one to finally turn the table on this,’” he recalled, alluding to his attempt to persuade Republicans to vote for a Democrat in his 2017 race.
The controversy over the resurfaced comments has become a focal point of the primary, and Squire believes it is sucking oxygen away from issues that matter to Democratic voters.
“We need to fight for our values, not against each other,” he told supporters Wednesday.
If elected, Squire, who is an emergency room nurse who has provided abortion services himself, said he wants to codify abortion rights into the Virginia constitution and prevent health care providers from being criminally targeted for performing abortions.
“Virginia isn’t a place to not just protect our people, but we have to protect tens of millions across the south. They’re counting on us to hold the line on abortion access,” he said.
Just how damaging the infighting will be for either Squire or Laufer remains unclear. Voters will have a final say when they hit the ballot box on June 20.