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Controversy follows former Duluthian onto national political stage

Duluth native and U.S. senate candidate Corey Stewart said he would run a vicious campaign against democrat Tim Kaine. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

His cheek quivering at a photographer’s direction to smile without showing his teeth, Corey Stewart found it hard to be what he’s not.

“Fake smiles are kind of tough,” said Stewart, who had parked himself in a lunch booth along the Lakewalk last week — a soft rain outside the window.

Stewart was making one of his regular trips back to Duluth to see his mall-walking, social butterfly of a mother and debate politics around the campfire with his siblings and a horde of cousins at a family cabin north of town.

Were it not for President Donald Trump, the 50-year-old Duluth native might rate as the most polarizing figure in U.S. politics. Stewart is an adopted southerner and made his name as a staunch defender of Confederate monuments. He admits he couldn’t take the harsh northern winters. But a study of his history shows he managed to pack a cold, hard edge with him on his way out of town.

“I’ve got a reputation for being brutally honest to the point of being rude,” he said in a near-Tom Brokaw voice. “I don’t really view myself that way, but that’s how I’m portrayed.”

For detractors, Stewart is, well, the devil in cowboy boots. Following the news last week that an undocumented immigrant led authorities to the body of Iowan Mollie Tibbetts, Stewart was among the first to politicize the killing of the young woman — tweeting within hours that he was made sick by the news and punching out multiple tweets under the hashtags “StandWithICE” and “BuildTheWall.”

“If anything, it’s an embarrassment that he’s attached to our community,” said local Democratic-Farmer-Labor activist Justin Perpich of Stewart. “... He represents what’s wrong with the Donald Trump era of politics.”

A Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in the state of Virginia, Stewart is also the chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors just outside of Washington, D.C., where he helps to oversee the business related to 450,000 metropolitan residents.

Earlier this century, with the county growing and construction booming, he presaged the rise of Trump when Stewart, an attorney, was among an early wave of champions for stemming illegal immigration. He fought to employ the use of an arcane piece of federal law, referred to by its section and subparagraph as 287(g), which allows local jurisdictions to be deputized in an effort to enforce immigration law by checking the documented status of anyone who has been arrested.

“At the time I said, ‘I don’t think there’s anything any local official can do about it,’ ” he said. “But, sure enough …”

In the decade-plus since, he said the practice has “saved lives” for the way “we’ve handed about 8,200 criminal illegal aliens over to the feds without a single case of racial profiling — not one,” Stewart said. “I’m proud of that fact, because we check everybody’s immigration status.”  

An examination of northern Virginia news stories showed those numbers to be roughly accurate — though only about half, it seems, have led to deportation.

‘Looking for a fighter’

Stewart was the fourth of five children born in Duluth to longshoreman father and homemaking mother, Earl and Beverly Stewart.

His late father was stern but respected, while Beverly provided a warm counterbalance. Both were loved. The family had it good throughout Stewart’s early life, taking long vacations together and finding a snowmobile one year under the proverbial Christmas tree.

But Duluth’s dreary 1980s hit hard, cutting his father’s earnings by nearly two-thirds and resulting in a belt-tightening which set the groundwork for Stewart’s ideological journey from Democrat to hard-line conservative.

“There’s a tendency among Republicans to just want to get along with everybody,” he said. “... but they’re looking for a fighter.”

Stewart has found traction among his state’s coal miners, he said, and believes it’s his Northland background which gives him a connection to blue-collar voters. Even so, he’s trailing in polls by 20-plus percent to Democrat Tim Kaine, and despite promising a “vicious” campaign admits to not quite knowing how to go after the one-time Hillary Clinton running mate. Undeterred by sagging polls, he figured he’s got time. “After Labor Day, that’s when people start paying attention,” he said, before forecasting ferocity to come. “In a way I’ve been pushed to this position where I’m all in or I’m going down in flames.”

Looking on from afar is Stewart’s former debate coach at the defunct Duluth Central High School, Jack Armstrong. Armstrong built some epic teams which at times could wipe the floor with debaters from throughout the Midwest. He recalled Stewart as a dedicated competitor who would stay for hours after class to hone his skills.

They recently caught up over lunch to critique Stewart’s first debate with Kaine. Armstrong pressed Stewart to challenge his opponent to provide specifics when Kaine does things like repeat assertions that Stewart is “dishonest with the truth.”

Still, the teacher is not wholly enamored of the pupil.

“He’s going in a direction within the Republican Party I probably wouldn’t go,” said the 82-year-old Armstrong.

Stewart appears to be employing Armstrong in another capacity as well: to launder an image dogged by accusations of racism and bigotry. Armstrong said both the New York Times and Washington Post have called him in the past few weeks for interviews. He’s obliged, and seems glad to help.

“I would never classify him as a racist or anything like that,” Armstrong said of Stewart. “He was everybody’s friend, easygoing and a likable person.”

Meeting Trump, Stauber

Married at a Catholic Church in Duluth to a Swedish wife he met in Japan after attending Georgetown University and the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Stewart’s bonafides would suggest putting him on a spectrum somewhere left of out-and-out racism.

“I wanted to see something,” he said of what have been extensive travels. “I was always interested in politics and I wanted to see the world.”

But such worldliness hasn’t stopped him from cavorting with figures on the alt right, or even from employing at least one of them on his campaign, according to multiple credible news reports.

“It bothers me,” he said of the racist tag, “because I’m not.”

Digging into a plate of nachos, Stewart described how he likes to surround himself with people to the left of him and even to the right.

“The best way to get good advice is to listen to a diversity of views,” he said.

He believes Republicans see him as “a warrior,” and he sees himself alternately as “stubborn,” “pig-headed” and a person who refuses to back down, in particular to the political correctness of the left.

“I’ve been standing up to the identity politics of the left,” he said, “then what happens is that’s shot back to me, ‘You must be one of the right-wing identity politics guys,’ this white nationalism. I don’t even know what that is. I can’t even identify with that.”

In 2016, Stewart’s profile rose along with Trump’s political career. At first, Stewart resisted becoming Trump’s Virginia campaign chairman. That was until Stewart saw the reaction at a fairgrounds rally by the soon-to-be president.

“I’d never seen, in all my years in politics, the amount of excitement for a political candidate in America on either side of the aisle,” he recalled. “... It was in that moment I knew I was dealing with a historic figure who was going to transform everything.”

When compared to another Trump-supporting county supervisor running for national office, Hermantown’s Pete Stauber, Stewart talked about how the two were introduced in 2017. The Stauber campaign confirmed the meeting with one campaign official, who preferred anonymity, speaking favorably about Stewart and how she thought he was going to win.

Around the campfire, Stewart said he’ll go round and round with his cousins and siblings about the issues. They can be brutal to each other, he said, but protective, too, in the face of outside criticism. Describing an older brother who is an electrician in Duluth, Stewart said, “He’s a staunch Democrat, but he gives me (campaign) money.”

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