The Top Story by Chris Graham
Democratic Party lieutenant-governor candidate Chap Petersen was supposed to deliver a brief talk to a group of new United States citizens on behalf of a nonpartisan lawyers’ group in Fairfax on Thursday.
That was before a couple of phone calls from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services led to Petersen being yanked from the schedule of events at the naturalization ceremony held at the George Mason University School of Law.
“I am disappointed the Citizenship and Immigration Service would not permit an elected state official to address this important ceremony,” said Petersen, whose wife, Sharon, and her family are naturalized U.S. citizens.
Petersen said he had planned to use his remarks at the GMU get-together “to emphasize, as an elected state official, my great respect and appreciation for those new Virginians who chose to become Americans.”
“For Republican officials to cancel my appearance is politics at its worst,” said Petersen, a state delegate who represents Fairfax in the Virginia General Assembly.
Phyllis Howard, the district director of the Washington District office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services, played down the role of partisan politics in the decision to ask the Virginia State Bar Young Lawyers Conference to pull Petersen from the ceremony schedule.
Howard told The Augusta Free Press that the group had approached her several months ago to express their interest in lining up a speaker for Thursday’s ceremony.
She heard back from the conference last month and learned that it had come across some difficulty in lining up a speaker, then found out earlier this week that it had decided on Petersen.
Howard said Thursday that she felt it was “inappropriate in this highly charged election season” to allow a candidate for public office to speak at the event and possibly use the ceremony as a political platform.
Petersen told the AFP that he had no intention at all of using his appearance at the ceremony to promote his campaign for lieutenant governor.
“My remarks were going to be brief. I was going to talk about the significance of today being St. Patrick’s Day and use that to discuss the impact of Irish immigration on America in the 19th century,” Petersen said.
“I really didn’t have a lot of time to pull anything together. I had just been contacted about this and was doing it as a favor for a friend,” Petersen said. “They had had trouble getting somebody lined up. I understand that the first person they had asked to speak was (Republican Party gubernatorial-nomination candidate) Jerry Kilgore, but he wasn’t available. Then they called (Democratic Party gubernatorial-nomination candidate) Tim Kaine’s office, and he wasn’t available.
“I didn’t put out any press advisories, and I wasn’t planning to anything in the way of press releases. And I wasn’t doing this to try to drum up support at the ceremony. My understanding was that there were only going to be 30 or 40 people there. And it doesn’t seem logical to say that anybody would try to mine a naturalization ceremony for votes,” Petersen said.
Petersen said he was told by his contact with the Young Lawyers Conference, Alexandria attorney Don Haddock, that it was Howard who had injected politics into the discussion of the matter.
“He was called last night and asked if this Chap Petersen who was scheduled to speak was the same Chap Petersen who is running for lieutenant governor,” Petersen said. “He said it is, and she told him, ‘That might be a problem, because my boss is a Republican.’ And then she called back and said that she couldn’t allow it.”
Haddock was reached by the AFP for comment for this story, but declined to do so.
Howard said she doesn’t think Petersen is “being fair portraying what happened in this light.”
“To say that he was disinvited for political reasons is to spread misinformation about what happened,” Howard said.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if he was a Democrat or Republican. The concern is that it appears that he intended to use the ceremony for political purposes,” Howard said.
Petersen reiterated that such was not the case.
“I guess this is the type of politics we can expect from the Bush Republicans this year in Virginia,” Petersen said.