by Brandon Jarvis

In Virginia’s first congressional district, Democratic candidate Leslie Mehta is facing criticism for representing Jason Kessler during his effort to hold the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The events that unfolded that day resulted in the death of Heather Heyer after a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of people who were counter-protesting the rally. Two state police officers also died after their helicopter crashed while monitoring the events. 

Mehta says that while Kessler and his group represent everything she stands against, the First Amendment rights of Americans should always be defended when they are being used peacefully, as the organizers said would happen in court documents. Her primary opponent’s campaign says they are worried that Republicans will use this against her in the general election if she earns the nomination. 

Leslie Mehta

Mehta was employed by the ACLU during the 2017 court case and is listed as one of two attorneys in Kessler’s case.

“I know that freedom of speech, and freedom to protest peacefully and freedom to assemble peacefully – they have to mean something if they are to be protected – even when it’s people who are reprehensible and are completely against the values that I share,” Mehta said in an interview with Virginia Scope. 

In a press release before the rally, the ACLU stated that they were taking on the case to defend Kessler’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. 

“The purpose of the rally was to protest the city’s decision to rename the former Lee Park and remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the park,” the ACLU wrote in their Aug. 10, 2017 press release

City officials told Kessler they believed thousands of people would attend the rally and that it would not be safe at its planned location. 

The ACLU, in its press release, said that “moving the rally to a different location would dilute Mr. Kessler’s message because the planned location of Emancipation Park is directly related to it, and thus his constitutional rights to free speech, assembly, and petition were being violated.”

Kessler and other organizers signed court documents stating the event would be peaceful. 

“What we decided to defend, with the facts available at that time, and only after requiring Kessler to swear in court papers that he intended the rally to be ‘peaceful’ and ‘avoid violence,’ were important principles of constitutional government,” wrote ACLU-VA Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga and ACLU-VA Board President Steve Levinson in an op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2017. “The First Amendment guarantees political speech, including protest, the highest level of protection — and the right to speak out is most robust in public spaces, including public parks and streets. Since this country’s founding, people have taken to the parks, streets, and sidewalks to make their voices heard on matters of public concern.”

Mehta stressed the importance of protecting citizens’ constitutional rights, even when their opinions differ from your own.

“I think what some folks fail to recognize and recall is that there was another group also wanting to protest, and they wanted to protest in support of tearing down the Confederate statues. And their permit was not revoked. That is clear viewpoint discrimination,” Mehta said. “If you don’t like the speech, then essentially it’s saying ‘you can’t speak. Other people can speak if I like that speech.’”

She says the right to protest is the backbone of our society. 

“That has been the backbone and the support of the civil rights movement…for folks during the Jim Crow South, for trans people as they have had rallies and protests, for the Women’s March – this is the backbone. The First Amendment is the backbone of our society. And so when others have tried to denigrate and diminish my record at the ACLU, I take that personally.”

Protesters from Unite the Right are still facing legal repercussions. Mehta says that the ACLU is not representing anyone for breaking the law that day, and she does not support anyone who uses the guise of First Amendment rights to commit violence. 

These rights “exist as long as people are protesting peacefully,” she says. “If they are not protesting peacefully, they need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” 

Violence “is not part of one’s First Amendment right to protest,” she continued. 

Mehta’s primary opponent, Herb Jones, is concerned that Republicans will use this against her in the general election this year if she wins the Democratic nomination.

Herb Jones

“Our singular focus is on beating Rob Whitman in November, so we’re not going to get in the position of beating up a fellow Democrat in the primary,” Jones’ spokesman Mark Mclaurin said in an interview Thursday. “But we should make no mistake and not be under any illusion – Rob Whitman will absolutely use the fact that she was the lead attorney for a group of Neo Nazis… If our focus here is on beating Wittman, then why wouldn’t we want to go with the strongest candidate?” 

VA-01 is friendly to Republicans, making this district a tall task for whoever ends up being the Democratic nominee. Jones was the nominee in 2022 and lost to Wittman by 14 points. 

Because Democrats cannot afford a misstep, Mclaurin said, “We can’t handicap ourselves by going into the election with a badly damaged nominee.” 

Mehta pushed back on the comments from Jones’ campaign and said she jumped into this race due to Wittman supporting Trump’s election fraud claims. 

“I’ve spent my career defending the constitution,” she said by text message Thursday afternoon. “I hate everything Unite the Right represents, but I believe defending our constitution is an existential imperative. It’s sad that Mr. Jones chooses to attack my work defending the constitution when we have an election denier as a member of Congress.”

Mehta is receiving institutional Democratic support behind her campaign.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-VA07, recently announced her endorsement for Mehta in the area she represented from 2018-2022 before redistricting moved her boundaries North.

“I was inspired by her bravery, as she had just lost her young daughter to a disease,” Spanberger said in her endorsement announcement. “Virginians will be fortunate to have such an engaged representative working to improve their lives, because I know she will bring her tenacity, intelligence, and passion to the U.S House every day.”

Spanberger is not seeking reelection to the House of Representatives and is instead running for governor next year. She has spoken against the events that occurred at the Unite the Right rally many times during her political career, calling that day “one of the darkest days in modern Virginia history.” 

Her gubernatorial campaign declined to comment for this story. 

Henrico County Democratic Committee Chair Alsuin Preis expressed support for Mehta Thursday.

“Leslie Mehta has a powerful record of defending our constitutional liberties and the ACLU has a long history of defending Freedom of Speech for all of us,” Preis said in a statement to Virginia Scope. “The relevance of Leslie’s prior work is ultimately a question that the voters of the First Congressional District of Virginia will have to answer.”

Henrico is the largest locality in VA-01

VA-01 district boundaries via VPAP

Mehta has been criticized by some Democrats for her role in helping Kessler.

“We need to stop bending over backwards for racist, misogynist, Jew haters, and those who are bent on destroying the ideals of this country,” wrote Paul Goldman, a Democratic activist who is Jewish, in an email blast recently.  

Goldman also stated, however, that if Mehta admitted it was a mistake to represent Kessler, all should be forgiven. 

“If she has publicly said the wisdom of hindsight makes her see she made a mistake, I would consider the chapter closed in terms of her running for a Democratic nomination. America actually needs more idealistic lawyers,” he wrote. 

Primary elections are taking place on June 18. Early voting is already underway. 

By vascope