Virginia Beach delegate: I didn’t know my volunteer worked with hate group

Virginia’s 85th District Del. Rocky Holcomb – R, right, poses with campaign volunteer and ACT for America employee Scott Presler in a photo posted to Presler’s personal Facebook page on Dec. 17, 2016. (Screengrab from Scott Presler’s Facebook Page)
Virginia’s 85th District Del. Rocky Holcomb – R, right, poses with campaign volunteer and ACT for America employee Scott Presler in a photo posted to Presler’s personal Facebook page on Dec. 17, 2016. (Screengrab from Scott Presler’s Facebook Page)

VIRGINIA BEACH — Del. Rocky Holcomb has come under fire by the Virginia House Democrats (VHD) and some constituents after a photo surfaced on social media of him with an “anti-Muslim” organization employee.

The photo, taken in December 2016, shows Holcomb with Scott Presler, a lead activism strategist for ACT for America. The photo was posted to Presler’s Facebook page with the caption “Rocky Holcomb for Delegate!”

Presler works for ACT for America, which has been deemed an “extremist” and “anti-Muslim” group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, citing the organization’s mission “to advance anti-Muslim legislation at the local and federal level while flooding the American public with wild hate speech demonizing Muslims.”

On the same day, Presler streamed a video of himself campaigning for Holcomb during the January 2017 special election in Virginia Beach, telling watchers that “we cannot let the Democrats take any seats.”

“We must put forth candidates that are going to be able to uphold our values in office, in government, in local, state and federal offices,” Presler said, addressing his online audience. “That’s the most important thing … unless you get out there and get the work done to get those candidates who are going to uphold your values then we’re not going to be represented.”

In an email sent out last week by VHD, House Democratic Caucus spokesperson Katie Baker asked, “Why does a hate group leader think Rocky Holcomb shares his values?”

In an interview with Southside Daily, Holcomb said that he doesn’t have any kind of relationship with Presler.

“He came on as a volunteer,” Holcomb said. “I don’t know him.”

As far as ACT for America is concerned, Holcomb said he was unaware of the organization or what their mission was, but that he “despised hate.”

“I’ve spent my whole career in law enforcement fighting hate,” Holcomb said.

Holcomb has served in the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office since 1991 and before that, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Some of Holcomb’s 85th district constituents began to ask the same question, calling for an emergency town hall and posting comments on his delegate Facebook page looking for answers about his affiliation with Presler.

“I immediately went on [Holcomb’s] page. I had the link to the story about Presler and I posted it on [Holcomb’s] page and asked if he could explain it. There were no vulgarities or insults used,” said Lindsey Terry, a Virginia Beach resident and 85th district constituent. “I just wanted an explanation of his connections – if he’s condoning or condemning a known hate group.”

Instead of a response, Terry — a co-president of a progressive political activist group — said she was blocked from commenting on or messaging Holcomb’s Facebook page.

“Yes, I’m a Democrat, but this isn’t a Democrat versus Republican issue or a left versus right issue,” Terry said. “This is about a hate group and if he has a connection to it.”

Though the page is titled “Delegate Rocky Holcomb” and lists his official Virginia Beach office’s phone number, Holcomb said the page itself is not an official Facebook page. He did admit that some people were blocked from participating on the page because he said they “personally attacked” him.

“They attack my character,” Holcomb said. “They called me a racist, a white supremacist and – listen, there’s no place for that. And quite frankly, I’m not going to tolerate that with those absurd accusations anywhere on social media. It’s not fair to me. It’s not right.”

Is ACT for America a hate group?

Presler did not return requests for comment by publication, but previously spoke to Southside Daily about the organization and said the claim was “inaccurate and unjust.”

“We’re a national security organization, and we stand for western values and human rights,” Presler said in March. “We lobby policymakers to push forth legislation such as stopping female genital mutilations.”

Presler said the organization is anything but anti-Muslim and even posits that they’re pro-Muslim – but they are, he said, against “radical ideologies.”

The organization had planned “America First” rallies on Sept. 9 throughout the country, but canceled them on Wednesday, citing a “threat of violence.” The rallies were instead replaced with an online “Day of ACTion.”

Presler’s Virginia Beach chapter had planned to meet at Mount Trashmore, where the group gathered for a “March Against Sharia” rally in June.

According to California-based Muslims for Progressive Values, sharia is “is not a legal system. It is the overall way of life of Islam that evolves to address the needs of the society of the day.”

Terry said that, with less than three weeks between the now-canceled rally and the deadly events in Charlottesville, any activity stemming from a “hate group” is unsettling. Terry said that even if white supremacists were not invited or welcomed by ACT organizers, she feared that the rally could become a platform for the alt-right.

“Everyone’s emotions are running high and we don’t want to see any problems in our community or have anything like that happen here in our backyards,” Terry said.

“Why is he blocking constituents?”

After Terry posted her question on Holcomb’s Facebook page, she said she also messaged Holcomb and asked that he consider holding a town hall. Shortly after, she was blocked.

Holcomb later posted to the page referencing “questions on [Facebook] from supporters of [his] Democratic opponent Cheryl Turpin,” including those about why Holcomb would “embrace a “hate group leader.”

“These struck me as the dumbest questions I’ve ever been asked so I’ll give Ms. Turpin and her supporters who now follow me or comment on my FB page a brief bio,” Holcomb wrote.

As the post continued, Holcomb detailed his military history, his current position as a captain in the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office and condemned the “racists, Nazis and anti-Semites, white supremacists, the Klan, and anyone else who resorted to violence in Charlottesville.”

Holcomb never mentioned Presler by name, but wrote that he wanted to “make one thing clear to Ms. Turpin and her supporters: In this country we don’t go around accusing good people of being racists or racist sympathizers. It’s un-American and its [sic] absurd.”

Holcomb defeated Turpin in the special election. She is now running against Holcomb for the 85th district delegate seat once again in the upcoming general election.

Dan McNamara, the campaign manager for Turpin, said the comment directed toward his candidate came from out of nowhere, and that the situation isn’t a political one but an issue of human rights. Holcomb, McNamara said, was using the situation to lash out on his opponent.

“We want to know why he’s blocking constituents and refusing to answer their questions,” McNamara said.

Turpin was not available for an interview but provided the following statement to Southside Daily:

“As a teacher and as the co-sponsor of the Gay Straight Alliance at Cox High School, I have spent my entire professional career counseling students on how to deal with hate when it is at their doorstep. I am dismayed that my opponent has spent more time attacking me and blocking his constituents than he has spent denouncing the leader of a hate group within his own campaign.”

Holcomb wasn’t the only person to point the finger at Turpin. When asked about the incident, Sheriff Ken Stolle also called Holcomb’s opponent into question.

“This is obviously politically motivated if somebody is trying to attack Rocky for a picture that was taken with somebody that is in a hate group,” Stolle told Southside Daily in an interview. “I think this is the worst form of politics. We had some disaster, a disgusting disaster up in Charlottesville and I think Rocky’s political opponent is trying to take advantage of this.”

Stolle said that Holcomb was an outstanding employee with an “impeccable record.” During Holcomb’s 26 years with the sheriff’s department, Stolle said he had never seen any problematic behavior from Holcomb.

Stolle talked about opening an investigation into constituent concerns and pressed Southside Daily for the names of sources, but that request was denied.

When asked if Presler would be allowed to volunteer or campaign for him in the future, Holcomb again denied a relationship with Presler.

“I don’t know him,” Holcomb said. “I wouldn’t know how to find him if I needed to.”

Send news tips to Poulter at amy@localvoicemedia.com

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Amy Poulter has lived in more than a dozen cities – including New York, San Antonio, Austin, Orlando and Jersey City – but she was born right here in the Southside. Amy graduated from Old Dominion University and worked for The Virginian-Pilot and Princess Anne Independent News before joining Southside Daily. Before working as a multimedia journalist, she was a professional chef and musician. In her free time, Amy enjoys listening to music, reading, spending time at the beach and chasing her two pups around the park.