In the new Virginia, in parts of Prince William County where people have arrived from Fairfax and New Jersey and India and El Salvador, all to find yards for the kids and houses they could afford, there’s a nightly ritual this time of year.
The TV is on, and tired parents are barely paying attention, but the ads are the same, hour after hour, and the images sink in: Two men running for governor slime each other in 30-second blasts of venom that speak about everything but what matters. There’s nothing about what it’s like to spend four hours a day commuting so your kids can go to good schools, or about what roads could be built so it might not suck an hour out of your Saturday to go to the dry cleaner, or about how to lure jobs to Prince William so you don’t have to haul out to Tysons or into the District five times a week.
These are the voters who will decide who is elected governor Tuesday. Many of them don’t follow politics closely, but they know enough to be annoyed. They’re people like Julie Gloster, a single mother of three, a widow at 30 who can’t get over how politicians refuse to work together, even when it hurts Americans.
“You can’t always win, sometimes you have to lose,” she said. “Sometimes, you turn on the news and everything upsets you.” She’ll vote for Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat.
And they’re people like David DePerro, an IT guy who is trying to make it as a screenwriter, who sees his neighbors’ lives paralyzed by traffic and wonders why “I don’t hear anybody talking about transportation in this race. How can that be?” He’s voting for Ken Cuccinelli II, the Republican, whom he knows from church and considers honest and principled.
A couple of decades ago, Prince William was relatively insignificant to politicians in Richmond or Washington — a rural outpost that supplied milk and meat to the D.C. area, a reliably Republican place with not many voters. Now, this is one of the most vital spots on any political map.
It’s where President Obama started and ended his 2012 campaign. It’s where Cuccinelli moved after his Fairfax County district became more Democratic. In his part of the county, in Nokesville, he got more space, an easier commute to his job as attorney general in Richmond, and a welcoming community of conservative churchgoers.
Five miles north, in the Haymarket precinct, the new townhouse developments are filled with transplants and immigrants, young singles and new parents, Christians and Muslims. Prince William is home to 430,000 residents, and, according to the Census Bureau, it’s been growing lately at more than double Virginia’s 2 percent growth rate. Incomes have been climbing, too; the median household level is now $94,000, 50 percent higher than statewide.
All that growth has shifted the county’s political complexion, turning it from the last conservative stronghold in Northern Virginia — Prince William won national attention for its 2007 crackdown on illegal immigrants — into a remarkably accurate bellwether for a changing state. The county voted for Obama, twice, and for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), and for President George W. Bush, twice.
Prince William became a majority-minority county a few years ago; its non-Hispanic white population has shrunk to 47 percent. Hispanics are the next largest group, at 21 percent, followed by African Americans at 20 percent and Asians at 8 percent. More than 21 percent are foreign born, almost double the proportion in the rest of Virginia.
Navdeep Kaur, 34, who immigrated to Virginia from India about 15 years ago, lives in a three-story brick townhouse in a section of the Haymarket precinct just north of Interstate 66. She and her husband, Manjit Singh, 40 — theirs was an arranged marriage — lived in Alexandria at first but moved to Prince William for safer neighborhoods and more attention at school for their two children.
“If you don’t have a complete education, you can’t have a good job,” she said. “So I don’t have a good job.” She works part time in a county public school’s cafeteria; her husband delivers newspapers in the mornings and pizzas in the evenings.
Kaur’s job allows her to be home with her children after school and over the summer — but it does not provide health insurance she can afford. (The plan costs at least $400 a month.) So when Kaur and her daughter suffered neck pain after a car accident, the family paid $2,000 to see a doctor. Even a simple sinus infection recently cost $150.
“I pay cash; it’s very hard,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t have cash, and you have to put it on a credit card.”
When the Affordable Care Act was enacted, Kaur excitedly called her relatives around the world.
Since becoming a U.S. citizen six years ago, she has voted for Democrats because “they know the middle class. Republicans are all rich. They don’t understand the middle class.”
She doesn’t know much about the candidates for governor but was impressed to get mail last week from someone she admires. “Michelle Obama sent me a letter,” she said. “I love Michelle Obama.” Kaur will vote for McAuliffe on Tuesday.
When Muneer Baig came to America from India 25 years ago, he found a political home in the Republican Party. He and his wife home-school their five children, and he appreciates the party’s devotion to school choice. A computer consultant, he has always liked how his party stands up for business.
“But over the last four or five years, I looked at my party and every single opportunity they got, somehow the Muslims were bad,” said Baig, whose family is Muslim and lives in a development of large homes south of Manassas. “People who come to this country leave everything behind and want to devote everything to our new home. My neighbors are my life, and then I’m told by these politicians, ‘You don’t belong here.’ ”
Prince William’s immigration ordinance initially required police to check the status of anyone they detained who they thought might be an illegal immigrant. Thousands of immigrants left the county in response to the enforcement drive. For those in Virginia legally who stayed in Prince William, “it still feels like we are being painted as evil or suspect,” Baig says. “I was sad to see my party behind this, becoming just the party of no, no, no.”
Baig is no fan of McAuliffe, whom he sees as a wheeler-dealer, but he views Cuccinelli as an extremist on social issues and immigration. “McAuliffe’s black spots affect his own life,” he said. “Cuccinelli’s dark spots directly affect me.” Baig will vote for McAuliffe.
Near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the county’s Haymarket precinct is home to the last burst of development east of the rural preserve that the county has created to maintain its farm economy.
The precinct includes the historic downtown, with its federal-style houses and old town hall, and a fast-growing jumble of big-box stores, estate houses on large lots, and townhouse communities with long lines of nearly identical houses, many of which are priced at less than $300,000. Voters here gave Obama majorities in 2008 and again in 2012; immediately to the west, precincts in the agricultural zone gave Mitt Romney his biggest wins in the county last year, with some areas going 2-to-1 for the Republican.
As school buses dropped students off just outside Haymarket one afternoon last week, two mothers chatted in Spanish, then switched to English when another friend walked up. An Indian mother arranged to borrow a ladder from a neighbor.
“There is a tension sometimes,” said Donna Widawski, 53, a retired Secret Service agent who grew up in Arlington County and found that in Haymarket, she could get a house with a view of mountains, a lake and a golf course. Her community has attracted immigrants from Asia and Latin America, and she says neighbors get along well, but as a Republican, she also knows that many of her foreign-born neighbors think her party opposes their presence.
“We all came out here for the same things, the schools and the bucolic setting,” Widawski said. And many of her neighbors left Arlington and Fairfax to get away from high taxes and high prices.
So she figures they’re all natural Republicans — “except that we need to do a better job of countering that narrative about immigration. I myself am the wife, daughter and granddaughter of immigrants. Republicans need to tell people that we are the party that if you work hard, you’ll succeed. A lot of them are Democrats because they’ve been promised gifts — immigration reform, Medicaid expansion, benefits.”
Widawski will vote for Cuccinelli, mainly because she thinks he will fight for family values and against raising taxes.
In his five years in the county, DePerro, 41, has seen the influx from Fairfax and beyond bang up against the quieter, cheaper life that attracted many newcomers in the first place. There are conflicts over land use, traffic and taxes, and, in each case, DePerro sees a relentless slide toward the kind of conditions that led many new residents to leave their former homes.
“I don’t want to see this area turn into California or New York,” he said, “with all that debt and taxes. This is the exurbs, where people come because they can’t afford enough house in Arlington or Fairfax.”
DePerro thinks the way to hold the line is to keep taxes low and government small. So he will vote for Cuccinelli, even though “he’s got bigger fish to fry now — the health-care thing.” DePerro doesn’t have insurance and doesn’t want anyone telling him he has to get it, so he’s grateful for Cuccinelli’s strong stance against the health-care law.
Gloster, who lives in a three-story brick townhouse near Haymarket, has also been thinking about health care, and the other ways government helps those who have hit rough patches. When Gloster’s husband died suddenly last year, she had to support her three children, ages 13, 5 and 2, on her salary as a production manager at a mortgage company.
She works hard and doesn’t like depending on anyone else, but a few years back, when she lost a job and her health insurance and her daughter got sick, Medicaid covered that cost. Now she is receiving Social Security survivors benefits.
“I need it, and I use it for them,” Gloster said, nodding toward her children. “I’m using the system the way I’m supposed to, and I’m just grateful. I’m so grateful.”
She’s willing to pay a little more in taxes to ensure that such protections are there for others. “Sometimes when you’ve got a little to give, you have to, because it all evens out in the end,” she said.
Her job has been demanding lately, so she hasn’t focused on anything but work and kids. But she always makes it a point to vote.
She will vote for McAuliffe and the other Democrats on the ballot, because she thinks they’ll push for better schools, because they don’t rail against paying for benefits that people sometimes need, and because she has no patience for politicians who want government to decide whether women have access to birth control and abortion.
“I have the right to make my own decisions,” she said. “Nobody is going to tell me what I can and cannot do.”
Justin Jouvenal and Carol Morello contributed to this report.