One way to understand this year’s election in Prince William County is to drive south out of Washington after work and watch the brake lights blinking as commuters creep home, inch by painful inch.
A few years ago, county leaders made national headlines for their crackdown on illegal immigrants. Politics were heated, divisive and ideological.
This time around, many voters can say what’s bothering them in a few words. They’re worried about the economy. They’re worried about jobs. And they’re really, really sick of sitting in traffic.
The county has seen a lot of change in recent years.
The number of jobs grew more quickly than the rest of the state this year and, by one measure at least, more quickly than almost anywhere else in the country.
Salaries increased, lifting median household income to $92,000, the ninth-highest in the country.
Builders pushed farther and farther west, turning farmland into housing development.
And the county has had explosive population growth, said Terry Rephann, a regional economist at the University of Virginia, increasing more than 40 percent over the past decade, in part because much of the housing is more affordable than some of the closer-in suburbs.
All that growth is crowding classrooms and clogging roads. Traffic is so bad that a 2009 Census report labeled the Brentsville District as the spot where residents had the worst commute in the country.
So as politicians knock on doors, urging people to vote for them next Tuesday, they keep hearing about jobs and traffic. Because about two-thirds of people in the county work elsewhere, the issues are intertwined.
“They want jobs close to home,” said Babur Lateef, who is running for chairman of the board of supervisors. “They don’t want to have to have babysitters and after-school programs and get home at seven at night and miss their children growing up” because they’re always in traffic. They need more mass-transit options, he said.
Lateef, a Democrat challenging the Republican incumbent chairman, Corey A. Stewart, says this election is important because he, the son of an immigrant, is taking on Stewart, who pushed one of the early efforts to locally enforce federal immigration law. But in the next breath, Lateef says that isn’t something voters are talking about much.
The independent candidate, John S. Gray, says voters want a chairman who is focused on local issues, not national politics and angling for higher office — a jab at Stewart. Both challengers criticize the incumbent for taking donations from developers.
Stewart points to all sorts of published statistics to make the case that the county is doing well under his leadership and weathering the recession better than most of the country. Unemployment is well below the national average, the number of jobs is increasing and the county’s bond rating has improved.
The board made deep cuts, more than $140 million, which Stewart said have strengthened the county. Lateef said the cuts went too far in some cases, as with senior centers that were closed.
Foreclosures, which hit the county particularly hard, are less common now, and property values are beginning to rise.
Both Gray and Stewart have criticized Lateef for his own foreclosure; Gray said it looked like a strategic default. In 2010, Lateef’s house, which he bought for $1.2 million several years before, went into foreclosure. His sister-in-law bought the house at auction for $616,000, and the family is renting it back to Lateef and his wife while he rebuilds his eye-surgery practice.
Lateef said he would work to prevent foreclosures and help families struggling with them.
As for traffic, the county is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on road construction projects, Stewart said, rather than waiting and hoping that the state will solve its traffic problems.
Lateef is promoting alternatives to driving.
All three candidates agree that the long-term solution will include bringing more jobs to the county so that fewer people will have to commute.
An open seat in the Gainesville district has Democrat Ann Wheeler running against Republican Peter Candland in the fast-growing, more rural northwestern end of the county. She said transportation options will be a priority. Widening the roads isn’t enough, she said. “We’ve talked a long time about things like” extending the Virginia Railway Express line west — for years — but it hasn’t happened. “I’d like to try to make that a priority.”
Candland said he would use his business experience to help create incentives for companies to come to the area and hire people, and that he disagrees with Wheeler on the role and scope of government. “I think we have to keep it lean, keep taxes down,” he said.
In the Woodbridge District race, Republican challenger Christopher Royse is taking on the Democratic incumbent Frank J. Principi, in part arguing that the majority-Republican board is doing a good job and that he would further its efforts. “People want better constituent services, they want jobs,” and they want to spend less time in traffic and more time with their families, he said. Royse said that while the rest of the county is seeing higher salaries, median household income in his district has declined over the past decade.
Principi said a passenger ferry would be a great option for commuters tired of clogged roads and that county leaders should push for Metrorail in the area. He said the board has done well but that too many services have been cut.
And in the Coles District, Democrat Anthony Arnold is challenging longtime incumbent Martin E. Nohe, a Republican. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm right now for the direction Prince William County is moving in,” Nohe said. “They know we’re moving forward with road construction, our success with economic development and job creation.”
Arnold says that the schools are getting worse because Nohe and the board haven’t been putting more money into them and that voters are telling him their commute has gotten worse in recent years. He said he would fund buses and work on public-private partnerships for rail service. “You’ve got to get cars off the road,” he said.