Chairman Charts New Course
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Fresh off his second election victory in consecutive years, Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart styles himself as a catalyst for change within the state Republican Party on a variety of issues. He says he doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a one-note politician.
It might be hard for him to shake that impression.
Stewart was on summer vacation in Canada when another supervisor introduced a resolution to deny certain public services to illegal immigrants. But he seized on the proposal, pushing it through the board in the weeks before his reelection. Stewart, 39, who speaks in sound bites and has a youthful appearance, became the public face of Prince William's illegal immigration crackdown.
"I don't want to be known for only one thing," Stewart said after the election. "I still don't understand why [immigration] became such a huge issue. I'd like to figure that out, so I can replicate it."
Before immigration emerged as a major issue in Northern Virginia, the populist Stewart had developed a niche as a Republican in favor of containing suburban sprawl. Now, he has some political capital after the GOP's lackluster statewide showing in the fall elections. He wants to use it to help shift his party's priorities.
"The state party is sclerotic, and atrophy has set in," Stewart said. Rather than focusing on faith, family and freedom, he said, the GOP should address quality-of-life issues such as protecting the environment, easing traffic and preserving green space.
Controlled growth was Stewart's primary issue during the 2006 special election for the chairman's seat. This fall, however, he hardly mentioned it in a rematch against Democrat Sharon E. Pandak. His campaign centered almost entirely on fighting illegal immigration. He won a four-year term with a comfortable 55 percent of the vote.
Stewart has a knack for picking issues that present obvious targets for attack, whether developers or illegal immigrants. Some view that as a gift. Others see him as opportunistic and poll-driven. Either way, his take-no-prisoners approach appears to be paying off so far.
County board chairmen often have a low public profile, though Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) of neighboring Fairfax County is a notable exception.
Former Prince William Chairman Kathleen K. Seefeldt, a Democrat, said the job entails bringing stakeholders together to formulate policy in the best interest of the community. Chairmen also should develop good working relations with counterparts in the region, she said. Seefeldt criticized the process leading up to approval of the county's anti-illegal immigration resolution as flawed and divisive -- a rebuke of Stewart's leadership.
"It saddened me, because I believe in building community," Seefeldt said.
Stewart was raised in a Democratic home, with a father who was a longshoreman and union man. His background suggests an interest in international affairs. He earned a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, a training ground for future diplomats. In his junior year, Stewart studied in Poland and was struck by the effects of Communist rule. That helped cement his conservatism. "I saw what a heavy-handed economy and government can lead to, which is poverty and misery," Stewart said.