By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008
When Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart dressed down the police chief for hosting a public meeting with the Mexican consul to discuss the county's controversial immigration policy, Elena Schlossberg-Kunkel was appalled.
Schlossberg-Kunkel, a Haymarket activist who had supported Stewart since 2006, and several other county residents showed up at a recent board meeting and demanded Stewart apologize to Chief Charlie T. Deane. Her voice pleading, Schlossberg-Kunkel admonished Stewart for his harsh rhetoric on immigration, which she said threatened to ruin the county's reputation.
"You were in my home for a fundraiser. I felt like I knew you," she said. "I don't know the person you are anymore, Corey."
She is not alone in her concern. Elected officials and business leaders in Prince William say they are worried that the county's focus on illegal immigration is hurting Prince William's image at a critical time in its growth and effort to remake itself.
Virginia's second-largest county had been known for years as a center of cheap housing and bargain shopping. But in recent years, Prince William leaders have tried to change course by attracting high-tech employers, building luxury homes and supporting good schools much as neighboring Loudoun and Fairfax counties have done.
Now, several supervisors in both parties and business leaders said, those efforts could be set back if county officials do not shift their focus from illegal immigration, which has divided the community and brought Prince William negative national exposure. ("The Road to Dystopia," one newspaper said of the crackdown.)
After a bitter, months-long debate, the eight-member board voted unanimously in the fall to increase law enforcement and deny some services to illegal immigrants. Although no one wants to repeal the policy, some supervisors and other officials said they wish the county -- especially Stewart -- would stop dwelling on it.
County business leaders have created "image committees" to examine the direction Prince William is heading. Now, some analysts said, the economic downturn makes it a bad time to carry out the immigration measures.
"It undermines the image of the county as a good place to invest," said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. "The political environment has made people feel unwelcome."
Richard L. Hendershot, who chairs the Prince William County Greater Manassas Chamber of Commerce, said it has been hard to sell Prince William as progressive, dynamic and thriving.
"There's been a challenge. The only way that we can counteract the image, and I'd say it is a false image, is to continue to look for opportunities to share the positive messages of the county," he said. "There's clearly been some controversy over the immigration stance that the board of supervisors has taken."
Many blame Stewart (R), who put the county on the map nationally for its tough approach on illegal immigration. As the top elected official, Stewart is the most visible face of the county and nominally its biggest cheerleader. But his colleagues and some residents are starting to question his leadership.
Stewart stunned Deane, the longtime county police chief, when he accused the chief of overstepping his authority in setting up a public meeting with the Mexican consul to discuss the immigration policy. Stewart said the Mexican government was not part of the Prince William community, but Deane said he was just trying to build trust among immigrants fearful about police conduct.
Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) said Stewart "roughshoded" the immigration policy. "We're not doing it with sophistication and compassion. Our board is divided. He's our leader, but he doesn't reach for consensus. He speaks off the cuff. There's a brashness. I'm not sure how we curb that."
Stewart, who was elected to his first full term as chairman in November with 55 percent of the vote, is not fazed by the criticism. "They might not like my style, but it's been successful."
To his critics, Stewart's rhetoric on illegal immigration, although direct, comes off as intolerant in a diverse region that has assimilated thousands of newcomers in the past 20 years.
"If you violate the law and we catch you, we are going to do everything we can to have you deported," Stewart once said of immigrants.
He also called a group of county religious leaders "illegitimate" and "misguided" when they offered to serve as intermediaries between elected officials and the immigrant community. "They need to do what they do best: serve their congregants and attend to their denominations and not get involved in partisan politics," Stewart said.
He hasn't minced words about his colleagues, either, calling them "weak-kneed" just before the vote on the policy in October. And he said he is not afraid to "beat up on" elected officials in Prince William or other counties, as he did by calling the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors lax on immigration.
"I'm not afraid to twist an arm or apply pressure," said Stewart, 39, who moved to Prince William from Fairfax in 2001. "I prefer to work things out, but sometimes you have to play hardball."
The board was recently locked in a battle with Stewart over what usually is a routine matter: advertising a real estate tax rate for the coming year. It is usually the starting point for discussion about the county budget.
Stewart wanted to have the debate before hearing from the public. He wouldn't budge, and the board members were so frustrated with Stewart that they called a special meeting to resolve the month-long stalemate by approving a higher rate than Stewart advocated.
Nearly all local governments are weighing property tax increases this year to cover budget shortfalls caused by a steep drop in revenue, related to the housing market's slump. Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) said that some increase in the tax rate will probably be necessary and that Stewart is missing the impact of his recalcitrance.
"Our reputation among businesses and people wanting to relocate into the county has suffered greatly," Jenkins said. Stewart "is unable to give and take. It's his way or no way."
Stewart has defenders on the board, especially Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville), who helped push the immigration policy. But even Republicans who sometimes align with Stewart, including W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville), said: "We are more divided politically than ever before. The board is trying to find out what its identity is."
Covington said Stewart is still figuring out how to lead. The chairman does not always talk to each supervisor before board meetings to reach consensus. Instead, Covington said, the supervisors often walk into a meeting not knowing what their stance will be on county issues.
"He should figure out where the compromises need to be made to get specific legislation through," Covington said.
That's legitimate criticism, Stewart said. "I should do more of that. But reaching out doesn't mean agreeing with them. That's never going to happen. I'm not going to agree for the purposes of collegiality."
The board and Stewart are also split over the $6.4 million cost of the immigration policy, which covers installing video cameras in police cars to protect the county from allegations of racial profiling.
Stewart said he does not think the county should pay for the cameras in a tight budget year, and he hopes a federal grant will fund them. He also does not support a fully staffed police department, as Deane has recommended.
Some supervisors said Stewart's unwillingness to fully finance a program he advocated is duplicitous.
"That's the hypocrisy of the whole thing," Jenkins said. "If you go to the dance, you have to pay the fiddler."
Stewart, an international trade lawyer at Foley & Lardner in downtown Washington, was first elected chairman in 2006. He replaced Sean T. Connaughton (R), who was retiring. County leaders have credited Connaughton with guiding Prince William through an unprecedented period of growth that brought thousands of new residents, houses, students and employers. The county has developed a niche by attracting research laboratories, among them branches of the FBI and George Mason University.
Connaughton declined to comment.
None of the supervisors said they regret their vote on the immigration policy. But they said that with Stewart at the helm, the county has been preoccupied with the initiative.
Prince William residents "have lost confidence," Jenkins said. "It's critically important we restore that."
Donna Widawski of Haymarket, who frequently attends board meetings, said Stewart has shown "great leadership" on a difficult issue. "He didn't need [the issue] to win reelection. He's widely popular," she said. "He has a strong network of support."
Amy Lagos of Woodbridge said Stewart is influenced by a small segment of the community: Stewart "wanted national notoriety. Running people out of the county is not [the way] Prince William should be advertising itself. I hope that's not the way we identify the county."