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Stewart Softens Tone, Shifts Focus From Immigration to Economy

Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart.
Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart. (Tracy A Woodward - The Washington Post)
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"I can only conclude that the decline in survey results is in response to the police department's new role in illegal-immigration enforcement and strident expectations voiced by some that the police department do even more than the law allows," Deane said. "In simple terms, I expect you to treat all people with respect, professionalism and dignity -- regardless of their background, ethnicity, economic status, station in life or their immigration status."

Stewart said afterward that he was receptive to the chief's message.

"I know he has lingering angst about it," Stewart said of the county's immigration policy, which requires officers to run the name of everyone arrested through a federal database to determine residency status. "I can't begrudge him that. He is a good soldier, and he is doing his job. The debate about illegal immigration is over."

Claire Guthrie GastaƱaga, who represents immigrant groups before the General Assembly, said she has seen interest in the topic decline sharply. She says the 2007 legislative races in Virginia confirmed that illegal immigration is not a "magic carpet you can ride into office."

"Many of the folks who were carrying the measures realized it wasn't to their political benefit to get out there on those issues," she said.

About the time interest in Stewart's signature issue started to flag, his political career hit a rough spot. He had been plotting a bid for lieutenant governor this year, but those plans were dashed when Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) decided to seek reelection.

Stewart still has his eyes on Richmond. He plans to make his presence felt this year by helping to rebuild a party that has suffered a string of dispiriting electoral setbacks.

Stewart said there is nothing wrong with the conservative message. The problem, he said, is that the GOP has not delivered on its promise of smaller government. "We need to reclaim our brand and our credibility," he said.

Immigration does not appear to have a place in that effort. "During the period when immigration was front and center, there was a small group of people driving the discourse. But when the economy tanked, people went back to their basic concerns," said Debra Lattanzi Shutika, director of the Mason Project on Immigration and the Center for Social Science Research at George Mason University.

"Politicians are guided by the political climate and issues that will give them the most currency," she said.

Although illegal immigration dominated Prince William's budget and policy discussions last year, Stewart is now concentrating on balancing the budget through cuts.

Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles) said it's way too early for him to declare victory on that effort.

"We don't know anything for sure yet," Nohe said. "Too many board members have put their stakes in the ground without knowing what the financial picture is."

Jenkins said he used to take issue with Stewart using the chairman's seat as a bully pulpit for his partisan agenda. He acknowledges that Stewart has changed but said he thinks Stewart had little choice.

"Corey was so badly damaged politically because of his actions on immigration," Jenkins said. "He is trying to put that tarnished image away and show leadership. That probably forms the basis of his actions in reshaping his image."

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