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Stewart Softens Tone, Shifts Focus From Immigration to Economy

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 2009

Virginia Republican Corey A. Stewart built his reputation as a combative ideological firebrand who wanted to tackle head-on the quandary of illegal immigration.

But over the past several months, home values have plummeted, state Republicans have suffered repeated electoral defeats and the public has become consumed by economic concerns. So Stewart, the pugnacious chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, began setting his sights on a new mission: navigating Republican loyalists out of the immigration debate with the same vigor he used to help draw them into it.

Stewart's approach is to push Republicans away from their emphasis on social issues and back in the direction of pocketbook concerns. Stewart, once the leading voice on tackling immigration, now carries a mantra of lower taxes to gatherings of statewide Republicans, to lawmakers in Richmond and to the board chambers where he helps guide county policy. And he has championed it in a manner unfamiliar to many who clashed with him on immigration.

"Some people like a combative politician," Stewart said. "More like the politician who gets things done. That's the superior qualification. That's what I want to be known for."

Last year, Stewart boasted that statewide and local lawmakers needed someone to "beat up on them." That tone is gone.

"I've gradually learned that the role of the chairman is as consensus-builder, and that's something that has not been a strong suit for me," said Stewart, 40, who represented the Occoquan District on the board before being elected chairman. "My mind-set has changed a little bit. When you are a district supervisor, it's easy to be a bomb-thrower and not worry about the consequences."

The chairman has invited supervisors out for one-on-one lunches over the past few months. He held a get-together for the board at the upscale Homestead resort during the annual Virginia Association of Counties meeting in November. And in December he hosted a Christmas party for board members and their families at his home.

Rather than headline a recent press conference solo, he asked Supervisor John D. Jenkins (Neabsco), the longest-serving board member and one of only two Democrats, to share the microphone.

"There is no reason to posture for anything right now," Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) said. "There are no positions for him to run for, so it's a good time to work together and govern."

Stewart is not only intent on changing his image with colleagues. He is attending ribbon-cuttings and community meetings and speaking at events, such as the recent police academy graduation, the first one he has gone to in his five years in office. At times, he is finding it difficult to shake his ties to anti-illegal-immigration efforts.

After Stewart talked to the police recruits about the county's "reputation as a trailblazing community," Police Chief Charlie T. Deane stepped to the microphone with unusually pointed remarks.

Deane said resident satisfaction with the police department decreased in the county's annual survey last year, most prominently among the Hispanic community.

"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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