The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Spanberger flips the script on policing in race against auxiliary deputy

Yesli Vega, left, Republican candidate for the Virginia 7th Congressional District, is running to unseat Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va). (Nathan Howard (left photo) and Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
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The ad sounded just like a Republican attack straight out of 2020: “She voted against our police and sheriffs,” a narrator says.

But the digital ad — released this week — is in fact from Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger, accusing her Republican opponent in the 7th Congressional District race, Prince William County Board Supervisor Yesli Vega, of not funding police by voting against the county budgets. “Yesli Vega won’t keep us safe,” the ad’s ending note says.

The only hitch: Vega herself is a former police officer — and still in uniform as an auxiliary deputy with the Prince William County Sheriff’s Office.

“I find that laughable, to be honest with you,” Vega said of the ad, saying she voted against the budgets due to her opposition to tax hikes.

The ad offers a preview of how policing is likely to play a key role in a highly competitive race between two women with law enforcement backgrounds. And it comes at a time when Spanberger is leading a push in Congress with Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) to increase Justice Department grant funding for local police departments to hire and train more officers through an existing program, part of a broader package of police funding bills slated to go up in Congress.

It’s the kind of effort Spanberger could almost single-handedly point to in swatting down a “defund the police” attack from Republicans, even as the bills have led to some criticism from the more liberal wing of her party and from civil rights groups, which want to see more of a focus on police accountability.

Spanberger had been a vocal critic of the “defund the police” rhetoric in the 2020 cycle during a tense intraparty debate following the deluge of attacks from Republicans, particularly in swing districts like hers. But she said her bill is not a response to that rhetoric and is principally about the needs of police departments in her district — needs that she argued Vega, even if in uniform, voted against locally.

“There’s a verifiable place where we in positions of elected office have the ability to support police,” she said. “Every single time I have been given the opportunity to vote to increase support to federal law enforcement, or local law enforcement via federal grant dollars, I have done so.”

The two candidates took diverging paths in law enforcement to end up on the same campaign trail.

Spanberger, the daughter of a federal law enforcement officer, worked as an investigator with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service before becoming a CIA officer focused on counterterrorism. Those experiences have informed much of her work in Congress, ranging from providing a law-enforcement lens into why she supports certain gun-control measures to speaking on the threats of domestic terrorism.

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Vega has frequently told the story of what inspired her to become a police officer: Members of the gang MS-13 shot her brother and killed his friend when they were teenagers. Vega, a daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, joined the Alexandria Police Department in 2011, became a hostage negotiator with the Manassas Park Police Department and ultimately ended up in the Prince William Sheriff’s office. She appears in uniform at the end of every campaign message to supporters — putting her background as a police officer at the center of her campaign with pledges to fight crime and trafficking and illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“These are the issues I’ve had to walk in,” Vega said, “and so I’m passionate about public safety. I’m passionate about law and order, and really that’s where my heart is when it comes to being a police officer.”

The day after Spanberger’s ad dropped, Vega held a law-enforcement roundtable she said focused on police officer shortages — which she blamed in part on “anti-police” rhetoric among Democrats — and how in her view the drug and human trafficking at the border can still affect the 7th District. The next day, she unveiled endorsements from nine sheriffs, representing the majority of sheriffs in the district.

One, King George County Sheriff Chris Giles, said Vega’s background as a local law enforcement officer was the biggest draw for him — but more specifically, he said, she had firsthand understanding of how a lack of mental health resources in a community affects law enforcement.

“That was one of the biggest things that really helped me realize that she understands the mental health problem because she works in law enforcement,” he said, “and she wants to help the best way she can — at least that’s what she’s telling me — at the federal level.”

Vega became a county board supervisor in 2020. She said she has never voted in favor of one of the county budgets since taking office because she opposed tax increases included in them, particularly during the pandemic and a time of high costs and rising inflation. She also pushed this year to hire more police officers, an effort that did not succeed on the Democratic-majority board, save for some added civilian positions.

Yesli Vega: a new provocateur in Prince William County

Asked what she thought of Spanberger’s bill in Congress that would offer federal grants to hire more officers, Vega said: “This is election-season Abby who is willing to do and say whatever she needs to say because for her it’s about self-preservation. For me it’s about literally putting my life on the line to defend the community I love.”

She decried Spanberger’s vote for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which included a provision to make it easier to sue law enforcement.

But Spanberger said Vega’s own comments in recent weeks have called into question her support for law enforcement. She pointed to recent comments in Vega’s campaign messages calling the FBI “corrupt” for its search of former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach, Fla., plus Vega’s past sympathy for Jan. 6 rioters, saying they have been unfairly persecuted.

“I carried a gun every single day for a couple years,” Spanberger said. “I have written my fair share of search warrant, arrest warrant affidavits. I have a set of experiences as well. That’s why I find [Vega’s] position on commitment to law enforcement so frankly offensive.”

Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said that while Republicans have had a firm hold on the “law-and-order” messaging in recent decades, Jan. 6 may have changed that. Now, he said, Democrats have an opening to undermine their Republican opponents’ professed commitment to law-and-order and flip the script on them — exactly what Spanberger has sought to do.

“One of the realities of politics is that the best defense is a good offense,” he said. “Two years ago, a lot of Republicans tried to attack Democrats for the comments of the minority who talked about defunding the police. Now, a lot of Democrats are likely to attack Republicans for not being supportive enough of the police, particularly in the wake of January 6.”

More recently, some congressional Republicans have made that easier for Democrats by calling to defund the FBI following its search warrant at Mar-a-Lago. Vega, like many Republicans, immediately sought to discredit the court-approved search, saying in campaign fundraising emails that the FBI was part of the “deep state” and that the search was “for no reason.” The FBI seized 11 sets of classified documents, and as The Washington Post reported, agents were searching for some documents related to nuclear weapons.

Vega said she would not support defunding the FBI but would support an audit of the agency if elected, calling the search politically motivated.

“Any person who would call FBI agents and law enforcement officers corrupt and deep state, that’s disqualifying,” Spanberger said.

Farnsworth said Spanberger’s efforts to turn the tables on Vega, focusing on those comments, could energize the more liberal base of the party that might otherwise not be too thrilled with her leading the charge to increase police funding in Congress.

Spanberger and Rice’s bill was part of a public-safety and police-funding package — including the Invest to Protect Act by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) — that got delayed at the end of July. The Congressional Black Caucus and Progressive Caucus wanted to see more police accountability provisions added to the bills if they were going to include more funding for police. Numerous criminal justice and civil rights groups echoed those concerns, including the ACLU.

“We do not need to repeat the mistakes of the past and spend more public dollars without public accountability for the outcomes,” Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s justice division, said in an email to The Post.

A vote on the legislative package was delayed so that negotiations to include more guardrails for the funding could continue, and it’s unclear when the package may go up again. Spanberger said talks have been constructive and that she did not view police accountability and funding as “mutually exclusive,” seeing value in doing both, or using funding as a tool to allow departments to have more resources for de-escalation training or body cameras.

The legislation was popular with a number of law enforcement leaders in her district, including Culpeper Police Chief Chris Jenkins, who invited Spanberger for a ride-along earlier this year. Jenkins said smaller police departments in the district could use the grant money to hire quality, community-oriented officers and enhance training, ingredients he said were essential for building trust with residents.

The chief said he had nothing against Vega, but based on the work Spanberger had done in Congress — including a bill she led to increase resources to mental health and substance abuse programs — he had decided to throw his support behind her.

“I haven’t seen anybody in a long time that is more supportive of law enforcement and our community,” said Jenkins, who identifies as Republican but notes he doesn’t vote based on party.

He added: “At the end of the day, I think there’s a group of people who will vote party lines, and I think there’s another group of people like myself who will decide the election based on who they think the best candidate is for whatever their issues are.”