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Changing suburbs: Blue victories in Northern Va. mean focus on housing, schools, transit

Ann B. Wheeler, chairwoman-elect of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, speaks at a news conference Wednesday in Woodbridge, Va. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The Democratic takeover of county governments in Northern Virginia’s large outer suburbs will pour new money into housing, transit and schools, bring new efforts to fight climate change and offer a friendlier face to immigrants.

In Tuesday’s elections, a younger, more racially diverse electorate combined with a backlash against President Trump to propel the most dramatic political shift in a generation in Prince William and Loudoun counties.

Democrats wrested the majority away from Republicans on both boards of supervisors. In Prince William, where the most thorough reversal occurred, Democrat Ann Wheeler will succeed conservative firebrand Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) — the embodiment of the rightward shift of the Virginia GOP — as board chair. Stewart did not seek reelection.

The change was less pronounced in Fairfax, the state’s most populous jurisdiction, where Democrats retained control and picked up a seat. But power passed to a younger generation, led by Chair-elect Jeff McKay (D), who brings a more assertively liberal approach than longtime, mild-mannered Chair Sharon Bulova (D-At Large), who is retiring.

In a sign of the new tone, McKay said the election represented a repudiation of the Trump administration’s values.

“We will continue to lead the resistance to the demeaning comments and philosophy of this administration,” McKay said. “It’s obvious that this administration doesn’t like immigrants, doesn’t feel like women need extra protections, doesn’t feel like taking care of vulnerable populations is a role of government.”

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Combined with the reelection of liberal leaders in Arlington, the results mean both a shift to the left in suburban government in Northern Virginia and a consistent approach that spans jurisdictional lines, according to elected officials and political analysts.

The regional vision includes focusing on education, building more affordable housing, concentrating development near transit and adopting initiatives such as encouraging the use of solar panels to protect the environment. The new leaders say those priorities, which helped lead Amazon to pick Arlington for its second headquarters, is right for Northern Virginia as a whole.

“If we learned anything from Amazon, it’s that we’re not fighting against our partners in Virginia,” McKay said. “We need to be working with them. … I think you’re going to see the boundary lines between these counties blur.”

The shift from Republican to Democratic majorities in Prince William and Loudoun counties gives undocumented immigrants and their advocates hope, said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center.

“We’re nonpartisan, but there were a number of politicians who historically have run on explicitly anti-immigrant positions. Those guys are just not winning elections anymore,” he said.

Under Stewart, for example, Prince William was one of the few communities in the greater Washington area whose local sheriff’s office cooperated with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to carry out federal immigration laws. Loudoun also has considered such a program.

The five Democrats who now make up a majority on Prince William’s eight-member board made clear that the county’s policies were going to change.

“It’s time we shut the door on divisiveness and negativity,” Wheeler said.

The supervisors-elect suggested they would stop funding the local cooperation program with ICE but said they would first conduct a comprehensive review of the county’s immigration policies.

Wheeler said the No. 1 priority for the new board would be increasing spending on education, which the GOP has resisted. Asked whether that would require raising property taxes, she said, “Not off the bat,” and added, “In the long run, it’s about bringing more commercial tax revenue into the county.”

The racial diversity of the new board majority — four African American supervisors, Kenny Boddye, Margaret A. Franklin, Andrea O. Bailey and Victor S. Angry, stood at the lectern with Wheeler, who is white — was in marked contrast with the current board, which has six Republicans and two Democrats. Even though blacks, Latinos and other minorities outnumber whites in Prince William, the board was all-white until April, when Angry (D-Neabsco) won a special election to fill an empty seat.

The Republicans added to the board’s diversity, too, with election of Yesli Vega, a Latina, as the new supervisor representing the Coles District.

“This is a majority minority county, and now the board finally represents that,” said Supervisor-elect Margaret Franklin (D-Woodbridge), who is African American.

Similar change was evident in Loudoun, which flipped from a 6-to-3 GOP majority to Democratic control by the same margin. The board will have three African Americans and four women, both record numbers, the newly elected members said Wednesday.

“There was a shift that happened yesterday, and that the shift was that we believe in more inclusivity. We believe in more diversity. We believe everyone having a voice will be heard,” said Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), who won a second term as chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. “And that’s the message that Northern Virginia sends to the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth to the country.”

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The political turnover in Loudoun greatly strengthens Randall’s hand. She and others said Loudoun’s eyes are on substantive policy changes, such as seeking a local referendum to create a police department in addition to the sheriff’s department, which in other large counties handles the jail and courts rather than being the main patrol and investigation force.

There have been years of animosity between the supervisors and the sheriff, predating the current officeholders, based on the fact that an elected sheriff does not report to the county administrator, as a police chief would.

The Loudoun Democrats said they would seek to extend a no-shooting zone that bars people from firing weapons in residential areas or near roads. Currently, the zone bans shooting within 100 yards of occupied homes, which did not prevent a woman from getting shot and several homes from being struck by bullets in recent years.

“As you know, bullets can go much farther” than 100 yards, said Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg), who was reelected Tuesday.

Randall said the supervisors will stay out of legislative decisions in Richmond unless “things are very, very important, like the” Equal Rights Amendment, on which she would urge her colleagues to take a stand.”

The change in Fairfax was primarily generational. Bulova groomed McKay as her successor in hopes he would continue her moderate-to-liberal, business-friendly policies. Still, the new chair has said he will “step on the accelerator” to advance progressive causes.

The county will look for ways to promote use of solar panels and take other energy conservation measures, he said. It also will consider devoting an extra penny of the property tax to affordable housing, which would raise approximately $22 million a year.

“We’re thousands and thousands of units behind on affordable housing as a county, and it’s even worse at the regional level,” McKay said.

McKay said that, unlike in the past, affordable housing will be distributed throughout Fairfax, to generate enough units to try to meet a growing need.

“The old days were, ‘Keep it out of the cul de sacs,’ ” he said. “Now we’re in new days, where people want mixed-use developments. … They want affordable housing worked into communities all over the county, not just in the same pockets, where it doesn’t work.”

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