The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Money from PAC funded by George Soros shakes up prosecutor races in Northern Virginia

Parisa Tafti, left, a defense lawyer who works on wrongful convictions, has launched a Democratic primary challenge to unseat Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos, right, a prosecutor for the past 30 years.
Parisa Tafti, left, a defense lawyer who works on wrongful convictions, has launched a Democratic primary challenge to unseat Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos, right, a prosecutor for the past 30 years. (Tafti campaign; Arlington commonwealth's attorney's office)
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A political action committee funded by Democratic mega­donor and billionaire George Soros has made large contributions to two upstart progressive candidates attempting to unseat Democratic prosecutors in Northern Virginia primary races.

The generous support for Arlington County commonwealth’s attorney candidate Parisa Tafti and Fairfax County commonwealth’s attorney candidate Steve Descano could shake up contests that rarely receive such national attention.

Tafti and Descano welcomed the contributions. But incumbents Theo Stamos and Raymond F. Morrogh denounced their opponents for taking the money, saying it made them beholden to the agenda of a political operative with no roots in Virginia.

The challengers received another high-profile push Monday, when a group of professional football stars who advocate for racial and social justice hosted a forum that featured Tafti and Descano. Morrogh and Stamos were also invited by the Players Coalition but had scheduling conflicts.

Soros-aligned PACs have given heavily to local prosecutor races across the country in recent years, helping tip contests to reformist Democratic candidates in Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston and elsewhere.

Criminal justice reform activists like Soros have targeted prosecutor races as one of the most direct routes to changing policy because the local offices wield wide power over who gets charged, what charges they face and who goes free on bond.

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Tafti and Descano each received more than $50,000 in in-kind contributions from the Virginia Justice and Public Safety PAC this year, according to recently released campaign contribution figures. In-kind contributions pay for polling, mailers and other campaign services. A mailer funded by the PAC went out to Arlington residents over the weekend.

The PAC is now far and away both candidates’ largest donor, and the contributions represent sizable chunks of the $139,000 and $146,000 Tafti and Descano have raised, respectively. And thanks to the PAC’s donations, each candidate has now raised more than the incumbent in the race — both Morrogh and Stamos have raised roughly $106,000.

Tafti and Descano have staked out positions to the left of the incumbents on a range of issues, promising to end marijuana possession prosecutions, do away with cash bond and forgo death penalty prosecutions. In recent debates, both have highlighted racial disparities in prosecution, particularly for low-level drug and driving offenses.

Tafti and Descano declined to be interviewed about the donations or say how the money would be spent, but they did issue statements.

“I have the support of virtually every grassroots activist organization that supports reform in our community in addition to the support of a wide array of individuals who understand the need for change in our local criminal justice system,” Tafti said in the statement. “I welcome the support of any organization that believes in my campaign.”

Stamos said taking such a large donation from a billionaire undercut Tafti’s progressive credentials.

“I would say that out-of-state money that wants to control the outcome of a local election is disturbing,” Stamos said in an interview. “This is a community that values local civic engagement and local experience. No amount of special interest money will make up for those deficiencies.”

Stamos pointed to her 30 years of experience as a prosecutor and her role in creating a drug court and other efforts. She said the declining jail population in Arlington was proof she had pushed a progressive agenda.

Descano, a former federal prosecutor and Army helicopter pilot, said the donation from the Soros-funded PAC validates his push to remake the prosecutor’s office in Fairfax County.

“If we want real criminal justice reform where it matters most, then that change starts here at home,” Descano said in his statement. “That’s why I’m so encouraged by all of the support my vision for progressive criminal justice reform has received.”

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Morrogh, who like Stamos has run on his more than 30 years of experience, issued a brief statement on the PAC donation, saying, “Public safety is not for sale in Fairfax County.” He has also said he has progressive bona fides, pointing to his work helping divert veterans and the mentally ill from the criminal justice system.

Officials with Virginia Justice and Public Safety PAC declined to comment. It’s unclear if the contributions represented one-time expenditures or if the support will continue as the June 11 primary nears. Tafti and Descano also declined to say whether more funding was coming.

Some Northern Virginia defense attorneys said they were wary of helping a challenger when the incumbents control their clients’ fates. Stamos has actively solicited the endorsement of lawyers who represent clients in Arlington, several said.

“It puts defense attorneys in a very awkward position,” said Julia Leighton, a former D.C. public defender who lives in Arlington.

The Players Coalition is not endorsing or contributing money in either race, but both Tafti and Descano appeared Monday evening at a town hall in Fairfax hosted by the group. Host Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles was sympathetic to the challengers, calling statistics on marijuana prosecutions and drug treatment availability in Arlington “wild” and “actually shocking.”

“More and more people are waking up to the fact that our criminal justice system is in serious need of reform,” Long said, and “the prosecutor more than any other government official has the ability to shape criminal justice policy.” He urged the audience to “go engage people” to vote in the primary.

State Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City), who is backing Morrogh and has not endorsed in Arlington, said he was leery of local races becoming referendums on national issues, even though he has supported criminal justice reform legislation.

“I’m aware there’s a lot of issues out there involving criminal justice reform, but I’m a little bit reticent to see people from a local constitutional office who would be running with national money and a national agenda,” Petersen said. “That’s not how we’ve done it in Virginia historically.”

This story initially reported candidates’ fundraising only from 2019; it has been updated to include fundraising numbers from 2018.

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