Northern Virginia voters delivered a forceful statement for sweeping criminal justice reform Tuesday, choosing progressive challengers over longtime incumbents in two hotly contested Democratic primaries for prosecutor in Arlington and Fairfax counties.
Dehghani-Tafti and Descano are among a wave of progressive liberal candidates who have promised to use local prosecutor posts to remake criminal justice policy on issues including racial disparities in sentencing, marijuana prosecutions and the death penalty.
The shift marks a stunning change: Neither challenger has prosecuted a case in state court, but they bested incumbents with more than 60 years of experience between them in the court system.
The outcomes are also a major victory for Democratic megadonor George Soros, who funded a political action committee that pumped more than $1 million into the contests in an effort to tip them toward the challengers. Experts said the level of giving was probably unprecedented for a single donor in countywide races in Virginia.
“This race and other results tonight says to me there is real energy on the progressive side of the Democratic coalition. Northern Virginia is about as blue as it gets,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “It also says something about a real desire for a different approach to the criminal justice system.”
Dehghani-Tafti thanked Stamos in her victory statement and called criminal justice reform “one of the civil rights issues of our time.” She won with 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Stamos.
“Arlington and the City of Falls Church stand ready to show the Commonwealth and the country what it means to put justice back in the criminal justice system,” Dehghani-Tafti said.
Stamos said she called Dehghani-Tafti to offer congratulations and promise a smooth transition. “I’m proud of the service that I’ve provided to Arlington County and Falls Church,” Stamos added.
In Fairfax County, Descano thanked Morrogh for his 35 years as a prosecutor. Descano narrowly edged out Morrogh with 51 percent of the vote to 49 percent.
“The people in Fairfax County want progressive criminal justice reform,” Descano said. “It’s come through loud and clear. I think the time for reform is now.”
Ben Tribbett, a campaign consultant for Morrogh, said the prosecutor would not be commenting. Morrogh spent six days in the hospital leading up to the primary, after collapsing on Wednesday because of an illness. Tribett said Morrogh is out now and recovering.
“We were outspent 3 to 1. Our candidate was in the hospital for nearly a week,” Tribbett said. “This is an election that was bought, not won. We are proud of what we did.”
The primary winners are likely to become the next commonwealth’s attorneys, because no Republican challenger has emerged for November’s general election in either jurisdiction, although independents had until Tuesday night to file.
Prosecutor races are often sleepy affairs in Northern Virginia, but the infusion of Soros’s cash, the candidates’ contrasts in ideology and experience, and personal attacks turned these races into hard-fought contests.
Dehghani-Tafti, the legal director for the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and a former public defender, and Descano, a former federal prosecutor and Army helicopter pilot, painted Stamos’s and Morrogh’s positions on a variety of issues as retrograde and excessively punitive.
Both challengers advocated for ending cash bail, stopping prosecutions for possession of marijuana and dropping use of the death penalty in capital cases. Both attacked the incumbents for opposing a 2016 move by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 Virginia felons.
“I think this outcome is going to encourage a lot more progressive folks to get in races in Virginia,” said McAuliffe, who endorsed both winners. “These were two stunning victories tonight.”
The incumbents in both counties emphasized their long experience and more-moderate approach to reform including efforts such as drug courts.
Stamos and Morrogh also tried to portray their opponents as ill-prepared for the job. The incumbents also said their opponents placed too little emphasis on the victims of crime and attacked them for taking Soros’s money, saying they would be beholden to someone with no connections to Virginia.
Hope Hallock, 50, said she was persuaded to vote for Dehghani-Tafti after receiving an email describing Stamos’s prosecution of a 13-year-old boy for saving sexual photographs of a girl his age.
“I have two teenage boys,” Hallock said, adding that she appreciated Dehghani-Tafti’s “stance on not criminalizing poor choices” on the part of teenagers.
In Fairfax County, Dave Lowe, 69, said his choice was cemented after Descano visited his home while knocking on doors in the days before the election.
“I liked what he was saying,” Lowe said. “I liked his stance on the decriminalization of marijuana. I don’t like the idea of people possibly going to jail for marijuana. I also liked that he said he was tough on crime and for gun control.”
Karen Darner, a former state delegate who backed Stamos, said many voters resented the incumbent for backing Republican-turned-independent John Vihstadt for a county board seat in 2014. “This was a punishment for Theo,” she said. “It’s very disheartening.”
She added, “I think it is foreboding for local elections because we’re going to have people clamoring to get money from George Soros — that’s what I fear greatly.” Reforms need to happen “within the system,” she said. “To ignore what the law is . . . Virginia doesn’t operate that way.”