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Corey Stewart’s county no more: Virginia county aims to become liberal model

Ann Wheeler (D), newly elected chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, speaks during a news conference in Woodbridge while flanked by other incoming board members. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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With a new Democratic majority, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors will shift its priorities next year by revisiting a cooperation agreement with federal immigration authorities and approaching funding for schools, transportation and other services through a lens of social and racial equity.

In other words, Virginia’s second-most populous jurisdiction will no longer be inextricably linked with Republican firebrand Corey A. Stewart, the outgoing board chair who garnered national attention by targeting undocumented immigrants, championing Confederate monuments and embracing a Trump-like caustic style during his failed bids for governor and U.S. senator.

“We can finally close the chapter on the last 15 years,” said Ann Wheeler, the Democrat who won the seat Stewart is vacating after leading the board for nearly that long.

With four African American Democrats and a conservative Latina Republican also joining the historically all-white, mostly male board, Wheeler said, “The county is better represented by the people who live here now.”

The flip to a 5-3 Democratic majority came amid a broader effort to win control of the General Assembly in Richmond that energized liberal voters in Prince William and throughout the state.

In an election where no statewide or federal candidates were on the ballot, 40 percent of Prince William’s 285,223 registered voters turned out — about 13 percentage points more than in 2015, the last off-off year election, the county’s office of elections said.

Their enthusiasm helped Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas), the nation’s first openly transgender state lawmaker, easily win a second term. Fellow freshmen Dels. Hala Ayala (D-Prince William), Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) and Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) — all women of color — also were reelected, reflecting the changing demographics of a county that was overwhelmingly white 30 years ago — and since then has nearly doubled in size.

Those state legislators brought support to the county board candidates — donating money, offering advice and including them in campaign appearances with several presidential candidates who toured through Prince William.

The board hopefuls, like their state legislative counterparts, emphasized bread-and-butter local issues. Kenny Boddye (D), for example, who ousted longtime Republican Supervisor Ruth M. Anderson in the Occoquan District, echoed Roem’s signature pledge to reduce traffic congestion on Route 28.

But they also are vowing to help make Prince William a model for liberal policies, addressing the needs of poor and marginalized communities that, according to civil rights activists, have not been a priority.

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Boddye, a community activist, said he plans to advocate for the creation of a public defender’s office and to increase funding for mental-health services. He cited as his motivation his mother’s problems with mental health and addiction before she died in 2016, and a half brother’s inability to find work after a drug-dealing conviction when he was a juvenile.

“I want to take some of that lived experience that I have . . . and bring that kind of experience to our board,” he said.

The new board’s other Democrats are: Supervisor Victor S. Angry (D-Neabsco), who initially won the seat in a special election held earlier this year after longtime Democratic Supervisor John Jenkins died; Andrea O. Bailey, who won the Potomac district seat being vacated by GOP Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan; and Margaret A. Franklin, who beat Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge) during the Democratic primary election and ran unopposed in the general election.

The board’s three Republicans are: Supervisors Jeanine M. Lawson (R-Brentsville) and Pete K. Candland (R-Gainesville) and Yesli Vega, a county sheriff’s deputy who became the county’s first Latina supervisor in the Coles district, where Republican Supervisor Martin E. Nohe is stepping down.

Cozy Bailey, president of the county’s NAACP chapter, said the greater diversity on the board will make it easier to advocate for social and racial equity. Though more than half of Prince William’s 463,000 residents are nonwhite, getting the county board to be more mindful of people of color has been challenging, said Bailey, who is married to the new Potomac district supervisor.

He recalled a 2017 battle over a county bus service decision to lay off 13 dispatchers — most of them people of color — as part of a restructuring plan meant to save $667,000. The county supervisors showed little sympathy toward the plight of those workers, Bailey said.

“I think this [new] board will go forward in making the right business decisions, but will be more in touch with some of the human issues that go into them,” he said.

Some Republicans say there is a possibility that the board could alienate the county’s more conservative residents by veering too far to the left.

Democrats now have control of both chambers of the Virginia statehouse for the first time in over two decades. (Video: The Washington Post)

For example, they predicted a backlash over plans by some of the newly elected supervisors to try to at least reduce the scope of the county’s decade-old cooperation agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which allows the sheriff’s office to detain inmates wanted for deportation beyond their local release dates.

Stewart championed that agreement early in his political career. The decision over whether to keep it lies with the Prince William-Manassas Regional Jail Board, which is chaired by Republican Sheriff Glendell Hill but includes 10 members who are mostly appointed by the county board.

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Hill narrowly won reelection over a Democratic challenger who campaigned on a promise to end the agreement. Several incoming supervisors said they’ll lean on the jail board to make the change anyway, arguing that the money used to house inmates until they’re retrieved by ICE could be better spent elsewhere and that the agreement has stirred fear and resentment in the county’s growing immigrant communities.

“The conversation we need to have is: Is this a program that creates a sense of community?” said Franklin, a congressional legislative director. “I would argue that it’s not.”

Hill said he’s willing to entertain possible changes to the agreement, a sentiment echoed by Candland. “I’m fine having that discussion on: Is this program still something that is a priority for us?” said Candland, adding that he would defer to police department statistics on the agreement’s impact on local crime.

GOP activists nevertheless urged caution, noting that Republican John Gray, who made cracking down on illegal immigration central to his campaign against Wheeler for the chair’s seat, garnered a solid 35 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results. And Vega, who also vowed to protect the ICE agreement, easily won her election.

“Were we to drift into that territory, they [Democrats] could definitely suffer,” said Bill Card, chair of the county Republican committee.

Wheeler said she will work to find common ground with her Republican colleagues. She cited the shared desire to build more permanent classrooms in areas of the county with overcrowded schools and to raise teachers’ salaries.

“Everybody wants strong schools,” Wheeler said. “I think that will be one of the first issues that we can tackle together.”

Stewart agreed with that measured approach, saying he has met with a few of the newly elected supervisors to fill them in on some of Prince William’s more pressing concerns. His advice to them: Go slow.

“When you’re campaigning for office, it’s very different than governing,” Stewart said. “When you finally get into office, you realize that a lot of the things you thought you wanted to do are either not a good idea or are undoable.”

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