The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In fast-growing Va. suburb, state and national issues echo in local election

Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, speaks at a debate Wednesday. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Democrat Phyllis J. Randall’s surprise victory four years ago — in an unusual three-way racemade her the first African American to chair Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors.

Now, Randall is working to build on that success and turn the country’s wealthiest county into a more active voice on issues such as gun violence, climate change and women’s rights, drawing on Loudoun’s growing diversity, frustration over recent racist incidents in schools and opposition to President Trump.

Randall, 54, faces a tough reelection battle against Republican John C. Whitbeck. As the two major-party candidates in an election contest that also includes independent Robert Ohneiser, they have opposing views on the role the county of 413,000 residents should play in increasingly blue Northern Virginia.

“This election is about putting people in office who are communicating with people who share their values and who want to move both Loudoun and the entire area forward,” said Randall, who has linked her campaign — and her effort to erase the GOP’s 6-to-3 majority on the board — to a giant push by Democrats to win control of the General Assembly in Richmond.

“It’s about all these really important issues that have come to surface today: gun rights, obviously, climate change,” she said. “But also, at the local level, it’s about quality-of-life issues.”

Whitbeck argues that managing Loudoun’s explosive growth should be the chief priority of the Board of Supervisors. A former state party chair who resigned in 2018 amid heated intraparty divisions, he said he would focus on traffic congestion, school funding and protecting the area’s steadily eroding rural corridor from future development.

“As chairman, I would stick to those issues that the Board of Supervisors could actually affect,” said Whitbeck, 43, who has outraised Randall by 40 percent, with $557,000.

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Home to sprawling residential developments, office towers and a cluster of computer data centers that handles 70 percent of the world’s Internet traffic, Loudoun is in the midst of a fundamental transformation that is set to increase with the pending arrival of Metro’s Silver Line.

The county was more than 80 percent white in 2000, when 170,000 people lived there. It is now nearly 40 percent Asian, Latino and African American, U.S. census estimates show.

Randall says the county’s leadership should reflect that diversity, noting that her board colleagues include five white men: Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn), Tony R. Buffington Jr. (R-Blue Ridge), Ron A. Meyer (R-Broad Run), Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) and Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles); two white women: Supervisors Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) and Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg); and an African American man, Supervisor Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling).

Republicans Buona, Higgins and Meyer are not seeking reelection, but the GOP nominees for their seats are also white men. The slate of Democrats seeking office includes four women — one of whom is African American — and an African American man.

“The county leadership does not look like the county,” Randall said.

That dynamic has served as a backdrop in the race.

Randall said her election initially spurred opposition that was sometimes hateful.

In 2016, she tried to block one critic from posting what she considered “slanderous” comments on her official Facebook page a move the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit later found was unconstitutional.

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During a contentious meeting last year that involved regulating target shooting, one angry gun rights advocate called Randall “Maxine Waters,” referring to the African American Democratic congresswoman from California who has been a favorite target for conservatives.

“In my head, I was like: ‘Don’t laugh,’ ” Randall recalled. “Because it was clearly racist.”

Randall said she has mostly campaigned on her ability to work with her Republican colleagues. She led an effort to update the county’s “Comprehensive Plan” for the first time in nearly two decades, steering higher-density development to areas near the Silver Line and adding protections against development encroaching into rural areas.

A former mental-health counselor, she has focused on funding more social services for lower-income residents and spearheaded the reopening of a drug court that diverts offenders with addictions to treatment programs.

She also helped lead the charge for a 62 percent pay raise for county supervisors that kicks in next year. That measure, approved in a 5-to-4 vote, elevates the chair’s annual salary to $81,100, the vice chair’s pay to $73,363 and pay for the other supervisors to $66,826 in a county where the median household income is $125,900.

Whitbeck, who in 2013 endured a brief controversy over an anti-Semitic joke he made as party chair, has modeled parts of his campaign around Loudoun’s changing demographics. He denounced the racist bullying inside schools, which included nooses hung from trees at one building entrance. And he has met with ethnic-community leaders to talk about the importance of diversity.

A family law attorney who also focuses on cases related to mental health, Whitbeck says he, too, wants to increase social services in Loudoun, proposing a new position in the county attorney’s office that would focus on mental-health issues.

He has attacked Randall over the salary increase for supervisors, arguing that the county’s elected offices are essentially part-time jobs that should not garner that much pay.

Among Whitbeck’s chief proposals is to add campus-based police officers to every elementary school, an idea that gained some traction in March after protesters walked past security to enter an Ashburn elementary school.

The demonstrators were protesting a Black History Month exercise at the school, where students were asked to pretend to be runaway slaves using the Underground Railroad.

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“I agree with them in principle, but they shouldn’t be able to go into a school and stage a protest without permission,” Whitbeck said about the demonstrators, calling the school exercise “really racist.”

Randall, who said she has supported expanding the school resource officer program for years, also condemned that school exercise.

Whitbeck said he is mainly concerned about controlling development. He has proposed allowing rural landowners to sell density rights to developers who are willing to build in already heavily populated areas.

“We’re grappling with traffic that has steadily gotten worse, we’re grappling with a housing shortage that has steadily gotten worse,” Whitbeck said. “It has become less about partisanship and more about good policy.”

At a debate inside a Leesburg recreation center Wednesday, the mood was mostly partisan. Most members of the standing-room audience were Randall supporters, including some gun-control advocates in red Moms Demand Action T-shirts. A group of young Whitbeck supporters greeted people driving in with signs accusing Randall of raising taxes and supporting higher tolls on the privately owned Dulles Greenway toll road.

Questions covered topics such as land-use policy and a need to diversify the economy away from its heavy reliance on the computer-data-center industry. Toward the end, Randall cast the election as a referendum on Loudoun’s identity, noting that Whitbeck had supported Trump and former Senate candidate Corey A. Stewart (R), the outspoken chair of Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

“Because we are so close to Washington, D.C., we feel that Trump effect,” Randall said. “It would be even worse not to just feel it, but to experience it on the board, and that’s what could happen if you don’t have the right people who serve on the Board of Supervisors.”

The remark drew loud cheers from her supporters, boos from the Whitbeck crowd and a smirk from the Republican candidate, who again attacked Randall for the pay hike for county supervisors.

“You know who didn’t get a 62 percent pay raise next year? Teachers, first responders, county employees,” Whitbeck said.

Some voters said afterward that they didn’t like the idea of bringing national and state politics into a local race. “I just think she’s too partisan,” said Del Nylec, 82, who is white and a Whitbeck supporter.

But Tom Wilson, who is African American, said Randall’s message resonated with him. “We all have to be included, and with the leadership at the top, there seems to be an attempt to divide,” said Wilson, 72, referring to the president.

At the same time, he said, he cared more about the fact that Randall worked to get his neighborhood street paved. “Those things mean a lot,” Wilson said.

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