The outspoken Stewart stirred passions over illegal immigration and gun control when he took the helm of the board in 2006, launching a headline-grabbing political career that included failed bids for governor and U.S. Senate.
Gray, 68, had hoped to follow in his footsteps but faced a huge backlash — including from fellow Republicans — over a series of tweets he posted that, among other things, denigrated Muslims and immigrants. The tweets came into public view after Gray used campaign money to have them deleted.
The race also included independents Donald E. Scoggins and Muneer Baig.
Wheeler, 58, who according to unofficial results won by a wide margin, campaigned to increase affordable housing and public transportation, ramp up school funding to raise teacher pay and expand the county’s pre-kindergarten program.
She will be the first Democratic board chair since 1999 in Prince William, which has had a GOP majority on the board for more than two decades. Wheeler’s victory was part of a Democratic wave in Northern Virginia, with the Loudoun County board also becoming majority-Democratic, and Republicans losing one of its two seats on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
“Goodness and decency are winning tonight across Virginia,” Wheeler said in a phone interview. “It’s a good day to be a Virginian.”
At Battlefield High School, several voters said they knew little about Wheeler or her opponent but wanted the divisive politics of Washington out of their backyard.
“I’ve never seen it like this before,” said Wheeler voter Alecia Brognano, 70, citing Gray’s comments on undocumented immigrants. “All of that talk just seems to be flowing down and it’s making us forget who we are.”
Babak Alidoosti, 36, said he found Gray’s rhetoric unsurprising “given the right’s rhetoric in recent years.”
“It’s fine to have differences of opinions,” the Haymarket resident said. “But I don’t think there’s any room for that, especially in the Northern Virginia I want to live in.”
In district races, Democratic challenger Kenny Allen Boddye ousted Republican Supervisor Ruth M. Anderson (Occoquan). Democrat Andrea Bailey beat Republican Douglas Taggart in the Potomac district, which has been represented for 15 years by Republican Maureen S. Caddigan, who did not seek reelection.
Republican Jeanine Lawson beat Democrat Maggie Hansford in Brentsville; Supervisor Pete K. Candland (R-Gainesville) beat Democrat Danny Funderburk; and Republican Yesli Vega beat Democrat Raheel Sheikh in Coles.
Democrat Margaret A. Franklin (Woodbridge) and Supervisor Victor Angry (D-Neabsco) ran unopposed.
A few board races became more competitive once Stewart decided to leave office, and they gained energy from the Democratic effort to turn out voters in key state legislative races in Prince William.
After Gray beat longtime Republican Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (Coles) in the GOP primary for board chairman, Wheeler picked up moderates who might have supported Nohe but were turned off by Gray’s hard-line stances on immigration and county finances.
Gray said he would fight Democratic efforts to cancel a federal contract that enables the sheriff’s department to hold undocumented inmates wanted for deportation beyond their release dates. A certified public accountant, he pledged to audit county spending and opposed a $355 million transportation bond issuance geared toward fixing county roads that was also on the ballot.
Wheeler promised to attract more technology companies and increase Prince William’s economic influence.
The Coles district race was marked by allegations of racism and national partisan overtones. Democrats highlighted a 2010 Facebook chat between Vega, 34, and a friend in which the Republican used a variation of the n-word, seemingly in a non-pejorative way, to refer to a mutual friend. Vega attacked Sheikh, 44, for a mailer that showed an image of President Trump, photoshopped as if he were wearing a Halloween mask created from a photo of Vega’s face with her eyes cut out.
Vega, a county sheriff’s deputy, became the board’s first Latina supervisor. Like Gray, she calledfor a tougher approach to illegal immigration and said she would cut spending and protectrural areas from further development.
In the Potomac district, Bailey, 64, promised to work to increase county mental health services and expand commuter rail and bus services in Prince William. Taggart, 64, said he wanted to be a consensus-builder, focused on reducing traffic and luringbusinesses to the Route 1 corridor.
Rachel Chason contributed to this report.