In the process, Stewart has rankled Democrats and Republicans in Virginia’s largest jurisdiction who were already concerned over how a recent spike in MS-13-related crimes — including four killings in the past two years — will affect Fairfax’s image.
Stewart, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for governor last year, is considered the front-runner in the three-way primary contest for Senate on June 12. He is competing against two lesser-known opponents, Del. Nick Freitas (Culpeper) and evangelical pastor E.W. Jackson. The winner will challenge Sen. Tim Kaine (D) in November.
In robo-calls and campaign stops through some of Fairfax’s wealthiest neighborhoods, Stewart promised to “Make Fairfax Safe Again” — and portrayed the county of 1.1 million residents as being overrun by criminal gangs while falsely claiming that Fairfax has “declared itself a ‘sanctuary city.’ ”
“The time has come to end the scourge of illegal aliens who are preying on law-abiding United States citizens here in Fairfax County,” Stewart said during a rally in front of the Fairfax County Detention Center that was attended by about 50 supporters. “We are going to take Fairfax back and we are going to destroy MS-13.”
The strategy mirrors that of President Trump, who has repeatedly fanned fears over MS-13 — shorthand for Mara Salvatrucha -- to score political points, most recently accusing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of being an “MS-13 lover.”
To back his own claims, Stewart relies on uncertain gang population estimates and only a partial view of crime data.
His campaign says there are more MS-13 members in Fairfax than there are police officers, whose ranks number about 1,400.
That assertion —also made by Republican Ed Gillespie about Fairfax when he ran for governor last year — is based on a 2015 county police estimate that, relying on a county youth survey earlier that year, determined that there were about 2,000 gang members in Fairfax.
But with federal estimates for the entire region far lower, Fairfax officials have since acknowledged that it’s hard to know how many gang members are in the county. Moreover, some youths may claim to be in a gang but really aren’t.
At his campaign stops, Stewart predicts gang violence in Fairfax will rise after a recent decision by Sheriff Stacy Kincaid to cancel an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that kept jail inmates suspected of being in the country illegally for as long as two days past their release dates. That agreement expired on May 23.
“What they’re doing by turning a blind eye to a rising MS-13 gang problem, particularly when 80 percent or higher of MS-13 gang members are illegal aliens, is just reprehensible,” Stewart said in an interview.
By contrast, Prince William got tougher on immigrants, approving a 2008 ordinance that directs police to alert ICE when someone suspected of being in the country illegally is arrested for another crime, which has resulted in several thousand such referrals.
As a result, Stewart says, the crime rate dropped from 20.1 percent in 2008 to 13.7 percent in 2016, the most recent year for which complete federal crime data is available.
However, those statistics reflect a national drop in crime that began in the 1990s. They also show violent crime in Prince William rising in recent years, before a drop in killings last year.
Between 2012 and 2016, homicides in Prince William steadily climbed from just two to a record-high 22, while aggravated assaults increased from 368 to 524, records show. The county has said there were four homicides last year, with 2017 data for other crimes still being analyzed.
In Fairfax, slayings inched up from 16 in 2012 to 18 in 2016 and, again, in 2017. Aggravated assaults went from 383 in 2012 to 395 in 2016.
When questioned about Prince William’s recent spike in violent crimes, Stewart said he prefers to focus on the overall crime rate.
“You’re going to have spikes or drops in any particular year,” he said. “We’re always looking at the long term.”
Officials in vote-rich Fairfax accused Stewart of trying to cause a scare.
“It’s giving totally false information,” said Sharon Bulova (D), the chair of Fairfax’s Board of Supervisors, who last week received a robo-call invitation to Saturday’s rally.
“Fairfax County has not declared itself a sanctuary city, and Fairfax County does not have the worst MS-13 problem, and our jails are not releasing dangerous criminals into the community,” she said. “None of that is true.”
Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock), who chairs the board’s public safety committee, said Stewart is using a problem in some portions of Fairfax to cater to anti-immigrant sentiments among Republicans.
“To carry it to such extremes and to sort of just be intentionally demeaning is not the way the party should be going,” he said.
Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) said he agrees that Fairfax’s problems with MS-13 may be made worse by Kincaid’s decision to end the ICE agreement.
But “going after MS-13 is really about protecting our immigrant communities because they’re the ones who are being preyed upon,” he said.
Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy, sees a more sophisticated strategy. In a general election against Kaine, Stewart can use worries about MS-13 violence to rally his conservative base and siphon support from moderate voters, Kidd said.
“If he can gain traction on this law-and-order question, then it plays potentially really well in a general election if you’ve got the president and Republicans nationally also making law and order a big deal,” Kidd said.
At a recent campaign stop among the mansions of Great Falls, about 30 Republican voters gathered to hear Stewart talk about the encroaching menace of MS-13 on their lives.
Some vaguely agreed that more should be done about the problem. Others expressed genuine worry that the gang is too close to home.
“I don’t think we have MS-13 right here in Great Falls, but it is right next door in Herndon,” said Andy Wilson, 71, who hosted the event with his wife, Nancy. “Our kids went to middle school and high school in Herndon, so it’s right here and it’s very concerning. “