The Republican vying to chair the Prince William Board of County Supervisors has issued dire warnings that Democrats want to turn Virginia’s second-largest jurisdiction into a sanctuary for undocumented immigrant criminals.
How voters respond in November will show how much the fast-growing county has changed in the 13 years since outgoing board chair Corey A. Stewart used resentment over illegal immigration to launch his political career.
Currently, Republicans hold a 6-2 majority on the county board. But Stewart (R) is stepping down, saying he needs a break from politics after losing the 2018 Senate race by 16 points and narrowly missing the Republican nomination for governor the year before.
Fellow Republicans Martin E. Nohe (Coles) and Maureen S. Caddigan (Potomac) are leaving the board as well, opening the door for a significant political shift in the county of 463,000 residents, which in recent years has embraced Democrats in state and national elections.
The three other Republican supervisors face Democratic challengers in November. Democratic incumbent Victor S. Angry (D-Neabsco) is unopposed for his seat, as is Democrat Margaret A. Franklin, who defeated Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge) in the primary.
A change in the board majority could alter the county’s direction on core issues like education spending, affordable housing development and traffic congestion. And it could raise Prince William’s status in the increasingly Democratic Washington area, political analysts say.
“The end of the Corey Stewart era, and perhaps the end of Republican control of Prince William County government as well, can create an opportunity for Northern Virginia elected officials to work more closely together,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
The candidates vying to succeed Stewart — Republican John Gray and Democrat Ann Wheeler — hold vastly different views on what the next four years in Prince William could bring.
Gray, 68, defeated the more moderate Nohe in the GOP primary. A certified public accountant who lost two previous board races, he has followed Stewart’s formula of trying to rally the county’s conservative Republican base.
That has led to some controversy. In a Twitter post last month referring to a Supreme Court ruling that said bakery owners must sell to same-sex couples regardless of their religious beliefs, Gray suggested that Muslim hookah bar owners should be forced to sell alcohol, even though doing so would be against their religion. “No dbl standard or discrimination there?” he tweeted.
The post sparked a backlash, and Gray says he now realizes it was insensitive to Muslims. “If I was wrong, I was wrong,” he said.
He criticizes Wheeler and other Democratic board candidates for their support of ending Prince William’s 2008 agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agreement, backed by Stewart, allows the sheriff’s department to turn over undocumented immigrant inmates who are wanted for deportation after their jail sentences end.
“That effectively turns Prince William County into a sanctuary county,” Gray said. “I would not allow that to happen.”
Gray has not sought Stewart’s endorsement, saying he disapproves of what he considered white nationalist overtones in Stewart’s Senate campaign and disagrees with his support for a $355 million transportation bond issuance that is on the November ballot.
Instead, Gray calls for more controlled development. He says he would audit the county budget to root out wasteful spending, redirecting those funds to infrastructure improvements, schools and affordable housing.
Wheeler, 58, a former energy industry consultant who now serves on the board of a regional electric service cooperative, said she has not focused on immigration enforcement, noting that the county’s elected sheriff has sole authority over whether to continue the ICE agreement.
However, she said, local tax dollars should not be used to help federal immigration agents.
Wheeler said her main pitch to voters is as a champion of the bedroom community’s potential to become a “cool, cutting-edge place to live.”
That means more money for schools, more public transportation options — including a nascent effort to extend Metrorail service into Prince William — and attracting technology companies and other industries that could reduce the county’s heavy dependence on residential real estate tax revenue, she said.
Wheeler said she supports the transportation bond, which is geared toward fixing traffic congestion. She argued that Prince William should have a greater voice in the region.
“We should participate more in the regional decisions,” she said. “A stronger Prince William County helps the entire Northern Virginia area.”
A former chair of the county’s board of social services, Wheeler said she would work to make Prince William more inclusive to different groups. She also said the county should take a stronger stance on some statewide issues, such as the effort to get the General Assembly to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Former county Republican Party board member Donald Scoggins, Defense Department analyst Jesse Maggit Jr. and information technology consultant Muneer Baig are running for board chair as independent candidates, though none has raised any money so far, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.
To varying degrees, the themes in the election for chair are also playing out in the races for the other open board seats.
In the Coles district, Democrat Raheel Sheikh, a Pakistani immigrant who arrived in Prince William 16 years ago, would be the county’s first South Asian board member.
Sheikh, 44, owns several automotive repair businesses in the area. He wants to dedicate more money toward reducing traffic on Route 28 but opposes issuing bonds for road improvements. He also wants to improve vocational training programs and move Prince William toward stronger energy efficiency.
“It’s time Prince William County takes a leadership role and shows other counties how things can be done differently and more efficiently,” he said.
Republican Yesli Vega — a 34-year-old sheriff’s deputy who would be the county’s first Latina board member — has campaigned on increased funding for public safety, phasing out business and professional license taxes and cutting other spending.
Vega said she would emphasize transparency about new development in the area and do more to preserve open space in the Coles district, where there is a debate over whether to allow more homes in a protected area of the county known as the Rural Crescent.
“We just want smart growth, moving forward, because the infrastructure is lagging and hasn’t caught up to all of the growth that the county has experienced,” Yesli said. Local residents “are very strong in their stance about our need to preserve open space because, once it’s gone, we’ll never get it back.”
She has taken stances against the Equal Rights Amendment, prohibiting civilians from traveling on Prince William roads with loaded weapons and eliminating the county’s ICE agreement.
In the Potomac district, Democrat Andrea Bailey — a 64-year-old event planning business owner — says she’ll work to expand commuter rail and bus rapid transit service and increase spending on schools and mental health programs.
“We need to listen more to the community about what their needs are and to try to address those needs,” said Bailey, an executive committee member of the local NAACP chapter who challenged Caddigan in 2015 and lost by six percentage points.
Republican Douglas Taggart, president of a technology engineering company, said he wants to be a consensus builder on the board focused on reducing traffic congestion and luring more businesses to the Route 1 corridor.
Taggart, who is also 64, said the area’s changing demographics could make it harder for a Republican to win in Potomac this year.
“I think the board is at a crossroads,” he said. “We’ll see where that takes us.”
Stewart agreed that the GOP’s majority is in jeopardy, predicting that Democratic efforts to win control of the General Assembly in November will lead to more voter enthusiasm from that party at the local level.
“If it’s a bad year for Republicans, and I strongly suspect it’s going to be a bad year for Republicans, I think we’ve lost the chairman’s position,” Stewart said. “The best that Republicans can do is retain four seats.”