The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

First Latina to be elected in her blue-leaning county. But she’s a Republican and an object of hate.

Prince William County Supervisor Yesli Vega during a September board meeting. Vega, a Republican, has been a target of liberal activists in the fast-changing county. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

During her brief time as Prince William County’s first Latina supervisor, Yesli Vega has been called a racist, a traitor and — by one woman spitting out her words in Spanish during a public meeting — a smear of manure on the bottom of one’s shoe.

The attacks come mostly from fellow Latinos. They don’t care that she’s a daughter of Salvadoran civil war refugees or that she’s active in the Spanish-speaking church where her father is pastor to undocumented immigrants. They’re instead focused on her party: Vega, 35, is a Republican, which they say doesn’t reflect where their fast-changing community is heading.

“You do not represent us,” Aida Campos, one of Vega’s constituents, told her during one meeting. “We do not claim you.”

Vega has become a political lightning rod since taking office in January, taking stands for tougher immigration enforcement, gun rights and other issues during meetings that have often featured angry exchanges between supervisors and with county residents.

Longtime observers of county politics compare the angst to the mid-2000s, when then mostly White Prince William became known nationally as the place where former board chairman Corey A. Stewart (R) demonized Latino immigrants.

“The faces are all new, but the feeling is the same,” said Elena Schlossberg, a local smart-growth advocate.

Only this time, Democrats hold a majority on the county board for the first time in nearly two decades after Prince William — now just 41 percent White — became the center of a blue wave rolling through Virginia’s suburbs that also gave the party control of the General Assembly in 2019.

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Vega (Coles), among the third of the country’s 32 million Latino voters who tend to vote Republican, represents a different aspect of the county’s increasing diversity. It’s one that liberal activists hope to stamp out and that GOP leaders see as cause for hope in their party’s efforts to regain ground in a county where 45 percent of the population is either Latino or African American.

“Basically, Yesli is a major threat to the Democratic Party,” said Darrell H. “D.J.” Jordan, a former Republican House of Delegates candidate who is Black and became friends with Vega while both campaigned for office last year. The two shared notes about the looks of scorn or surprise they received from voters who initially assumed they were Democrats.

Vega said she is not the villain her critics make her out to be, though she does not shrink from confrontation and sometimes provokes it.

An auxiliary county sheriff’s deputy, she unsuccessfully fought to extend a controversial federal contract, championed by Stewart, that allowed undocumented immigrants in Prince William’s jail to be held for deportation.

But she also opposed a $300 million transportation project in her district that has pitted residents in a predominantly Latino immigrant mobile home park, where some are undocumented, against her Democratic colleagues.

“I find myself telling people: ‘Don’t assume that you know me simply because I’m a Republican,’ ” Vega said. “ ‘Sit down. Talk to me. You’d be surprised how much we can actually agree on.’ ”

Deciding to run

Vega’s parents, Jose and Reina Ventura, came from El Salvador in the 1980s, benefiting from the U.S. amnesty program for undocumented immigrants championed by then-President Ronald Reagan. They took their initial steps into suburban living by purchasing their first house in the Bren Mar Park area, a predominantly Latino section of Alexandria, when Vega was a teenager.

But gang violence was surging in the neighborhood: One of her brothers was shot, a friend of the family was murdered, and another friend had his fingers chopped off with a machete after a gang member mistook him for a member of a rival group. The flash of blue and red police lights was a frequent sight.

Frustrated by the violence around her, Vega turned to those lights and saw a path forward.

She graduated in 2011 from the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy. Vega then became a police officer, first in Alexandria and later in Manassas Park, a mostly quiet suburb bordering Prince William County. She became a county sheriff’s deputy in 2016.

Those jobs solidified Vega’s conviction that immigrant gangs such as MS-13, which has plagued El Salvador and recently resurged in the Washington region, should be handled more forcefully.

“A lot of the reason why my family fled El Salvador was because of the gang violence,” she said. “And now they’re here, trying to get away from it.”

And they exposed Vega, a Republican since she was old enough to vote, to some of Northern Virginia’s other problems, including the loss of open space due to rampant development and the lack of affordable housing that has forced many immigrant families to share crowded homes.

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She hadn’t considered politics before but wanted to do something about those issues. So after former supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles) announced what would be an unsuccessful bid for county board chair last year, Vega decided to seek the party’s nomination for his open seat.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is so golden,’ ” said Supervisor Jeanine Lawson (R-Brenstville), whom Vega approached for advice on running for office. “We’ve never had anybody on the board, certainly not in recent decades, with a law enforcement background. That in itself was very attractive to me. And, of course, her ethnicity is another strong appeal.”

But with Prince William in the midst of monumental change — with voters choosing four African American Democrats for the county board last year — liberal activists saw Vega as a Republican Trojan horse sent to weaken Latino support for her Democratic opponent, local businessman Raheel Sheikh.

Though more ethnically diverse, the Coles district is still a moderately conservative enclave of single-family homes where Nohe was supervisor for 15 years.

Nonetheless, Ivania Castillo — a local board member for the CASA immigrant advocacy group in Virginia — accused Vega at campaign stops of downplaying her party affiliation, which Vega says isn’t true.

“I never heard her say she is a Republican,” Castillo, who is also Salvadoran, said. “Instead of being an example, she is an embarrassment to the Salvadoran community.”

Castillo is a veteran of the county’s political fights centered on ethnicity during the 2000s, when Stewart pushed for a 287(g) agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that made it easier to deport undocumented immigrants he blamed for crime in the county.

The federal contract signed in 2009 also led to the deportation of hundreds of undocumented immigrants jailed for minor infractions and left even U.S.-born Latinos fearful of being targeted by the police before the contract was allowed to expire in June over Vega’s strenuous objections.

Against that backdrop, seeing Vega make history as the county’s first Latina supervisor “felt like someone stabbed you in the heart,” Castillo said. “She does not think about the pain of her community.”

Rising tensions

Vega’s first real skirmish on the board came in March, when she introduced a proposal to commend county residents who participated in a gun-rights rally in Richmond.

The gun issue had already infused the board with tension in January, when board Chair Ann Wheeler (D) introduced a resolution that favored the passage of gun-control legislation in the General Assembly. The board abandoned the measure after pro-gun residents showed up in protest.

Now, Vega was raising the volatile topic again, and Supervisor Kenny Boddye (D-Occoquan) chastised her.

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“It’s bringing us back into a situation where we’re pitting people against each other,” Boddye said.

Vega argued that the Richmond rally was peaceful.

“We may not agree on the issue, but we can at least agree that our county residents represented this county honorably,” she said, her voice rising.

The proposal failed. But Vega’s profile in the county rose, especially among liberal activists who were warily monitoring her. Soon, she was in the middle of several more fights.

In May, Vega ardently defended the county’s 287(g) agreement during a discussion about county jail board appointments, raising the specter of violent gang members set free to prey on more residents.

“I have been touched by this personally, and I have been impacted by this,” she told her colleagues, referring to her time as a teen in Alexandria. “Things that you don’t know.”

The newly remade jail board, for which Lawson unsuccessfully nominated Vega, ultimately allowed the 287(g) agreement to expire.

In early June, Vega delivered a tearful speech about the protests over police brutality against African Americans that were consuming the nation, with spurts of violence at one protest in Manassas.

She condemned George Floyd’s police killing in Minneapolis and read a list of African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Whites who were also killed by police. She then read the names of 48 police officers killed in the line of duty, ending by introducing a proclamation declaring that “all human life is sacred and has equal value.”

“They were all someone’s child,” Vega said.

The board unanimously approved the proclamation without discussion. But Democrats said they believed Vega’s speech glossed over the national anger about the disproportionate amount of police abuse suffered by African Americans. The board’s four African American supervisors responded by introducing a “Black Lives Matter” resolution that condemned systemic racism.

Attracting ire

In July, an older White man in a Green Bay Packers T-shirt approached a young crowd of “defund the police” demonstrators outside the county government center and barked: “I hope your family gets shot tomorrow!”

The confrontation led to a scuffle. When it was over, four of the mostly Latino and African American demonstrators had been arrested and later charged with assault and battery, while county police escorted the instigator to safety.

The incident inflamed already burning anger against the county board, most of it directed at Vega, the former police officer.

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For several weeks, the activists had been verbally assaulting Vega, launching into profanity-infused tirades at board meetings while holding signs accusing her of being racist.

The outbursts prompted a long discussion about public decorum inside the board meeting room.

Boddye was less sympathetic.

He was still irked over being included in a video Vega had posted to her Facebook page that played dramatic music over a sampling of the attacks, which she labeled as examples of “The unhinged Modern Left.”

“We all have our communication styles, but that is obviously not a ‘Let’s work this out one to one’ approach,” Boddye said in an interview.

Boddye said Vega later apologized for including him in the video. But it remains on her Facebook page, collecting nearly 51,000 views. She defended it as an example of the hateful tone some liberal activists have adopted.

“It’s not just happening across the United States,” she said. “It’s here in Prince William County.”

Gaining allies

The scene outside a county conference room in early September was a pandemic nightmare. About 50 people — many of them Latino immigrants — huddled near the room’s entrance, some with their faces only partially covered by masks.

Inside, board members and residents angrily talked over one another about a $300 million transportation project to ease traffic on Route 28, the region’s most congested thoroughfare.

The planned four-mile road extension would displace up to 54 homes in Vega’s district, including as many as 10 in the Bull Run Mobile Home Community, whose predominantly Latino residents include dozens of undocumented immigrants.

Vega was against the bypass plan because of its effect on that community — one that reminded her of her own upbringing. It was a stance she considered to be proof of her support for fellow Latinos.

Many of the residents said they learned about the bypass from Vega. They were not aware of the community meetings held, in English, about the plan in recent years or that the county transportation department and Vega’s predecessor concluded that a bypass on the site was the least disruptive option for dealing with Route 28.

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Several residents said they were surprised to learn Vega is Republican.

“I thought she was a Democrat because of the attitude she has shown us,” said Magdalena Aguilar, noting that, until then, she and her neighbors felt disconnected from the county.

In August, the board had unanimously agreed with Vega, deciding instead to pursue a more expensive traffic-calming option that would keep the Bull Run community intact. But the Democratic majority on the board decided to revisit the bypass plan once it became clear that the county risked losing $89 million the state had awarded to the project.

The 5-to-3 vote to revert to the Bull Run option turned what was supposed to be a sleepy discussion about the county budget in September into a heated exchange between the board’s Democrats and Republicans. The mobile home park residents looked on in frustration, some of whom mistakenly believed another vote on the plan would occur.

The Democrats fumed over the unexpected turnout as a county fire marshal fruitlessly urged the crowd to stand at least six feet apart.

“It’s conjured up,” said Supervisor Margaret A. Franklin (D-Woodbridge), her voice shaking. “It’s strategic, and it’s to make us look bad.”

Some of the Democrats accused Vega and Lawson of intentionally misleading the mobile home park residents into believing they would all lose their homes and be unfairly compensated for them.

Vega said she informed the residents about the vote and what the next steps would be only after the bypass was approved.

Several mobile home park residents confirmed that. But they also felt caught between two political camps.

“The supervisor says one thing, the others say another,” said one 15-year resident of the mobile home park who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared her family would be evicted. “We don’t know who to go with.”

Stepping away from the meeting, Vega gathered the residents outside the government center to explain, in Spanish, what happened and to answer their questions. She also promised to keep fighting on their behalf.

“If this affects one person in the community, it affects everyone,” Vega told the group.

The residents applauded their supervisor. Vega, smiling, basked in what she saw as a longer-term victory.

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