Virginia races prove local elections matter
Voters cast their ballots at Phillips Elementary, Nov. 6, 2018, in Newport News, Va. Next week, voters in the state will elect local and state offices. | Jonathon Gruenke / The Daily Press via AP

PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY, Va.—On Tuesday, Nov. 5, Virginians will vote for all 40 members of the state Senate and all 100 members of the lower house of the General Assembly, the House of Delegates.

This legislative election has been seen as having national importance. The current Republican majority in both houses is razor thin. If they lose two seats in the House and two in the Senate, they will lose their current legislative majority in both. As the governor is a Democrat, this opens up possibilities hitherto seen as impossible in this rapidly changing state. Labor is dreaming of being able to remove “right to work” from the Virginia statute book, thus eliminating one of the reasons the state has the lowest unionization rate in the whole country—only 4.3 percent of wage and salary workers in Virginia were in a union in 2018, with only the two Carolinas and Utah being in worse shape.

In the last legislative session, Virginia fell just short of becoming the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. This would have meant that only a legal issue would have to be cleared up, and the ERA would become part of the United States Constitution, with profound results for the rights of women nationwide, now and into the future.

There are many other issues at stake, including legislative redistricting, restoration of ex-convicts’ voting rights, immigrants’ rights, and sundry environmental questions, including the future of pipeline construction in the state. As Virginia is a large state with eleven federal House districts, this election will have long-term national implications too.

It is sometimes hard to get people excited about state elections, when, as in Virginia, they do not coincide with the federal elections calendar. So often it is even more difficult to get attention focused on elections lower “down ticket,” for mayors, city and town councils, county government positions, school boards, and other deliberative bodies.

But the current debates in a place like Prince William County, in exurban Washington, D.C. show why these elections can be important, too. Local governments control police, zoning of housing and businesses, schools, and many other things of great importance to working class people. Right-wing, anti-worker, and often racist control of local governments can make life hell for minorities, low income workers, and other sections of the public. They can keep housing and schools segregated and public services underfunded, and they can be a huge obstacle to the struggle for racial justice and, especially, against police brutality and abuses of power.

Prince William County has had a bad reputation for racial justice for many years. It has made news because of the reactionary and especially anti-immigrant actions of Corey Stewart, the outgoing chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. Although a native of Minnesota, Stewart has taken to heart the cause of the old (white) South. He has shown up at Confederate commemoration events, denounced the removal of Confederate monuments, and, in August 2017, played a horrible role in helping to foment the racist violence in Charlottesville.

Immigrants in Prince William County know Stewart from way back. Shortly after his first election in 2006, he became one of the first county officials in the country to start a program whereby county police would be instructed to demand immigration documents from members of the public whom they stopped for traffic and other offenses, and to hand persons who could not present such documents over to federal immigration authorities. This program eventually had to be curtailed by a federal court decision, but immigrant-bashing has been Stewart’s stock in trade ever since.

Stewart has boasted that he was “Trump before Trump.” But if he expected all this demagogic nastiness to catapult him, a la Donald Trump, into national office, he was doomed to be disappointed. Efforts to capture the state governorship and a federal Senate seat did not prosper. In January of this year, he announced he was not going to run for re- election to his County Board of Elections chairmanship.

So now the position is up for election on Nov. 5, along with a slew of other county offices. Channeling the malevolent spirit of Stewart is the Republican candidate, businessman John Gray, who also mimics Donald Trump down to the bizarre racist and sexist tweets. And like both Trump and Stewart, he keeps blaring away about “illegal aliens.”

In the election, he faces Democrat Ann Wheeler and two independents. Wheeler’s background is in engineering.

On the immigration issue, one controversy is whether Prince William County should maintain its participation in the federal 287(g) program, whereby County Sheriff’s Police cooperate with federal immigration authorities. This program is blamed for racial profiling at the national level. Wheeler and the two independent candidates, Muneer Baig and Don Scroggins, all want to ditch the 287(g) agreement, but Gray has made it a major part of his platform to retain it.

Another hot issue is the name of one of the main highways than runs through the eastern part of Prince William County. This route, U.S. Route 1, is called the Richmond Highway immediately to the North and South of Prince William County, but here it is called the Jefferson Davis Highway. Jefferson Davis was, of course, the president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, and a ferocious defender of slavery. His notorious actions include the order that African-American troops in the Union army that were captured by the Confederate Army would be enslaved, and that their white officers would be executed. The executions were only prevented when Abraham Lincoln’s government announced that for each Union prisoner thus executed, a Confederate prisoner would be executed.

Whether it is coincidental or not, Jefferson Davis Highway runs through a part of Prince William County where African Americans and people from Latin America are concentrated. The name was cooked up in 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a racist pressure group that was also behind the erection of many of the Confederate monuments around the U.S. South.

At any rate, Gray has come out strongly opposed to changing the name of Jefferson Davis Highway. Wheeler has included the name change in her election platform, pointing out how offensive that name is to many residents of the county. Baig and Scoggins are for keeping the name, for the usual silly reasons. Scoggins, although he himself is African-American, is quoted as saying that “our political correctness is sort of getting out of hand,” Baig says that keeping the name might serve some sort of educational purpose.

There are many other issues in the campaign, and some that are not being addressed, like the impact of sharply rising rental housing costs on lower income residents of the county. But it is quite clear that if Gray wins, he will continue to push the same kinds of policies that made Corey Stewart so infamous.

So perhaps such local elections are worth our attention after all.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.