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The Legacy of Anti-Immigrant Corey Stewart: How Prince William County Became An Electoral Bellwether

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In advance of tomorrow’s elections in Virginia, the Washington Post profiled the critical importance of rapidly-changing Prince William County and its residents,  who “are the voters who will decide who is elected governor Tuesday”:

All that growth has shifted the county’s political complexion, turning it from the last conservative stronghold in Northern Virginia — Prince William won national attention for its 2007 crackdown on illegal immigrants — into a remarkably accurate bellwether for a changing state. The county voted for Obama, twice, and for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), and for President George W. Bush, twice.

Prince William became a ­majority-minority county a few years ago; its non-Hispanic white population has shrunk to 47 percent. Hispanics are the next largest group, at 21 percent, followed by African Americans at 20 percent and Asians at 8 percent. More than 21 percent are foreign born, almost double the proportion in the rest of Virginia.

Not too long ago, Prince William County was the bastion of Corey Stewart, a rabidly anti-immigrant County Supervisor. In April of 2008, the Washington Post reported on the negative impact of Stewart’s ugliness on immigration:

Richard L. Hendershot, who chairs the Prince William County Greater Manassas Chamber of Commerce, said it has been hard to sell Prince William as progressive, dynamic and thriving.

“There’s been a challenge. The only way that we can counteract the image, and I’d say it is a false image, is to continue to look for opportunities to share the positive messages of the county,” he said. “There’s clearly been some controversy over the immigration stance that the board of supervisors has taken.”

Many blame Stewart (R), who put the county on the map nationally for its tough approach on illegal immigration. As the top elected official, Stewart is the most visible face of the county and nominally its biggest cheerleader. But his colleagues and some residents are starting to question his leadership.

Stewart stunned Deane, the longtime county police chief, when he accused the chief of overstepping his authority in setting up a public meeting with the Mexican consul to discuss the immigration policy. Stewart said the Mexican government was not part of the Prince William community, but Deane said he was just trying to build trust among immigrants fearful about police conduct.

Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) said Stewart “roughshoded” the immigration policy. “We’re not doing it with sophistication and compassion. Our board is divided. He’s our leader, but he doesn’t reach for consensus. He speaks off the cuff. There’s a brashness. I’m not sure how we curb that.”

Stewart, who was elected to his first full term as chairman in November with 55 percent of the vote, is not fazed by the criticism. “They might not like my style, but it’s been successful.”

It’s been successful, but not for Stewart nor his Republican Party.  In 2008, it was clear that the demographics of the county were changing, but Stewart kept digging. In 2010,  he wanted to “Virginia to emulate Arizona” and pass a state law like SB 1070.

Tomorrow, Prince William County, where Stewart is still a Supervisor, will help elect a new Governor — and it’s looking very likely that will be Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe. Immigration has been an issue in the gubernatorial race, because of GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli’s Stewart-like record and rhetoric. Also, McAuliffe leaned into the issue. (Tomorrow, America’s Voice and People for the American Way will be releasing election eve polling that shows how Virginia’s changing demographics is also changing politics in that state.)

Meanwhile, this year, Stewart is on the sidelines watching as his candidates and his party possibly loses because of the very immigrants he once bashed. Stewart wanted to run as Lieutenant Governor on the Virginia GOP ticket. But, he was defeated at the party’s convention by the even more extreme E.W. Jackson.