It’s an exciting day for Democrats in the Commonwealth of Virginia, especially in Prince William County.
The party appears to have won every delegate seat in the county except one, assuming the close result of 40th district holds up (Democrat Donte Tanner trails incumbent Republican Tim Hugo by 15 votes, making it eligible for a recount). The county has also become the center of national attention due to the historical nature of some of these elections.
There are eight House of Delegate districts that are either completely in or whose borders include some of Prince William County. As of yesterday, six of these eight were held by Republicans, and five of these Republicans were running for reelection. All of the Republican incumbents or outgoing delegates were white men. Some rich, some old. All white men.
Prince William County, on the other hand, is a minority-majority county. There are more Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians combined than white people. Since 2008, a significant majority voted for the Democratic presidential candidate. So how did Prince William County’s delegate seats come to be dominated by white male Republicans? And how did this suddenly change last night?
Prince William County: On the Move, Changing Rapidly
I’ve been a resident of the city of Manassas for a year and a half. Manassas is an independent city but serves as the county seat of Prince William County. The borders of the county surround the city, and the city is geographically in the relative center of the county. The fates and fortunes of Manassas City and Prince William County are inseparably linked. I also work and attend classes in Prince William County, and during this time I have been able to get to know and observe the people of the county.
I have learned a lot about what makes this county run, and continue to grow. But I also kept wondering how this diverse county that overwhelmingly votes Democratic for president now was still dominated by white Republicans when it came to the Virginia House of Delegates.
I learned a big part of it has to do with general exhaustion when it comes to local and state elections.
One trait that I believe defines the people of Prince William County is hard work. But in turn, they have to work hard just to even get to work. Commutes are long and tiring. It takes a lot out of people. When they get home, they are concerned about their families, their children, and then getting to bed in time to get up and do it all over again the next day. As long as their lives are on the move and relatively stable, they don’t have much time or energy to pay attention to local races.
Yes, the county has the seventh highest income level in the country, but people here go through a lot to achieve that. They made a choice to live in Prince William County, where perhaps they felt the housing was more affordable than Fairfax, Loudon, Alexandria or Arlington. They enjoy the pace of life on the weekends, where it’s a bit less crowded than the jurisdictions closer to DC, but has a little more going on than say, Stafford or Fauquier counties.
Another factor in the lack of participation in local races: the population boom. Since 1960, the population of Prince William County has increased an astronomical 800%. In a generation, it has changed from a rural farming county with 50,000 people to a full-fledged suburb of DC. It has a population of 455,000 and that will likely increase to a half a million in the next ten years. Needless to say, there’s a lot of people who moved here in the last couple of generations.
The first waves of suburban pioneers were largely white and affluent. The more recent: diverse: Hispanic, black, Asian, and white; and both middle class and affluent.
However, when people move to a new area, they are often hesitant to get involved with local politics. They don’t want to ruffle any feathers, or they don’t know where to begin. They aren’t familiar with the inner workings of the local political machine. So they let it do its thing, and as long as things aren’t too far out of the mainstream, they either vote with the incumbent or they don’t vote at all.
Suddenly, Prince William County Wakes Up
Donald Trump came along. He is the antithesis of things that are valued by a majority of people in Prince William County. They hear him attacking their Salvadorian neighbors, their Muslim neighbors, their gay neighbors. Their classmates, their co-workers. Their friends, the people who literally live across the street from them and shoveled their sidewalk and driveway when it snowed last winter. They started talking: this isn’t us.
Trump wins the election, but without their help, only gaining 39% of the vote in Prince William County. The people of Prince William County are frustrated. How can we send a message?
Suddenly, they realized that they are every bit a part of Prince William County as the long-time residents and the first waves of suburban pioneers. They pay the same local taxes, they send their children to the public schools. They drive on the roads every day (even if most of them are leaving the county to go to work), and they spend the same money at the same local stores, shops, and restaurants.
They realized that the entrenched Republican political machine wasn’t representing them. They don’t have the same values. Hard work, charity, tolerance, inclusion, the celebration of diversity…these men don’t seem to share any of that. So they ask: why are these men representing me in Richmond?
The year after the presidential election, the Virginia statehouse and every single delegate seat are up for grabs.
Prince William County, now wide-awake, looks at who is representing them in Richmond:
Two Democrats…and six white, male Republicans.
Most of them have been cruising to reelection for years and no one noticed. Now, they notice. They don’t share the values of Prince William County. Who is this mean old white man telling us that homosexuals are evil? Who are these guys in Republican leadership positions, voting lockstep with their party? Why aren’t they concerned about the traffic situation or access to health care, the things people really here care about?
Yesterday, in Prince William County, something happened.
Historic, yes — the first openly transgendered woman to win a delegate seat, as Danica Roem defeated the mean old homophobic white man, Bob Marshall. The first two Latina women elected to the house of delegates, as Elizabeth Guzman defeated Scott Linghamfelter and Hala Ayala defeated Richard Anderson, both white men. Jennifer Foy, an African American woman defeated Republican Mike Makee, a white man battling to win a seat held by retiring white male Republican Mark Dudenhefer. Donte Tanner, an African-American man, narrowly trails incumbent Republican caucus chairman Tim Hugo by 15 votes. While the race is subject to an automatic recount, the near-victory is still significant. Finally, Lee Carter, a white man running on a Democratic Socialist platform of universal health care and transportation improvements and without any support from the state Democratic Party, defeated the house majority whip, Jackson Miller. Five of six seats flipped from red to blue, and the other two remained blue.
History aside, what happened in Prince William County yesterday served to do one important thing: make the representation in the house of delegates actually represent what Prince William County is today. The demographics, yes, but more importantly, the values. The white men who didn’t represent their needs, who didn’t understand their concerns, who were comfortable cruising to reelection because most people didn’t care and the Republican machine worked, are all going home. In their place, Prince William County is sending to Richmond a diverse group of qualified people who represent them, as a community.
Here’s what Prince William County is NOT: a hotbed of liberal activism. These newly elected delegates won because they listened to the everyday concerns of the people. They knocked on doors, relentlessly. They made appearances around the county. They got their names, their faces out there. They spoke about health care, transportation, the economy. They took into account the needs of everyone in the county, not just the entrenched interests.
Prince William County’s new delegation to Richmond, all Democrats, now look like Prince William County, act like Prince William County and most importantly, share the concerns and values of Prince William County. It took a generation for this change, but it’s here, and it’s probably here to stay.
Are white men doomed in Prince William County? Certainly not. Three of the eight delegate seats are held by white men (again, assuming Tim Hugo holds on). But can white men skate by and win elections in Prince William County by only serving the interests of the old guard? Of Republicans? Of other white men? Not anymore. Prince William County has changed.
Long story short? The silent majority finally woke up.
What’s Next for Prince William County?
Corey Stewart — the firebrand white supremacist, and chairman of the board of supervisors. Likely not going to run for reelection, because in this environment, he doesn’t stand a chance. Says he will attempt to pursue the nomination to run against Tim Kaine in 2018 for the United States Senate. Good luck with that.
Barbara Comstock — the Republican won in 2016, despite the fact that her district also went to Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. The numbers have just gotten worse for her in 2018. Ralph Northam won Loudon County by a whopping 20 points, and Lee Carter trounced well-liked incumbent Jackson Miller by 9 points in Manassas...again, worth mentioning, without any support from the Democratic party. She’s likely gone in 2018.
Note: this story has been updated to reflect the change in lead in the 40th district race between Hugo and Tanner.