In Northern Virginia’s elections, a tight race in Pr. William County

Democrat Deshundra Jefferson appeared poised Tuesday night to become the first African American to lead Prince William County’s board of supervisors, with unofficial results showing her comfortably ahead of Supervisor Jeanine Lawson (R-Brentsville) in Northern Virginia’s most hotly contested local election.

In neighboring Loudoun County, Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj (D) was closely trailing Republican Bob Anderson, although there were uncounted absentee ballots.

Voters weighed in on who should lead the region through some of its most pressing issues, including a demand for more affordable housing as the area’s cost of living continues to rise, as well as the continued economic effects of the pandemic that have left some commercial offices nearly empty.

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The ballots included seats for county board of supervisors and commonwealth’s attorneys in Loudoun and Prince William counties.

But perhaps no other race was more heated than the one for Prince William’s board chair.

Jefferson, 47, entered the race as a relatively unknown newcomer angry about the rapid development of data centers in Prince William She tapped into a backlash against that growth to win her party’s June primary against current chair Ann Wheeler (D), who has supported such development.

Her victory would put the former Democratic Party strategist at the helm of an eight-member board firmly controlled by her party, with all four of the board’s Democratic incumbents who are seeking reelection — each also African American — appearing to be on their way to victory Tuesday night. Republican Supervisors Yesli Vega (R-Coles) and Bob Weir (R-Gainesville) seemed to be on their way to being reelected, while Tom Gordy, a Republican running in Lawson’s Brentsville district, was also comfortably ahead.

Jefferson said she plans to curtail data center development in the county, steer more money toward overcrowded schools and find ways to deal with the rising cost of living that has many residents concerned about being priced out of Prince William.

“Prince William is a diverse county, and we need leaders who understand that this is one of our greatest assets and will ensure that we remain a welcoming place for all,” she said in a statement declaring victory that invited Lawson and Wheeler to collaborate on a long-term vision for the county.

“This has been a hard-fought race, and each of us worked tirelessly to share our respective visions for Prince William,” Jefferson said. “Now is the time for all of us to come together to shape Prince William and to better position our county to become a leader within the region.”

The two candidates initially united in an effort to oust Wheeler over her support for more data center development in Prince William, particularly for a controversial plan to develop a 2,100-acre “Digital Gateway” complex in the largely rural Gainesville area.

Each candidate accused the other of being weak and unreliable on the data center issue, despite a shared interest in increasing the county’s tax rate on the industry.

Jefferson attacked Lawson over her earlier support of data center projects in western Prince William, arguing that it “opened the door” to an industry that has since built closer to residential areas while asking the county for higher height limits on those buildings.

Lawson, who said she has since soured on data centers as a coveted source of tax revenue, pointed to a $10,000 campaign contribution Jefferson received from a developer with a pending data center project in Bristow — suggesting that the Democrat is too susceptible to being influenced. Jefferson said the donation stemmed from a mutual interest in developing more affordable housing.

In a “majority minority” county of 437,000 residents that has become increasingly blue, race was also a factor in the election.

Jefferson said Lawson, who is White, is out of touch with those demographic changes, pointing to the supervisor’s frequent opposition to issues related to LGBTQ rights as well as a 2020 county school board implicit-bias training session that the supervisor and two of her Republican colleagues walked out of, arguing that it suggested that all White people are racist.

Lawson called those attacks “dirty politics.” A county supervisor since 2015, Lawson said Jefferson, who has never held elective office, is too inexperienced and naive to lead a county with pressing problems such as a spike in crime and a rising cost of living that has many residents feeling anxious.

Both candidates were out early Tuesday morning to make their cases with voters.

In Gainesville, Bill Withers, 70, and his wife, Linda Withers, 69, said the growth of data centers, rising crime and education issues were reasons they voted straight Republican.

The couple lives in the Heritage Hunt community that sits near the proposed Digital Gateway project. They said they believed Lawson would do more to keep expansion of data centers in check.

“The data centers are taking over our farmland, and I can’t imagine where they’re going to get the electricity to power them,” Bill Withers said.

On the other end of the county, in Woodbridge, Gloria Ward, 56, walked out of her local polling center holding hands with her 10-year-old daughter.

She had voted for Jefferson, beaming at the idea of helping to elect the county’s first African American board chair.

Ward, a Democrat, said she supports both candidates’ calls for reining in the industry’s expansion in the county. But she liked more what Jefferson has said about raising the county’s tax on the industry, despite the fact that Lawson has also called for an increase.

“Like Fauquier County, we shouldn’t be selling out,” Ward said, referring to that county’s higher tax rate for data centers. “Their price is higher.”

Elsewhere in the region, Fairfax County’s board was likely to remain heavily Democratic. Unofficial results showed board chair Jeffrey C. McKay (D-At Large) sailing to victory against Republican Arthur Purves in an election that McKay argued was about continuing Democratic efforts to create more economic stability for residents hit hard by the pandemic — including through more affordable housing — while Purves contended that taxes are too high at a time when crime is surging.

In other Fairfax County races, Democrat Andres Jimenez appeared to be on his way to securing an open seat in the Mason district, and Democrat Jimmy Bierman seemed to be poised to win the board’s other open seat in the Dranesville district.

Supervisor Pat Herrity, the body’s sole Republican, was far ahead of Democratic challenger Albert Vega in the Springfield race.

Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano (D) was also far ahead in a race that included a write-in campaign backed by local Republicans for defense attorney Ed Nutall, who lost to Descano in the June Democratic primary.

In Arlington County, Democrats Susan R. Cunningham and Maureen Coffey were leading a four-candidate race for two open seats on the county’s board. Those elections have been driven by tensions over a decision earlier this year to eliminate single-family-only zoning in an effort to create more “missing middle” residential buildings.

Cunningham argued for creating a more nuanced, comprehensive housing plan, while Coffey applauded the zoning change. Clement argued that the county should scrap its missing-middle housing ordinance and create an alternative affordable housing plan.

Unofficial results showed Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti winning her election.

In Loudoun, Biberaj’s tight race with Anderson — a former Loudoun commonwealth’s attorney — reflected dissatisfaction among voters about a more liberal approach that has included more frequent use of a drug court program, a mental health docket and a conviction review unit, while putting a stop to trying juveniles as adults.

Loudoun County Board Chair Phyllis Randall (D) was leading Republican Gary Katz and independent Sam Kroiz in her bid for a third term, despite controversy she and other Democrats on the board faced earlier this year over a “sister cities” trip to Ghana paid for by the county’s economic development authority.

The county’s elections left Democrats with a firm hold on the board of supervisors.

Joe Heim and Ellie Silverman contributed to this report.

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