by Wesley P. Hester, Richmond Times-Dispatch
21 April 2011
Corey Stewart, Chairman of the Board of County Supervisors (Republican, former Occoquan Supervisor)
Summary: Stewart considers U.S. Senate bid; his role in county illegal immigration debate viewed; Democratic Supervisor Principi says Stewart used illegation immigration issue for political gain, “neglecting” his constituents to run for higher office
(“Prince William’s Stewart eyes U.S. Senate bid” by Wesley P. Hester, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 21 April 2011)
“Woodbridge — On a recent Tuesday afternoon in the lobbby of Prince William County’s administration building, Corey Stewart succinctly summarized his statewide profile to a small gaggle of reporters.
” ‘I’ve been a very controversial figure, and people either love me or hate me,’ said Stewart, 42.
“The moment of blithe self-awareness followed a ceremonial announcement of his bid for re-election as at-large chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. Elected countywide, the position answers to more than 400,000 constituents.
“But with political ambition to spare, Stewart, an affable international trade attorney and spirited conservative, has designs on higher office — a seat in the U.S. Senate.
” ‘I might do it,’ the Republican said of the 2012 bid he has been not-so-subtly hinting at for months.
“And if he does, it won’t be quietly.
“After four years on the county board and shortly after being elected chairman, Stewart in 2007 found himself launched onto the national stage as a central figure in an intensely emotional debate.
“Championing what briefly would become the toughest illegal immigration law in the country, Stewart was vilified and lionized for pushing the county policy on his way to re-election.
“The policy — nearly identical to the one later considered in Arizona — required police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they had “probable cause” to believe was in the country illegally.
“Cries of discrimination ignited and divided the community, launching impassioned protests and seething rage.
” ‘It was a very scary situation,’ said Stewart’s wife, Maria, ‘very hateful, just awful.’
” ‘They hanged me in effigy,’ Stewart said casually, brewing a cup of tea in their two-story brick home in Woodbridge. ‘There were threats. But in some ways, that kind of fortified me. I knew I was making a difference because of the controversy.’
“The furor followed decades of booming residential growth that led to huge demographic shifts in what is now the state’s second-largest county.
“Minorities now outnumber whites in the once-rural locality after its Hispanic and Asian populations nearly tripled over the past decade, according to new census data.
“The idea to tighten controls on illegal immigration didn’t come from Stewart.
“It was introduced by fellow board member John T. Strirrup Jr. on behalf of a group called Help Save Manassas, led by Greg Letiecq, whose blog played a central role in the debate.
” ‘We just had a huge number of problems,’ Letiecq said. ‘It got to where you either had to pick up and leave or stand and fight. We decided to stand and fight, and it exploded. It got uglier than anyone could imagine.’
“Despite the looming hailstorm, Stewart was quick to adopt the issue as his own, moved, he said, by the frustrations of the residents he heard from and the problems they highlighted.
“Overcrowded homes were popping up everywhere, crime was becoming an issue, and hospitals were overrun with illegal immigrants seeking primary-care treatment in emergency rooms, Letiecq said.
“Stewart added that teachers bogged down with students who didn’t speak English, and police frustrated they couldn’t report offenders they suspected of being illegal immigrants, also began complaining.
” ‘As soon as he realized the scope of the problem, he stepped up,’ Letiecq said. ‘His attitude was, “I don’t care what rocks people throw at me, we’re going to fix this problem.” It was fearless.’
“Ultimately, the policy passed in 2008, but the county board significantly altered it eight weeks later because of concerns that it would open the county to racial-profiling allegations.
“The revised version remains in effect in the county, requiring immigration checks of everyone arrested, regardless of appearance. Under the previous version, officers could check a person’s status at any time, even during routine traffic stops.
“A report released last year by the University of Virginia concluded that the number of illegal immigrants in the county had declined because of the policy and that it had some impact in reducing certain types of crime.
” ‘They found that the rhetoric surrounding the policy probably had more to do with the departure of the illegal immigrants than the policy itself, and I completely agree,’ Stewart said. ‘That’s fine with me. However it worked, it did work.’
* * * * *
“Eric Byler and Annabel Park documented the immigration debate in a series of YouTube videos that they later made into the documentary film ‘9500 Liberty.’
“A constituent of Stewart’s, Byler describes the period of several months that he documented as a culture war that Stewart believed in and knew could benefit him politically.
” ‘He’s a sensitive man, and what’s important to his constituents is important to him,’ Byler said. But he added that the issue presented a well-timed tool to help with Stewart’s re-election bid.
“Byler, whose documentary paints Stewart’s effort as misguided, said there seemed to be little factual basis for the policy.
” ‘To Corey, politics is about perceptions — what people believe — not necessarily about the facts,’ he said.
“Byler said he was not surprised when Stewart launched his Virginia Rule of Law campaign to spread Prince William’s policy across the state after the Arizona immigration debate.
” ‘Corey knows that he has to be where the conversation is,’ Byler said. ‘I think he feels most at home in a big angry circus, and he knows immigration will create that.’
“The Rule of Law campaign has failed to gain much political traction. A bill sponsored by Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William, that would have taken the Prince William policy statewide was defeated at this year’s General Assembly session.
“Nonetheless, the message has endeared Stewart to tea-party and other conservative groups that could help him in 2012.
* * * * *
“The son of a Minnesota longshoreman who belonged to a union, Stewart is an unlikely right-wing conservative.
” ‘I was one of the few Republicans in my family, the black sheep,’ he said. ‘I used to argue with my dad a lot. He hated Reagan, and I loved him.’
“After graduating from Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Stewart served a brief stint on Capitol Hill working for then-Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn., before heading to Japan to teach English.
“It was there that he met his Swedish wife, Maria, whom he brought home to Minnesota in 1994, attending the William Mitchell College of Law before taking a job with a law firm in Fairfax County in 1998 and moving to Prince William in 2001.
“After being elected to the board in 2003, Stewart won the chairmanship in a special election the same day in 2006 that former Gov. George Allen lost his U.S. Senate seat to Jim Webb.
” ‘He lost Prince William County by about 6,000 votes, and I won it by about 6,000 votes,’ Stewart said of Allen.
“That’s one of the reasons Stewart thinks he could defeat Allen for the Republican nomination in the 2012 Senate race and win the election.
” ‘If I’m on the ballot’ in the general election, ‘I’ll win Prince William County, I may win Loudoun County, I won’t do badly in Fairfax, and even if I just come close to breaking even in Northern Virginia … I’ll win,’ he said.
* * * * *
“If Stewart does run, he’ll bring the illegal immigration debate with him.
“It’s what he knows, what he’s known for and, as Byler points out, ‘unlike health care, he can create distance from himself and George Allen on immigration.’
” ‘The race is going to be about George Allen,’ Stewart acknowledged. ‘But he’s got no headroom; he’s a known quantity. People have already judged him, and the support he can gain on top of what he’s already got is very limited.’
“The problem, he said, is that if too many others jump in, and stay in, they’ll split the vote and hand the nomination to Allen, which is why Stewart is hedging his bets.
” ‘I’m not going to enter a race I’m going to lose,’ he said. ‘I’m not a kamikaze.’
“The tally on the GOP side is already at five.
“Jamie Radtke, a Richmond tea-party activist, was the first in the door, followed by Allen, Hampton Roads attorney David McCormick, Chesapeake minister and tea-party activist E.W. Jackson Sr., and most recently Northern Virginia businessman Tim Donner.
” ‘If the George Allen nonsupporters are divided among three or four of us, he wins without a majority; he wins with a plurality,’ Stewart said.
“As for the Democrats, Stewart is less concerned.
“:Timothy M. Kaine, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and a former governor, announced his run this month.
” ‘I don’t think he’s all that strong,’ Stewart said. ‘People don’t think about him much at all. You’re hard-pressed to think of an accomplishment.’
“Stewart said Kaine will be haunted by his role as DNC chairman, inextricably linking him to the Obama administration and its policies.
“Beyond Kaine, he said, ‘the Democrats have no bench.’
* * * * *
“Of the leap from local government to the U.S. Senate, Stewart touts spending cuts and infrastructure built during his tenure as chairman.
“He points out proudly that Prince William’s tax bills are significantly lower than those in Northern Virginia localities with Democratic-controlled governments such as Arlington County and Alexandria, which he describes as ‘practically socialist.’
” ‘I’ve been forced to learn how to get things accomplished within a limited budget,’ he said, calling the at-large chairmanship ‘essentially being the governor of 400,000 people.’
“Not all his colleagues agree that Stewart is suited for higher office.
” ‘I don’t think he’s qualified for chairman, let alone the United States Senate,’ said Woodbridge District Supervisor Frank J. Principi, a Democrat who led the effort to repeal the county’s original immigration policy.
“He claims Stewart used the issue for political gain and gave the county a black eye in the process.
” ‘His political rhetoric has branded Prince William County and given it a bad reputation, particularly among a very diverse community,’ he said, also criticizing him for running for chairman while contemplating a Senate run.
” ‘I believe he’s truly neglecting his 400,000 constituents by trying to be the master of the universe,’ he said.
“Stewart said his interest in higher office is about making a difference on a larger level and bringing a ground-level approach to addressing the nation’s problems.
” ‘Local leaders are forced to deal with the real world each day. That’s why we’re more accountable as organizations than state or federal government,’ he said.
“Stewart says the same issues that have defined his tenure in Prince William would become his platform for a Senate run: fiscal responsibility and immigration.
” ‘I truly think that the country could be headed into a hellhole economically unless we have some very drastic spending reductions of the kind that no one alive today has seen,’ he said. ‘And at the end of the day, the only way to truly fix the illegal immigration problem is on the federal level.’
“Maria said she’s bracing herself already.
” ‘I think that he really wants to do it, and I think that he can do it,’ she said, adding that naysayers would only encourage him.
” ‘So many times people have told him, “Don’t do it, don’t do it, you’ll destroy your career,” and he’s like, “I don’t care, it’s what I believe. ” ‘ ”