Establishment Chairman, progressive Commonwealth’s Attorney win Democratic primary

Michael Dranove Politics

Fairfax County voters went to the polls yesterday for the Democratic Primary, choosing longtime Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay for Board of Supervisor’s Chairman, and progressive newcomer Steve Descano for Commonwealth’s Attorney.

Board of Supervisor’s Chairman

A respected official with 11 years of experience, McKay was always considered the front-runner for the Chairman spot, the highest position in Virginia’s largest jurisdiction.  And while McKay managed to secure a double-digit victory, the race was closer than expected.  To win, McKay had to fend off an energetic campaign from a progressive challenger, in addition to corruption allegations. 

The progressive challenge came in the form of Georgetown University law professor Alicia Plerhoples.  Plerhoples pushed for a more aggressive approach to tackling the county’s economic inequalities.  Some of her proposals included dramatic rezoning initiatives to convert land from single-family housing to high-density development, a meals tax to fund affordable housing, and a robust program to convert the county to renewable energy. 

The juicier corruption allegations stemmed from real estate developer Tim Chapman, who filed an ethics complaint with Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh about an alleged deal McKay made with two developers when purchasing his home.  Chapman, who has himself faced a myriad of legal troubles, including a DWI, finished last in the race.

Commonwealth’s Attorney

The Commonwealth’s Attorney (CA) race was hotly contested for the first time since Ray Morrogh beat out Republican challenger Patrick McDade in 2007.  This year, the issues revolved not around the county’s alleged bungling of a murder case, but rather about wider structural issues related to criminal justice reform.

Morrogh faced a heavily funded challenger in the form of former Justice Department white collar prosecutor Steve Descano.  In debates, Descano attacked the way Morrogh’s office has handled misdemeanors such as petty theft and marijuana possession, and tied Morrogh’s policies to the country’s exploding incarceration rates over the past decades.  Descano also promised that if elected he would not seek cash bail in cases where the defendant is deemed to not be a threat on release.

In response, Morrogh painted Descano as naïve, and pointed to his own criminal justice reform initiatives, such as his leadership in creating drug, veteran’s, and mental health courts to steer offenders away from prison.  Morrogh also highlighted the wide experience gap between him and Descano, something which garnered him a wide array of endorsements from across the Virginia legislature as well as from the Washington Post.

In the end, Morrogh, who collapsed from an illness last Wednesday and required hospitalization, was unable to fend off Descano’s unrelenting campaign, losing by less than 2,000 votes.  A spokesman for Morrogh told the Washington Post, “We were outspent 3 to 1. Our candidate was in the hospital for nearly a week…This is an election that was bought, not won. We are proud of what we did.”

Unlike McKay’s victory, Descano’s win represents a potentially major shift in Fairfax County policy. Because of this, he has received national attention from progressive opinion leaders.  It now remains to be seen if Descano’s inexperience will be a major impediment towards implementing his reform initiatives.

Turnout and November

Turnout for county elections was low this year, but not abysmally so.  Around 9.5% of the county’s 721,715 active registered voters showed up to the polls.  This turnout number is difficult to compare to previous years not only because of the irregularity of these elections, but also because this is not the general election, which attracts voters who may come to vote for national races, and stay to vote for local ones.  Though it was only a primary, both candidates are expected to cruise to victory at the general election in November.