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The Prosecutor’s Race Making Arlington Interesting

John F. Harris is founding editor of POLITICO and author of The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House. Shawna Chen is an editorial intern for Politico Magazine.

One sign that this era of agitated civic life is not merely a reflection of Donald Trump or Twitter is that the agitation has penetrated, of all places, into Arlington County, Virginia.

In normal times, Arlington politics are polite and consensus-driven, almost proudly dull—the perfect opposite of the national capital that it borders just across the Potomac. A Democratic primary election for local prosecutor on Tuesday, however, underlines that these are not normal times. An ill-tempered monthslong battle between incumbent commonwealth’s attorney Theo Stamos and her aggressive challenger from the left, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, is drawing notice and money from criminal justice advocates nationally.

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A political action committee funded by billionaire George Soros has pumped in nearly $ 600,000 on behalf of Dehghani-Tafti, who argues that Stamos is an overly rigid prosecutor who is too zealous in pursing marijuana cases and whose policies are particularly unfair to minority and economically disadvantaged defendants. The overall spending in the race, approaching $ 1 million, is roughly four times greater than usual.

The choice, and especially the racially and ideologically charged rhetoric around it, has confronted the tight, earnest community of civic players in Arlington with the preeminent question of Trump-era politics: Which side are you on?

Arlington Democrats say they can hardly recall a race that took on such personal dimensions, or offered such a sharp edge on issues. The contest has produced bracing arguments on highly charged national subjects like police brutality and mass incarceration.

In this case, however, there is a curious twist: One has to squint pretty hard to see examples of these in Arlington, certainly in comparison to places that have drawn the spotlight elsewhere. If a place as placid as Arlington is being riled up this way, something notable is going on.

Arlington’s jail population, as Stamos notes, has fallen lately to a five-year low under her tenure as top prosecutor (She was first elected in 2011, after 24 years as a deputy in the same office). There have been no notorious Chicago-style incidents of police violence, no riots protesting racial injustice.

Dehghani-Tafti, 45, who has been a public defender in the neighboring District of Columbia but has no experience as a prosecutor, is an Iranian American with two black children and identifies as a woman of color, and says this perspective helped inspire her campaign. She said she welcomes money from Soros, and says that is because she is at the vanguard of a new approach to law enforcement that makes finer distinctions about which defendants present a true threat to public safety, and is more attuned to systemic prejudice in the criminal justice system. She points out that Arlington reflects some galling national racial disparities: Although less than 10 percent of its residents are black, a majority of its inmates are.

She says the race is “very personal to me,” informed in part by her disgust after Trump’s election in 2016 and in part by watching a friend be falsely convicted before being exonerated after five years.

“I know there are some people who need to be locked up,” she told POLITICO, “but I prefer to go about this in a way that’s informed by evidence and data and bring[s] Arlington into the 21st century, not just in terms of technology but also in terms of what makes us safer but is also more humane.”

Stamos, 61, who is white, has complained that her opponent’s appeals for compassion often overlook compassion for the victims of crime. Bridling at the criticism, Stamos notes that she helped start a “drug court” to provide a better path to adjudicating these nonviolent cases.

“I’m still a prosecutor,” she said. “I’m not going to apologize for being a prosecutor. I think it’s very misguided to back away from the actual work of prosecution because that’s what does keep communities safe, it’s what gives voice to victims of crime.”

Stamos leaves little doubt that the criticism of her supposedly reactionary style is ticking her off. “Arlington County is of the most educated, progressive, engaged and enlightened communities in the country,” she said. “To postulate that unbeknownst to this very active community for the past three decades, all under the watchful eye of Chief Judge William T. Newman, who is an African American pioneer in this community, there has been this malignant and oppressive force at work … is preposterous.”

At left, incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos holds a glass while speaking with a voter.

At left, incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos. | Flickr/nostri-imago/CC BY 2.0

She was offering a view of her county as Pleasantville that has a familiar ring. Famous for the Pentagon, and the national cemetery, and the Iwo Jima memorial, Arlington beyond those landmarks cuts a low profile even in the Washington area. If you moved to the capital and wanted a place in the suburbs that doesn’t feel very suburban, you might choose Arlington. It has plenty of ethnic diversity, decent schools, bike trails, wooded neighborhoods a short walk from Metrorail stations with smartly planned mixed use developments around them. (As it happens, the POLITICO newsroom looks out on Washington, but is actually across the river in Arlington.) If you are in the mood, there are Asian and Hispanic restaurants galore; if not, you are rarely more than a few minutes from a Starbucks.

On the other hand, if you were an ambitious local reporter covering Arlington you typically would be finagling for a new assignment. Back in the days when the Washington Post covered local news more seriously than it does now, it still had a hard time paying attention to Arlington. The all-day Saturday board meetings droned on interminably, marathon sessions of process and piety, and the county mostly lacked the inflamed grievances and personal rivalries and power plays that typically make local politics interesting.

In 2019, however, Arlington political veterans say the place has more dry tinder than Stamos probably realized.

The contours of the race—an established and well-known Democrat versus a china-smashing insurgent—at a superficial level invite comparisons to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and her upset last year of longtime incumbent Joe Crowley.

But the Arlington case is more complicated. There is a healthy roster of well-known establishment players in Arlington (and in neighboring Falls Church, also part of this commonwealth’s attorney district) who are backing the challenger.

In part this is because Stamos evidently underappreciated the partisan nature of the moment. In the past, she had supported an independent with a Republican past, John Vihstadt, for the otherwise wholly Democratic County Board. In normal times, this might have produced grumbling and eye rolls. But in the hyperpartisan atmosphere of Trump’s Washington, many Democrats were genuinely offended by the gesture.

A more serious blunder, at least in narrowly political terms, came in 2017, when Stamos joined mostly Republican prosecutors from around the state in opposing then-Governor Terry McAuliffe’s plan to restore voting rights to convicted felons who had served their time. Stamos said she didn’t object to the concept, but to the broad-brush way McAuliffe was trying to implement it en masse instead of assessing individual cases.

The former governor wasn’t interested in this nuance. “I’ll do anything I possibly can do to try and help you,” the unforgiving McAuliffe told Dehghani-Tafti during his endorsement announcement.

Stamos can also be rigid in ways that left critics eager to pounce. A group of 109 defense attorneys endorsing Dehghani-Tafti wrote a letter alleging that the prosecutor pumps up charges against defendants in order to induce them to accept plea bargains, and she refuses to use technology in ways that would make it easier for them to gain access to relevant discovery evidence on behalf of clients without physically going to the courthouse. (Some of those details ended up driving the Washington Post’s endorsement of the challenger.) The picture they offered was not necessarily of an abusive prosecutor, but of an unmistakable hard-ass. In earlier times that is a reputation a Virginia Democrat would covet—a way of countering criticism of being a bleeding heart.

But in a liberal-minded community the old ways may be outdated, just as Joe Biden is learning on the presidential campaign trail, when a one-time talking point—his sponsorship of the 1994 crime bill—is now something that throws him on the defensive.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior fellow at the liberal Brennan Center’s justice program, said the Arlington primary battle is “reflective of a national trend.“ In recent years, Soros’ PAC has funded a number of progressive challengers in prosecutor’s races across the country. Kim Foxx was elected in Cook County State, Ill., with hundreds of thousands of dollars funneled into her campaign. Similarly funded Aramis Ayala was sworn into office overseeing Orange and Osceola counties in Florida, shortly after which she drew fire for saying she would not ever pursue the death penalty. In Philadelphia, Larry Krasner defeated a Republican candidate with 21 years of experience in prosecution, delivering a hard-hitting campaign with more than $ 1 million from Soros. In Oakland, incumbent Nancy O’Malley was reelected, but only after facing a challenger supported by Soros.

Progressive challengers not backed by Soros have also unseated incumbents in Durham County, N.C., Kansas City, Kan., and St. Louis County, Mo. Even in open races, candidates with little to no background in politics—but calling for an overhaul of the criminal justice system—have prevailed over candidates with long histories in the prosecutor’s office. In Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, Eric Gonzalez won the title over five Democratic candidates—all former prosecutors.

“We’re seeing bipartisan agreement that our criminal justice system is broken,” Eisen added, “and in need of change … [which] I think fits squarely with what we’re seeing across the country with this wave of new prosecutors wanting to transform the office.”

It has been a while since such a wave—if it ends up knocking down someone like Stamos—has hit the shores of Virginia, where prosecutors often stay put for their entire careers. Fairfax County, which is adjacent to Arlington and is the largest locality in the Washington area and the state, has had only two people serve as the commonwealth’s attorney since 1967. The current occupant, Raymond Morrogh, is also facing a Soros-funded challenger in Tuesday’s primary. In Prince William County, to the west of Fairfax, prosecutor Paul B. Ebert is retiring after 52 years in office.

Beth Arthur, who has been Arlington sheriff for almost 19 years, said she doesn’t welcome elections for the office becoming politicized in the fashion they have this year. She has endorsed Stamos. “It had been my intention not to weigh in on the race publicly, but when her ethics were attacked and the police department’s ethics were attacked, I felt like it was wrong.”

But Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor whose district included Arlington, said the issue is less about personalities than changing standards. “In the ‘90s, when I first started doing mostly criminal cases, I was ‘put them away, throw away the key, hang them high,’” Rossi said. “But then when I entered the new century, I realized this was fool’s gold, that mass incarceration is not the answer.”

“The current commonwealth’s attorney is a good person, she’s a good trial attorney, she’s got integrity, she’s been in that office since they invented fire and the wheel,” Rossi added. “I don’t think she has the mental state of mind to move as fast as I would like in the realm of criminal justice. Virginia is moving, but it’s moving very slowly … I want it to move like a bolt of lightning.”

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