A Virginia Republican Stands Tall--Against His Party's Infighting
It's hellacious out there on the roads, and Corey Stewart says it's time to take the battle to the powers that be.
"This is a political war, and you can't negotiate your way out of it," says Stewart, chairman of Prince William County's board of supervisors. "I'm not holding anything back now: This is us against the rest of the state."
While his own Republican Party once again collapses into civil war over how to pay for massive improvements to Northern Virginia's clogged transportation network, and while Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine watches the legislature stew in its own juices, Stewart refuses to play along with the phony compromises lawmakers keep concocting.
When top Republicans in Richmond proposed letting Northern Virginians tax themselves to build new roads, Stewart served notice that Prince William would not play along. "We're not going to do it," he says. "Prince William has already taxed itself to build roads that the state failed to build. We've sold $475 million in bonds since 1988, and the money for that comes from our property tax revenues. The unfairness grates against people here.
"We're already getting punished: Northern Virginia produces 40 percent of the state's revenue, but we get back only 17 percent of state transportation funding. That inequity is the real issue, and we're . . . not yelling enough."
Stewart, 38, is ready to break some china. Since winning the top spot in Prince William government last fall, he has made it clear that he does not intend to go down with his party as it loses its base in Northern Virginia. He won election by pledging to roll back the hopped-up pace of growth in his county and protect Prince William from tax increases.
So, faced with a potential budget shortfall, he's preparing to push through the first actual reduction in county spending in modern memory (even if it means cutting some social services and closing some county facilities). And he's adamant about curbing developers' ability to get projects built unless they pay for schools, roads and other infrastructure to handle the expanded population.
Let other Republicans climb into bed with developers; Stewart would rather align himself with the slow-growth crowd that traditionally looks for help from Democrats.
"This isn't about party," Stewart says. "It's about us getting together as a region and acting as a bloc with Hampton Roads against the rest of the state. We all agree Northern Virginia deserves a bigger share of state transportation spending. But instead of doing anything about that, we bicker about taxes."
If Virginia's Republican Party got a zesty dose of voter anger when it lost statewide elections in 2005 (governor) and 2006 (U.S. senator), Stewart warns that the worst is yet to come. Not only are voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads likely to throw the bums out in this fall's legislative races, but both parties face a realignment along geographic lines: Northern Virginia and other population-dense, congested regions against the rest of the state.
Regional parties "are an inevitable consequence of Richmond failing to address the intolerable traffic problem," he says.
But even as Stewart rails against both parties for leaving Northern Virginia in the lurch, he sees a way to pry progress from recalcitrant forces in Richmond. "When statewide candidates come to Prince William and ask for our support, we can make it clear they're not getting our votes if they don't change how transportation dollars are spent," Stewart says. He's asking Democrats to join him in a solid front against politicians from other parts of Virginia. So far, he says, most of those he's approached are "solidly onboard."
Many Democrats aren't so eager to join hands with a Republican in a part of the state they think is trending their way. Loudoun County Democrats believe their county is turning blue, thanks to Republican supervisors who seem to be cheerleaders for developers. But in Prince William, with a freeze on new rezoning decisions in place, Stewart is working to require larger buffers between new housing and streams, hills and other natural features.
Stewart even tried to force the wheeling and dealing with developers into the open by televising county planning commission meetings. "I saw it as a growth-control mechanism, a way for the public to get a heads-up on all the new development being approved," he says. "But some people didn't want the public to see what the county was doing with rezoning and land use." Stewart lost that one, in a 4 to 3 vote by the county board to keep the planning meetings off the home screens.
"We'll find another way," Stewart promises. "Democrat or Republican, communist, whatever, you're still stuck in the same traffic. United, we'll win this war."
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Posted by: Tom T. | February 12, 2007 10:24 AM
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