With the subtly of a nightstick, ex-cop Jackson Miller is rattling politics in Prince William County, an increasingly blue, election-deciding outer suburb of Washington, D.C. A Republican, Miller wants to trade his part-time job as a state legislator for a full-time gig as chief administrator of the county courts.
Ordinarily, such an announcement would generate little attention — other than a mention that a shift from the statehouse to the courthouse would be accompanied by a giant pay raise and a fattened taxpayer-supplied pension. As a member of the House of Delegates, Miller is paid $17,640. If he wins a special election for clerk of court next month — Michele McQuigg, herself a former delegate, died in February — Miller will make at least $161,000.
But Miller is no ordinary Republican. In just over a decade, he has risen to No. 4 in the House GOP hierarchy, serving as whip, or chief vote-counter. It is a post once held by another Republican who seldom smiles: Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights, the next House speaker. That assumes Republicans, as is likely, retain their majority.
Miller’s planned departure from the General Assembly — currently a real estate agent, he did not return a telephone call and email Tuesday seeking comment — calls attention to two nagging problems for House Republicans.
One of them is short-term: this November’s elections for House and governor. The other is long-term — and larger: whether Republicans will still be able to manipulate legislative boundaries in the 2021 redistricting to protect their diminishing presence in Democrat-friendly, densely populated Northern Virginia.
In other words: this special election may be Miller’s best opportunity for the softest of landings.
Miller’s district, which is split between the city of Manassas and Prince William, is one of 17 held by Republicans that fell to Hillary Clinton for president. That a Republican-held district shows a Democratic reflex in presidential years is not unusual, given the quirks of Virginia politics.
Presidential elections — and to a lesser degree, gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections — generate higher turnouts dominated by more moderate and liberal urban and suburban voters who prefer Democrats. This advantage is often erased by Republican hyper-partisan gerrymandering and the sharp decline in turnout in off-year elections. The two combine to maximize the strength of the narrowing GOP vote.
Turnout could hit rock bottom in the special election April 18 for Prince William clerk, possibly playing to Miller’s advantage. He is an officeholder, representing at least 85,000 of Prince William’s 437,000 residents. But his Democratic opponent, lawyer Jacqueline Smith, isn’t a nobody. She ran against McQuigg in 2015 — a year in which House and Senate seats were decided — pulling nearly 48 percent of the countywide vote.
It was a sure sign that Democrats — aided by dramatic population growth and accelerating diversity — are making significant inroads against Republicans in what had been one of their party’s bulwarks.
Perhaps Prince William is about to shake off its year-to-year swings, imperiling Republicans such as Miller in the 2017 contests for the House. Though Republicans are positioning a replacement candidate, at least one Democrat had declared for the Miller seat before Miller’s announced switcheroo — and others could now jump in. Part of the explanation may lie 32 miles northeast — in Washington.
Prince William, along with neighboring Loudoun County, is a federal suburb, home to thousands directly and indirectly employed by Uncle Sam. Because their livelihood depends on it, their focus tends to be national politics. Donald Trump’s vow to take a cleaver to the federal payroll made it easy for them to vote — in huge numbers — for Clinton.
So did Trump’s immigrant-hostile pronouncements, the most recent being his revised executive order closing U.S. borders to residents of six majority-Muslim nations. In Prince William, such views are taken personally — by Democrats and Republicans — because of the county’s heavy ethnic and racial diversity.
Clinton did not just win Prince William, she swept it — carrying all seven magisterial districts. Her performance is not reflected by the makeup of the county’s legislative delegation. Of 13 delegates and senators who represent all or part of Prince William, eight are Republicans and five are Democrats. Chalk that up to GOP gerrymandering.
Del. Bob Marshall, R-Prince William, an unrepentant conservative whose district tipped twice to Barack Obama and was won by Clinton, has survived the rising Democratic tide by talking ideas rather than ideology — a strategy for which U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock is a poster child. The Republican won a second term in a Northern Virginia district that Clinton carried by double-digits.
Marshall, again targeted by Democrats, emphasizes constituent services, frequently walks his district and is studying Spanish so he can communicate directly with Latino residents. “The Republicans are going to have to emphasize local issues with practical effects on the daily lives of everybody up here,” he said.
Prince William is a majority-minority county, 54 percent of its residents are either African-American, Hispanic or Asian. This has fed — long before Trump — nativist Republican politics, the embodiment of which is Corey Stewart, a candidate for governor and member of the county’s governing body, the board of supervisors.
Miller, too, has played to immigrant fears since his election to the House in 2006. In his first legislative session in 2007, Miller sponsored a measure that would ban an organization from using public funds to provide any service to an illegal immigrant who is 19 or older.
That Prince William is a hotbed of diversity is interpreted differently by Republicans and Democrats.
For Republicans who associate immigration with crime, this justifies Prince William’s agreement with federal authorities — apparently one of the few in the state — to assist in enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. For Democrats who view newcomers as new voters, the antidote to one party’s jitters over immigration is the embrace by the other.
Federally oriented voters’ fury over Trump and the growing strength of New Virginians affected by the president’s dictates could prove a potent mix in Prince William — or so Democrats believe.
One measure: more than 200 people turned out for a town hall-type meeting at a Dale City firehouse organized by the National Organization For Women after the Women’s March on Washington, itself timed to the Trump inaugural. State Sen. Jeremy McPike said many were unfamiliar with state and local politics, but nearly one in 10 promised to become active.
“They’ve paid attention federally,” McPike said. “They don’t know much ... about the General Assembly. But now they’re fired up to get involved on all levels.”