The Prince William Chamber of Commerce hosted a debate between the candidates for Chair of the Prince William Board of Supervisors, Thursday, Oct. 26 at the George Mason campus in Manassas. The debate, between Republican Jeanine Lawson and Democrat Deshundra Jefferson, focused on the biggest issues facing the county, including data center development, housing development, public safety, transportation and county investments.
Jeanine Lawson, of Gainesville, is the current Brentsville Supervisor, who has held that office since 2014. Deshundra Jefferson, of Montclair, is a communications professional who worked for the National Democratic Party and on Capitol Hill. Deshundra beat current board chair Ann Wheeler in the primary.
The debate was moderated by Julie Carrey, Northern Virginia Bureau Chief for News4 Washington; Bruce Potter, Publisher of InsideNova publications; and Jill Palermo, Managing Editor, Prince William Times.
Following the debate, the Prince William Chamber of Commerce announced that their political committee chose to endorse Democrat Deshundra Jefferson.
“Deshundra’s endorsement from the PAC is attributed to her support of schools and the regional business community. Although both candidates had noteworthy moments during the debate, Deshundra’s support of both business and education makes her the best poised to work alongside the chamber,” the announcement stated.
However, while the chamber hosted the debate, neither candidate kowtowed to the business community and offered positions that reflected the concerns of the voters.
The debate demonstrated that the two candidates had similar priorities. Both rejected citing data center development near parks, schools and neighborhoods. Both were supportive of public safety, and both recommended a measured and deliberate approach to affordable housing, road construction and regional tourism.
However, it also highlighted the difference between the Republicans and Democrats in accomplishing the county’s goals. Lawson absolutely wanted to lower taxes, especially the meals tax. Deshundra said they need to replace funding before lowering taxes; she suggested higher taxing of data centers.
Jefferson mentioned the need for spending on education and supported collective bargaining for county employees, while Lawson called unions “big labor.” Lawson wanted to absolutely protect the rural crescent, whereas Deshundra indicated she would take a hybrid approach that includes preservation. “We desperately need to balance our desire to grow with our desire to protect the environment,” said the Democratic candidate.
On the most controversial issues, Lawson appeared more definitive, but Jefferson argued she would be more effective by working cooperatively, talking to everyone and reaching across the political aisle.
STRATEGIES & ARGUMENTS
Each candidate engaged in a strategy to discredit her opponent. Lawson tried to connect Jefferson to the four Democrats on the board. Those supervisors have walked in lock and step with Chair Ann Wheeler-D in approving data centers and other issues unpopular with many residents. Lawson said that Jefferson had joined their camp.
But Jefferson turned that on its head. “My name is Deshundra Jefferson, and I am not my party; I am an individual.” She said that is a “flimsy” argument since she took a huge risk running against Wheeler.
Jefferson called Lawson ineffective and uncooperative and also pointed out that she “flip-flopped” on data centers, approving many of them. Jefferson said, “I will build bridges, not burn them.”
Lawson apologized for approving data center development, saying her views evolved since then.
On campaign contributions, Lawson said Jefferson had “betrayed” her supporters by taking a $10,000 donation from Stanley Martin. Stanley Martin is a home-building company that wants to sell land previously intended for homes to build the Devlin Technology Park, plus build new neighborhoods in the county.
Jefferson said those voters “used her” in the primary (to vote out Wheeler) and were not true supporters.
Jefferson said Lawson has not been transparent with her donations and has taken “dark money,” referring to a Federal PAC “Families for a Safer Prince William” that has helped fund her campaign. The PAC is run by a former president of the Prince William County Republicans. As a federal PAC it does not have to reveal its donations or spending until after the election.
Additionally, during her time running for U.S. Congress, Lawson accepted money from Chuck Kuhn, who owns the property behind Amberleigh Station.
On lowering taxes, Lawson told the moderator from Prince William Times that you cannot lower taxes and simultaneously support collective bargaining. With inflation and small businesses hurting, she would eliminate the meals tax, reduce the car tax, and reduce property taxes.
But Jefferson said Lawson “dodged” the question. What would she cut? Seven million from the school budget? Jefferson said she would get additional revenue from varied sources, such as approved data centers, then cut or phase out taxes. The board before 2019 had “starved” the county of revenue, she said. Schools, public safety, and all public services were suffering.
Jefferson said the county needs to immediately halt data center development outside the designated zone. Lawson said that an all-stop would be ideal but not legally feasible, but she would stop all rezoning.
Lawson said she raised the tax on data centers. “We did. And we will continue to under my leadership.” But Jefferson said it was not enough; it is a “rounding error,” to huge companies such as Amazon.
Of the large Prince William Digital Gateway, a proposal to add 30-something new data centers along Pageland Lane, Lawson said she has been opposed “from the get-go,” calling it a “disastrous project.” She noted how she even proposed tabling the vote before the lame-duck board. She called Jefferson “wishy-washy” on the issue.
But Deshundra had earlier said she would halt data center projects outside the overlay district. She noted Lawson opened the door to the development when she placed Gainesville Crossing on Route 29 across from Bull Run National Park.
On the Rural Crescent, Lawson said she has been “crystal clear” that they have to protect it, and would immediately reverse Wheeler’s plan, saying the rural crescent is “the best land use plan,” to stop suburban sprawl that would negatively impact schools.
Jefferson said the Rural Crescent is a “gem.” She said she respects rural residents, even those who do not want “cheap townhouses in their backyards.” However, she did not say she would reverse course to one home per ten-acre policy. She said agro-tourism was a missed opportunity.
On affordable housing, both candidates found it unclear what that really means. Lawson advocated for smart growth principles, such as walkable communities.
Jefferson Republicans need to end the “scare tactics.” She said when she first moved to the county she had difficulty affording a home. She also said she likes the idea of housing near activity centers.
Lawson said Democrats disrupted one of her public meetings to create the narrative that she was anti-affordable housing. At the meeting, Jefferson said that Lawson should talk less and listen to everyone regardless of their opinions.
On transportation, both candidates were wary of road projects, such as the Route 28 Bypass, that would eliminate existing homes and businesses. Both did not believe all improvements were productive.
Discussing public safety, Jefferson said fair wages for police and fire and rescue employees are crucial, and that is the reason she supports collective bargaining. Also, programs for at-risk youth are needed, such as a jobs program, to address rising violent crime.
Lawson blamed “defund the police," and liberal policies for the shortage of officers, and said she always supports public safety. Addressing the youth crisis she said they need an “all hands on deck approach” that involves the community.
Both candidates were less than enthusiastic about the Washington Commanders coming to Prince William County. Jefferson said “she did not want to give tax discounts to “millionaires and billionaires," and emphasized she was not a fan of the team. Lawson was also not at all a fan of the proposition whatsoever.
The candidates felt similarly about having an indoor track complex. Jefferson noted that the county has priorities it needs to fund, such as schools, and it would largely depend upon the return on investment.
WHOSE MESSAGE RESONATED
Lawson was the clear winner in the room, but that is not surprising since the majority of attendees came in wearing “Lawson” stickers. Several people said they trust Lawson more to deny the Digital Gateway and protect their neighborhoods from data centers. The gateway vote and Devlin vote are both scheduled before the new board takes office.
The Chamber endorsed Deshundra Jefferson. They said she was more vocal about supporting education and businesses. While the school board sets spending priorities, the majority (57.3%) of general revenue funds are allotted to schools according to the revenue-sharing agreement, so decisions on taxation have a direct effect on county public schools.
Residents of Prince William County can vote at their registered precinct on Tuesday, Nov. 7. They can vote early through Nov. 4 at select county locations such as the Gainesville-Haymarket Library. Voters should check where they are eligible to vote.