A newly formed Prince William County commission whose goal is to examine racial inequities in local schools and government services is off to a rocky start this year as partisan infighting among commissioners continues to escalate.
Conflict has sprung up between several Democratic-appointed commissioners and Republican-appointed Commissioner Charles “Mac” Haddow over actions and statements they say suggest Haddow wants to “derail” the commission’s work, a claim Haddow denies.
Haddow has said in emails he will not “work collaboratively” with the commission; has claimed some commissioners are singling him out because he is white; and has repeatedly referred to several non-white commissioners as “the gang of four” -- a term some commissioners claim is offensive.
The 12-member Racial and Social Justice Commission is tasked by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors with examining racial issues in county government services, schools and the police department and to identify potential areas of improvement. The commission’s primary goal is to create a report with policy recommendations for the board to consider at the end of this year.
A recently released email chain between Haddow and Prince William County School Board member Loree Williams (Woodbridge), who also serves on the commission, has highlighted rising tensions between commissioners.
“My goal is not to ‘work collaboratively’ towards some report in December 2021,” Haddow said in a Feb. 21 email to Williams. “I would rather drive a discussion that focuses on innovative ideas to provide solutions to racial and social justice issues.”
In the same email chain, Haddow engaged in a back and forth with Williams in which he repeatedly referred to two Black members of the commission, Williams and Commission Chair Shantelle Rock, Vice Chair Jahanzeb Akbar, who is South Asian, and County Human Rights Director Raul Torres, who is Hispanic, as “the gang of four.”
Haddow said he began using the moniker because he believes those commissioners and Torres were working together to “shut down” discussion of issues he contends are within the scope of the commission’s work, including the county’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution and addressing the rising number of failing grades among students since the county school division reverted to mostly virtual instruction because of the pandemic.
Several commissioners have since said they found his characterization of them as a “gang” offensive.
“I think it's a matter of respect especially when you're working with someone. For me, being a person of color, it's just doubly offensive,” Williams said in an interview Thursday.
In the email exchange, Williams twice asked for Haddow to stop referring to her and others by the moniker. Haddow responded to Williams both times by saying he did not believe the term was offensive and continued to refer to the group as “the gang of four” in subsequent emails.
“What is actually offensive is that the Gang of Four has chosen to run the [Racial and Social Justice Commission] like a third-world banana republic,” Haddow wrote in one email.
Haddow said the term “the gang of four” is a specific reference to the 2007 “Gang of Eight” warrantless surveillance scandal involving the National Security Agency.
“I called them ‘the gang of four.’ I could have call them the group of four. I could have called them any number of the four people. But ‘the gang of four’ is a commonly used nomenclature in political environments. And it is in no way a racist tint,” Haddow said in a later interview.
Asked why he continued to use the term after Williams said she found it offensive, Haddow said he believed Williams was “being hypersensitive.”
All emails between Haddow and Williams were made available to the entire commission last week when, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Prince William Times, Haddow copied all commissioners in his FOIA responses.
Several commissioners have raised concerns about the statements within those emails.
Rock said she believed singling out people of color as being in any gang – regardless of the context – had a negative connotation.
“He is a Caucasian man calling four people of color a gang. That's unacceptable,” Rock said.
Neabsco Commissioner Christopher Frederick said “the gang of four” moniker could be perceived as a derogatory statement “dependent upon the person or the individual.”
“Why would you say something like that about your fellow commissioners and that you don't want to work with them?” Frederick said.
Haddow also said he feels he is being singled out by some Black commissioners because he is white. Haddow is one of three white people on the commission, including Prince William County Police Chief Peter Newsham and County Executive Chris Martino.
“This commission is going to have to reconcile the fact that, as a white member of the commission, that I have every right to have my voice heard equally to theirs,” Haddow said in an April 15 interview.
The issue came up again during the commission’s most recent meeting, on Thursday, April 15, when Haddow said he believed Akbar, at a previous meeting, had dismissed Haddow’s parliamentary objections because Akbar “didn't like the fact that I'm white.”
Akbar, who is a Prince William County teacher, responded that he was extremely offended by the accusation, especially in a public forum where parents or students may be watching or listening.
“I'm a teacher. So, I take that extremely offensively,” Akbar said. “If somebody's watching and is the parent of a white child in my classroom and hears the accusation that somehow I have something against white people, shame on you for that for being the reason why that happened.”
Some commissioners have expressed frustration that they believe Haddow is purposely slowing down the commission’s work.
In addition to conflicts over his statements, Haddow walked out of a commission subcommittee meeting last Monday forcing the meeting into recess until the meeting regained a quorum when another member arrived late. Haddow also used FOIA requests last month to obtain the emails, text messages and phone calls exchanged among his fellow commissioners in an attempt to find evidence they might have broken procedural rules.
“I'm not the only one who is concerned. Commissioners have been calling me ... They're tired. They're very upset. And at this point, they think he wants to be a distraction or derail the commission,” said Rock, the chair of the commission.
But Rock said Haddow’s actions will not deter the commission from completing the end-of-year report to the board of supervisors by the December deadline.
“What I can say is that no matter what he's doing, the work is getting done,” Rock said.
Haddow said he does not want to slow the commission's work but wants to express the voice of the political minority on the commission. Haddow, appointed by Supervisor Yesli Vega, R-Coles, is one of three Republican-appointed commissioners.
Haddow said he believes his actions “won’t have any influence” on the commission’s final report.
“I believe they're going to pass whatever they want. They have the votes to do it, and I won't have any influence on that,” Haddow said.
Reach Daniel Berti at firstname.lastname@example.org