John Gray won an upset victory in the May 4 Republican primary for chairman of the Prince William Board of Supervisors against longtime Supervisor Marty Nohe, signaling a shift to the right among the GOP base in an increasingly Democratic-leaning county.
Gray, a 67-year-old Lake Ridge accountant, is a strident supporter of President Donald Trump. He greeted voters at the James J. McCoart building Saturday wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap and taped campaign videos in his home office with an official portrait of Trump hanging on the wall behind him.
Gray’s campaign, solely funded so far by a $12,500 donation to himself, relied mostly social media and such videos, the latest of which praises current board Chairman Corey Stewart’s 2007 “crackdown” on illegal immigration. Gray also talked of the “transgender agenda” and warned of Prince William being “taken over by radicalized Democrats” in November. The board is currently split between six Republicans and two Democrats, but all eight seats are up for re-election this fall.
Gray also signed a “rural crescent pledge,” promising to halt further development in the county’s protected northwest border, while Nohe did not, according to the FORCE, or Friends Organized for the Rural Crescent Energized, which is opposed to any changes to existing rural crescent development rules.
Gray said Sunday it was a combination of those positions – as well as his promise to rein in local taxes – that resulted in his winning 57 percent of the 5,580 votes cast in the party-run nominating process. It was the first election loss for Nohe, a GOP moderate who has served on the county board for 15 years.
Gray said Nohe called him to concede the win and “was very gracious.” Still, Gray contends Nohe is a “never Trumper” who “totally dismissed my campaign.”
“I support the president’s policies. … I don’t care that he tweets. I don’t care that he’s crass,” Gray said. “The difference is that the Republicans in Prince William County agreed with me and my support of the president’s policies.”
Nohe: ‘Prince William proud’
Nohe was upbeat Saturday night despite the loss. In a telephone interview and in a Facebook post to his supporters, Nohe said he strived to run a positive campaign and enjoyed his experiences on the trail.
Nohe raised more than $76,000 in the first quarter of 2019, according to reports filed with the Virginia Department of Elections, but relied mostly on road signs and a series of Facebook Live videos during which he talked about various events, programs and people that made him “Prince William proud,” his campaign’s tagline.
“Throughout this campaign, I have received encouragement, friendship and love from some of the greatest people I’ll ever have a chance to meet,” Nohe said. “I did everything I said I would do, I just didn’t get the votes.”
Asked how he thought Gray’s support for Trump and his policies will play in Prince William, where 57 percent of voters picked Hillary Clinton over the president in 2016, Nohe said that’s yet to be seen.
“Time will tell how well John’s message is received outside the Republican party, but that’s no longer my project,” Nohe added. “The good news is I still have eight more months to be the Coles District supervisor and I’m looking forward to getting some exciting things done in Prince William County.”
Since 2016, Prince William County voters have veered even further from GOP candidates in statewide races. In 2017, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) won about 61 percent of the county vote. In 2018, Sen. Tim Kaine (D) beat Stewart, the current Prince William board chairman, by more than 31 points among county voters. Stewart opted not to run for re-election this year.
Democrats were quick to frame Gray’s win as sign local Republicans are out of step with the county’s evolving political values. Democrat Ann Wheeler, who Gray will face in the Nov. 5 election along with independents Don Scoggins and Jesse Maggitt, issued a statement Saturday challenging Gray to a series of debates so voters “can see us both in person and compare us side by side.”
“John's victory reflects a dramatic change in Prince William County Republicans that are now completely controlled by the far right,” Wheeler said. “I will lead a ticket of Prince William County Democrats this fall that will offer the voters a different vision that puts our schools, transportation network and public safety as our first priority – while the GOP offers far right ideology only. I will bring a new era of inclusivity to Prince William County.”
Gray: Rural crescent a “huge” factor in GOP wins
As far as Republican voters are concerned, Gray said his vow to protect the rural crescent from further development was a “huge” factor in his win. Gray said he has long supported current zoning rules that limit residential development to one home per 10 acres.
“That’s what the people in the rural crescent want and that’s why they came out to vote for me,” Gray said.
Gray won all but two magisterial districts -- Occoquan and Potomac – in Saturday’s primary. He logged his biggest wins in the two districts with the highest turnout, including Nohe’s Coles District and the Gainesville District. Both include voters who live in or near the rural crescent.
Tammy Spinks, a leader of FORCE, said the group was “absolutely” behind Gray.
“We just felt like Marty Nohe is not a friend to the rural crescent and we don’t believe he’s ever been a friend of the rural crescent,” Spinks said, noting Nohe had been a supporter of the controversial Bi-County Parkway, which is now on hold, as well as other developments.
The supervisors commissioned a study about two years ago that recommended some changes to rural crescent development rules, but the board has yet to act on them. Publicly, Nohe has said he believes the county should explore ways to better preserve its farmland than the current rules, which have resulted in a series of 10-acre residential lots.
Spinks said FORCE is happy with both Gray’s win and those of Supervisor Pete Candland and Yesli Vega, who won the GOP nod to replace Nohe in the Coles District with 81 percent of the vote against realtor Patrick Sowers.
Vega, a former law-enforcement officer of Hispanic heritage, also signed the rural crescent pledge as did Candland, a two-term incumbent who beat his primary challenger, Ray Mizener, with 73 percent of the vote in the Gainesville District.
Mizener, a civil engineer who campaigned on improving the safety of local roads, was dogged by accusations that a statement he made about the need for a new north-south road in western Prince William amounted to support for the Bi-County Parkway. Mizener insisted that was not his intent.
“I think we were very instrumental in swaying voters who were on the fence or cared a tick about the rural crescent to come out and support it,” Spinks said.
She noted however, that the group is officially nonpartisan and will now be looking for Democrats to sign the pledge ahead of their June 11 primary.
Rachel Cain, a Gainesville District voter, said she is most concerned about preserving the rural crescent, keeping taxes low and “making sure our schools are still great.”
“We moved here because you still have that country feel,” she said.
Candland said he heard similar comments from several voters.
“People understand the need to slow down development in Prince William County and the need to protect our rural spaces,” Candland said. “And we need to keep our taxes low. … That’s probably the biggest thing I heard from folks today. They are tired of seeing their taxes go up.”
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org