Prince William Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart is raising twice as much as his Democratic challenger, Rick Smith, thanks in part to several hefty donations from real estate developers.
Since January, Stewart has collected nearly $155,000 in political contributions, about two-thirds of which came from those in “real estate and construction,” a broad category the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project uses to categorize developers, building contractors, engineering firms and mortgage lenders.
Collecting money from the residential and commercial construction business is nothing new for Stewart, a Republican who has held the county’s top elected post since 2007.
According to VPAP, Stewart has collected nearly $700,000 from donors in real estate and construction category since 2006.
But with the November election three months away, Smith is using online ads with the tagline, “Is Corey Stewart selling us out?” to remind voters that developer money continues to make up the largest portion of Stewart’s political support at a time when voters list school overcrowding and traffic congestion among their top concerns.
Smith blames county leadership for failing to keep up with the infrastructure needs – including schools and roads – of the growing county.
“Overcrowding in the schools the number-one thing we are hearing,” Smith said. “Some folks are also concerned about teachers and teacher compensation. We’re running on the fact that education is a vital part of the role of local government and it has not been given the support it needs.”
In response to the criticism, Stewart says residential construction has actually slowed since he took office and the county has seen more “mixed-use development,” which combines residential housing with retail or other commercial development, since he took over as chairman.
According to building permit data shared by Stewart’s campaign, new housing construction in Prince William County peaked in 2004, with more than 5,700 permits issued for new homes, but dropped below 2,000 in 2008 and has remained there through 2014, the most recent year for which numbers are available.
Stewart cites Stonebridge at Potomac, Virginia Gateway and Neabsco Commons as examples of newer mixed-use developments that he says he helped usher into the county.
“We have more homes close to retail and restaurants, so we’re getting a lot of the type of developments people want,” Stewart adds. “Including high-end shopping and dining.”
Some of Stewart’s largest donations this year are tied to developers behind mixed-use projects.
According to campaign finance reports released last month, Stewart received $5,000 in June, and a total of $22,500 since 2014, from Guiseppe Cecchi, chief executive officer of IDI Group. Cecchi is the developer behind the controversial Rivergate apartment complex in Woodbridge, approved by the board of supervisors with Stewart’s support last October.
The project, which could bring as many as 720 apartments to North Woodbridge, was opposed by some supervisors who argued the development would exacerbate school overcrowding and traffic congestion in the U.S. 1 corridor.
During June, Stewart also received $5,000 checks from donors such as Buchanan Partners, developer of Heritage Hunt; Comstock Home Building, which is selling townhomes near Manassas; and Equinox Investments, LLC, which is building the Villages of Piedmont.
Stewart said the donations aren’t tied to any projects currently in the pipeline for approval and that he’s careful not to accept donations from developers before their projects are considered by the board.
“You have to try to be careful to avoid any appearance of impropriety,” Stewart said. “If I know there’s something big coming along, I wait until the point passes.”
But not all of Stewart’s big checks have come from real estate. In June, he also received $10,000 from trash contractor American Disposal Services; $10,000 from the Potomac Nationals and a collective $13,000 from a four local car dealerships.
“I think the most important job of the chairman is to bring in economic development, and that’s happened,” Stewart said of his support from area businesses. “The business community wants a pro-business leader, and they’ve supported me for it.”
Smith’s campaign support has been more diverse. Aside from the $20,000 loan he’s given his own campaign, Smith’s largest single donations have been $7,800 from Babur Lateef, a local eye doctor who ran against Stewart in 2011, and $10,100 from his dad, Richard H. Smith.
Smith leads Stewart in donations of less than $100, which are not itemized on campaign finance reports. Smith has received 140 such donations to Stewart’s 12.
Although Smith had $43,000 in the bank on June 30, compared to Stewart’s $255,000, Smith says he’s not worried about his funding-raising deficit, mostly because Democratic candidates are coordinating their volunteer efforts this year by sending teams of canvassers out to talk to voters about multiple campaigns.
The main goal of the “coordinated campaigning” strategy, Smith said, is to get the word out about the November election. Turnout in Virginia’s local contests, called “off-off-year elections” because they coincide with neither the even-year federal elections nor the odd-year gubernatorial contests, has hovered around 25 percent in recent cycles.
Turnout for the June primary was even worse: just 2.5 percent. Democrats tend to win in Prince William County only when turnout is strong.
“We’re very confident that as long as everybody votes, we’re going to be successful,” Smith said. “We committed very early on that we were going to do this together.”
Stewart said he hopes to raise about $500,000 in total for his campaign prior to November, and that the money is needed to get the word out about the election.
“It’s a big county, were at 446,000 people so it takes a lot of money to run in a countywide race,” Stewart said. “You have to spend more to get your message out than you did in the past. …Now you’re spending a lot of time and a lot of money just telling people there is an election.”