Prince William Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart acknowledged he lost his cool last week after a county Electoral Board decision didn’t go his way.
But Stewart, R-At Large, told Prince William Today and InsideNoVa.com that he doesn’t regret using what he called “some very strong words” in an exchange with Harry Wiggins, chairman of the Prince William Democratic Committee, on the sidewalk outside the Old Manassas Courthouse after the electoral board’s emergency meeting March 11.
The board was deciding whether Stewart, Sheriff Glen Hill and Supervisors Maureen Caddigan (Potomac), Pete Candland (Gainesville) and Marty Nohe (Coles) could defend their seats against intraparty challengers in the June 9 statewide primary – the incumbents’ preferred nomination process. The local Republican committee missed a Feb. 24 deadline for filing the paperwork for the primary with state election officials.
Days after the profanity-laden exchange, Stewart said he still blames Wiggins -- not the Republican committee or its chairman, Bill Card -- for the electoral board decision denying the request. Wiggins is not a member of the electoral board, but the board is controlled by Democrats.
“Are you kidding me?” Stewart responded when asked whether he would apologize to Wiggins for his remarks. “This guy has perverted the electoral process of Prince William County. He owes an apology to every voter in the county.”
But according to Reggie Henderson, a Prince William resident and retired federal attorney now in private practice, Stewart’s behavior outside the historic red-brick courthouse – public property owned by Prince William County -- turned heads after the electoral board meeting.
Henderson said he was standing next to Wiggins and Al Brooks, co-chairman of the African American Democratic Club of Prince William, when Stewart came down the courthouse steps, spotted Wiggins and launched into a “tirade of expletives” so pointed that Henderson at first thought Stewart was joking.
“It was so intense and so offensive that I thought, I don’t know these guys, maybe this is how they act,” Henderson recalled. “But it soon became obvious that this guy was not joking, that these words were delivered with serious intent.”
Both Henderson and Wiggins confirmed that Stewart repeatedly called Wiggins an “f----ing piece of sh--.”
“He used a bunch of choice words that conveyed his displeasure,” Henderson added. “We were like dumbfounded that this exchange took place because this guy is a well-respected member of the community,” he said of Stewart. “He was accusing Harry of doing something behind the scenes, of affecting the vote.”
Henderson called it a “one-way exchange,” but Wiggins said he managed a brief retort. “I just said, ‘Look, right back at you,’ and left it at that,” Wiggins said.
Brooks said he would rather not repeat Stewart’s words but said Stewart was clearly angry.
“We all get angry from time to time, but we have to be professional about it,” Brooks said. “Because if we want something good to happen for the people in Prince William County, we have to work together.”
First elected in 2006 when former Republican Board Chairman Sean Connaughton left office for a federal post, Stewart is running for re-election to his third full term at the helm of the Prince William board. Stewart will face fellow Republican Chris Crawford, a political newcomer from Gainesville, in whatever nominating process eventually occurs ahead of the November election. Either Stewart or Crawford will then face Democrat Rick Smith, also a political newcomer, in the fall contest.
Stewart and the other candidates involved, except Candland, have hired a lawyer who filed a lawsuit March 12 – a day after the electoral board meeting – seeking an emergency injunction to place their names on the ballot for the June 9 state-run ballot. A hearing on that suit was scheduled for March 20.
Stewart said this week that he lost his temper because he’s convinced Wiggins meddled in the electoral board’s decision to deny the primary based solely on the missed deadline. Virginia law allows incumbent candidates to participate in state-run primaries if they have won their seats in previous primary elections.
Stewart said alternatives to primaries, such as party-run canvasses and conventions, disenfranchise voters because absentee ballots can’t be cast by those unable to vote because of military deployments, old age or chronic illness. Saturday contests are also difficult for busy parents ferrying kids to and from activities, Stewart said.
“He has crossed a line,” Stewart said of Wiggins. “And, yes, I’m extraordinarily angry with him. I cannot remember a time when I’ve been that angry with another human being.”
Stewart acknowledged that the exchange took place in public but called it “a private conversation.”
Wiggins said he has always had a cordial relationship with Stewart, so Stewart’s sharp words and accusations took him by surprise. Wiggins denies having anything to do with the electoral board’s decision, saying it was not partisan but rather the board members’ interpretation of the law.
Electoral Board Chairman Keith Scarborough reiterated in an interview Monday that he and fellow board member Jane Reynolds denied the request because they don’t believe Virginia law allows a local electoral board to order candidate names on a ballot when the Virginia Board of Elections declines to do so. Both Scarborough and Reynolds are lawyers.
Scarborough said he’s never seen the electoral board place candidates on the ballot, a duty he said is reserved for judges and state election officials. Scarborough added that he understands the Republicans’ main contention – that Virginia law lets incumbents previously elected in state-run primaries to determine their nominating process. The problem, he said, is that local Republicans missed the deadline for making that request.
“The fact that I’m a Democratic activist doesn’t matter,” he added. “I would feel the same way if we had missed the deadline. It’s not a matter of partisanship; it’s a matter of the rule of law.”
Party control of the electoral board reflects that of the sitting governor. Prince William’s electoral board switched to Democratic control on March 1. Both Scarborough and Reynolds are Democrats.
The March 20 hearing on the incumbents’ lawsuit will be presided over by Judge Paul Sheridan, a retired Arlington circuit judge appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court to hear the case because all four local circuit court judges recused themselves.
If Sheridan rules in the incumbents’ favor, Scarborough said, the electoral board will comply with his order. “If the courts say they are entitled to to be on the ballot, we’re happy to put them there.”