Two progressive challengers unseated incumbent Democratic prosecutors in northern Virginia, notching another win for the national movement for a more compassionate criminal justice system.
Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, a veteran criminal defense attorney serving as legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, defeated Theo Stamos, who presently serves as Arlington County commonwealth’s attorney, or what is usually called a district attorney in other states’ counties.
In neighboring Fairfax County, Steve Descano, a former federal consumer protection attorney, unseated commonwealth’s attorney Raymond Morrogh.
Having secured the Democratic nomination in a solid blue county just outside Washington, Dehghani-Tafti and Descano virtually assured a victory in the general election.
Their wins “represent the real power that issues like criminal justice reform have among voters across the political spectrum but especially Democrats and more progressive voters,” said Quentin Kidd, dean of social sciences at Christopher Newport University. “It not only pushes criminal justice reform higher up the agenda in Virginia, but I’d also imagine it will encourage similar challenges from progressives in other parts of the state.”
Dehghani-Tafti ran on a platform of significantly reducing incarceration in Arlington by, among other things, ending prosecution of marijuana possession and barring the use of cash bail for nonviolent offenders. She argued that Stamos’ tough and racially lopsided prosecutions of low-level offenses have put Arlington out of step with politically comparable counties. The challenger noted that, notwithstanding declining crime in the county, its jail population is 2.5 times the size of neighboring Fairfax County.
Dehghani-Tafti, whose husband is African American, also spoke about the implications of criminal justice reform for her family.
“When I think about why our justice system needs change, I think about my kids,” Dehghani-Tafti says in a video advertisement as her multiracial children appear on screen. “I want to live in a world where the color of their skin doesn’t affect their odds of an arrest.”
Descano promised a similar slate of reforms, including dramatically reducing the use of cash bail and treating drug use as a public health issue.
Unlike many insurgent candidates, Dehghani-Tafti and Descano boasted major establishment support, including an influential endorsement from former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe, who some observers speculate is considering another run at the governor’s mansion, held a grudge against Stamos and Morrogh for publicly opposing his efforts to restore voting rights to former felons.
The two contenders also did not lack for financial backing. The Justice and Public Safety PAC, which is funded by liberal billionaire George Soros, spent over $1 million in support of their two bids.
Until recently, prosecutors’ races attracted very limited attention and resources. Across the country, local prosecutors, whose reelections were often a mere formality, measured their success by the number of people they locked up and the length of sentences.
As part of a growing awareness of local prosecutors’ role in expanding the U.S. jail and prison populations, however, the movement for a more compassionate criminal justice system began getting involved in their elections. In recent years, proponents of reform have elected a number of their champions, including Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Kim Foxx in Chicago, Rachael Rollins in Boston and Wesley Bell in St. Louis.
Arlington, a racially diverse but affluent cluster of largely suburban communities outside Washington, does not have the same name recognition of America’s largest cities. But with nearly 240,000 people, it is larger than Providence, Rhode Island, or Birmingham, Alabama.
And Fairfax County, which contains many municipalities, is home to well over 1 million people.
Progressive fortunes were more mixed in legislative primaries on Tuesday. Del. Lee Carter, a working-class member of the Democratic Socialists of America who drives for Lyft to make ends meet, successfully fended off a challenge from a business-friendly Democrat who was a Republican up until the 2016 election.
But two progressive candidates challenging incumbents fell short in their bids. State Sen. Barbara Favola easily defeated Nicole Merlene. And Dick Saslaw, leader of Virginia’s state Senate Democrats, narrowly survived a challenge from human rights attorney Yasmine Taeb.
Sean McElwee, a co-founder of the think tank Data for Progress, who helped fundraise for Taeb through his Progressive Virginia Project, was disappointed that other national groups did not do more on her behalf.
He nonetheless appreciated the significance of Dehghani-Tafti’s and Descano’s wins.
“That is a huge step forward for the progressive prosecutor movement, and for progressives more broadly,” he said.
This article has been updated with Steve Descano’s win.