Criminal justice reformers in Virginia scored key victories in 2019, but three of those freshman prosecutors in populous Northern Virginia communities now face challenges in the June 20 Democratic primaries: Fairfax County’s Steve Descano, Arlington County’s Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, and Loudoun County’s Buta Biberaj.
This trio of races are in fact the party’s only contested primaries for prosecutor anywhere in the state, and the dynamics are similar in each of them. As DCist recently reported, the challengers are all framing their criticisms as complaints about how the incumbents are running their offices while downplaying ideological differences—framing that those same incumbents have rejected.
All of these battles are taking place on blue turf: Each jurisdiction gave Joe Biden over 60% of the vote in 2020 and decisively backed Democrat Terry McAuliffe in his unsuccessful campaign for governor the following year. Whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee in each race should be the favorite in November, but the stakes are still high.
We’ll start with Descano, who is state’s attorney for both Fairfax County―which is by far the most populous municipality in the state―as well as the separate and considerably smaller City of Fairfax. His intra-party foe is defense attorney Ed Nuttall, who has made a name for himself representing officers in police shooting cases. “There’s a morale problem in the police department now due to the conflict between the commonwealth’s attorney’s office and the police department,” said Nuttall, who has also faulted the office’s performance in several recent cases.
Descano, who stopped asking for cash bail in his first year in office, has pushed back on these complaints by declaring, “It takes more than one term to undo decades of bad policy, decades of injustice.” He’s also argued that Nuttall, whom he’s dubbed “a Republican wolf in Democrat’s clothing” is too close to police unions and would reverse the four years he’s spent “building a system of equality, justice and fairness.” When the Associated Press asked Nuttall if he considered himself a reformer, he responded, “Sure, why not?”
Descano has outraised Nutalle $490,000 to $220,000 through June 8, but his opponent is getting some high-profile support. Nuttall has formed an alliance with Sheriff Stacey Kincaid and state Sen. Chap Petersen, and all three candidates are encouraging voters to back the trio as an unofficial ticket next week. Both Kincaid and Petersen enjoy huge financial edges over their own respective primary opponents, Kelvin Garcia and Saddam Azlan Salim, and the senator appears to be making use of his war chest to benefit the whole slate. Ken Reid, who is the only Republican running for Petersen’s seat, recently complained that his would-be foe has been running ads on Fox News that appear to be aimed at getting conservatives to participate in the Democratic primary.
Dehghani-Tafti, who is commonwealth’s attorney for both Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, faces a challenge of her own from a former subordinate, Josh Katcher. Katcher has accused the incumbent of prosecuting fewer felonies as crime rises, while Dehghani-Tafti has countered by saying he’s employing “scare tactics” in what remains “a low crime community.” Dehghani-Tafti, who has also refused to ask for cash bail, has outraised her opponent $550,000 to $340,000 through last week.
Finally, in Loudoun County, Biberaj is trying to fend off former public defender Elizabeth Lancaster, who has deployed similar arguments as those leveraged by Nuttall and Katcher. Unlike her counterparts, though, Lancaster has struggled to wage an organized campaign. She raised less than $5,000 through late March, though the public only learned of her diminutive haul after she filed her financial reports a month-and-a-half late, and she also missed Monday’s deadline to submit updated reports. However, a conservative group called Mission America PAC has deployed $50,000 to aid her campaign. Biberaj, for her part, has taken in $560,000.