The race to see who will be the next Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington and Falls Church has generated its share of fireworks, but the issue of campaign finance may ignite even more.
Incumbent Theo Stamos and challenger Parisa Dehghani-Tafti have already clashed over Tafti’s criticism of Stamos’ handling of cash bail and prosecution for some first-time marijuana-related offenses. Tafti also drew heat from county public-safety groups and her opponent for a campaign mailer they said mislabeled a fatal, officer-involved shooting as “police brutality.”
Recent filings shared by the non-profit Virginia Public Access Project have illuminated a new flash point: money from political action committees (PACs).
PACs are political organizations that donate money to campaigns on behalf of individuals or groups. Several have donated to Arlington state Senate and Delegate candidates, but few have donated to local races.
Only one of the Commonwealth’s Attorney candidates has received PAC money, according to VPAP. Tafti accepted research and polling services worth $51,235 from Justice and Public Safety, a PAC funded by George Soros. The billionaire philanthropist has donated to several progressive candidates nationwide.
The donation makes up about half of the $108,355 the Democratic challenger fundraised between January and March. After spending $76,179 of that money, Tafti’s campaign ended March with $50,202 in its coffers.
Another PAC that donated to Tafti’s campaign was the Justice Forward Virginia PAC, which advocates for criminal justice reform. The PAC is led in part by Brad Haywood, Arlington’s chief public defender and vocal critic of Stamos. The committee donated $600 to Tafti’s campaign.
Senior Assistant Public Defender Allison Carpenter also donated $50 to Tafti’s campaign. Carpenter was one of signatories of a letter released last month blasting Stamos for overcharging crimes, among other issues.
Stamos previously told ARLnow the donations from the letter’s signatories prove it was a “political hit job.”
In addition, Tafti last year received $600 from the Alexandria-based Brass Ovaries PAC, which funds female Democratic candidates in local races and hosted a fundraiser for Arlington candidates last September.
In a statement, Tafti told ARLnow:
In our first filing, I outraised the incumbent almost 6 to 1 with all individual donations, most of which were small amounts from local residents. I have since earned the support of numerous local organizations — including unions, activist groups, the Arlington Education Association, and civil rights organizations — that represent thousands of Arlington and City of Falls Church residents. They support me because they recognize that our community is lagging behind on criminal justice reform and that we need a Commonwealth’s Attorney who represents our values. Only after our campaign had significant grassroots support, and extensive research into my opponent’s record opposing reform at every turn, did Justice and Public Safety PAC offer its support. Reform doesn’t always come easy, and I welcome the support of individuals and organizations, especially an organization backed by one of the world’s foremost promoters of democratic values, that want to help our community live up to its ideals.
In contrast, Stamos’ campaign has collected no PAC money so far this year, according to VPAP.
“I have grassroots support and I think that speaks to the depth and breadth of my support in the community,” Stamos said, when asked whether she intentionally eschewed PAC money.
Several groups have come out in favor of Stamos, including 50 local attorneys who signed a letter in support earlier this year. One of them, Arlington divorce lawyer James Korman, donated $625 to her campaign during this quarter.
Tafti’s second largest donation after the one from Justice and Public Safety PAC was $3,000 from Mark Gordon, who her campaign manager described as the relative of a friend.
“Parisa grew up poor and does not have significant support from family and is not self-financing her campaign,” the staffer noted.
Stamos contributed $5,999 of her own money to her campaign.
“I believe in my candidacy,” Stamos told ARLnow. “I think if I’m going to ask other people to support me I should do the same.”
Stamos’ brother, Chicago-based lawyer James Stamos, spent $650 hosting a fundraiser party for her in Chicago in March and donated $500 to the campaign. He also contributed $2,500 from the estate of their late father, a man Stamos described as her “mentor” during a phone call this week.
Theo Stamos said her friends and family from Chicago are why VPAP shows $10,768 of her $100,403 total fundraising this year coming from the state of Illinois.
After spending $24,106 during this spending period, her campaign reported ending March with $100,650 left in its war chest.
Former Arlington County Board member John Vihstadt also donated $500 to Stamos, who had repeatedly endorsed his independent candidacy for the County Board last year to the displeasure of some of her Democratic colleagues.
The prosecutor also netted donations from School Board member Barbara Kanninen ($250) and Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney John C. Lynch ($2,064).
In this contentious race, even some endorsements have been divisive: days after the Washington Post’s editorial board endorsed Tafti, the paper published a letter to the editor criticizing the editorial for ignoring “the importance of the protection of victims.”
Arlington voters will decide between the Democratic candidates during the June 11 primary election.