(Updated at 10:25 p.m.) The top prosecutor in Arlington and Falls Church has lost her bid for re-election.
In the most closely watched local race in today’s Democratic primary, incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos has been defeated by challenger Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who ran a campaign centered on criminal justice reform. Tafti has 52% of the vote compared to 48% for Stamos, with all 59 precincts in Arlington and Falls Church reporting, though the results are unofficial until certified.
The total unofficial margin of victory was 1,128 votes.
“I knew it could happen!” one supporter shouted at Tafti’s victory party at Fire Works Pizza in Courthouse as the final votes were tallied.
“Change can come here to Arlington,” said a campaign volunteer, Arlington resident Symone Walker, who said she’s mailed postcards and held meet and greets for Tafti because of her belief the challenger could reform the county’s justice system.
Tafti herself was breathless and wide-eyed as she passed through the group and gave hugs to her supporters. When Stamos called to concede around 8:15 p.m., Tafti thanked her and offered to meet with the incumbent later this week.
In a speech a few minutes before 9 p.m., Tafti thanked a crowd of her supporters, saying “it would have been easy for you to be silent.”
“I feel humbled and grateful and excited but with no illusions about the work ahead,” she told ARLnow afterward.
1/x I am humbled and honored at the trust the voters of Arlington and the City of Falls Church have placed in our campaign. This election wasn’t about me but about the community’s recognition that criminal justice reform is one of the civil rights issues of our time.
— Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (@parisa4justice) June 12, 2019
3/3 Arlington and Falls Church stand ready to show the Commonwealth and the country what it means to put justice back in the criminal justice system.
— Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (@parisa4justice) June 12, 2019
“I always thought she could win and should win, but it’s never an easy battle against an incumbent,” said state Sen. Adam Ebbin, who supported Tafti’s campaign and stood next to her as she addressed the crowd.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe cheered during the event, later telling ARLnow that he supported Tafti’s campaign because he was “looking for new leadership” after Stamos opposed his legislation to restore voting rights to felons in 2017.
“I think a lot of people wondered why I did it,” he said of wading into a local prosecutor race. “But it was the right thing to do.”
Stamos’ supporters at her would-be victory party in Falls Church at Clare and Don’s Beach Shack said they were disappointed by the results of the election.
Long-time Arlington resident Sheila Dunbar said she was “really shocked” by Tafti’s win. Dunbar supported Stamos based on her initiatives like the county’s drug court that helps rehabilitate addicts, and said she’s worried Tafti doesn’t have the experience to lead the office with the same competency.
“I don’t think it’s a job to learn on the job,” said Dunbar.
Retired rear admiral and Arlington resident Stephen Pietropaoli, a friend of Stamos, told ARLnow that Arlington “lost a fine public servant.”
Pietropaoli added it was “troubling” to see national politics enter the local race and benefit a candidate he believes isn’t qualified for the office.
“I wish Tafti all the best for Arlington but she has no idea what she’s embarking on and what the community expects,” he said.
“Thirty-one years as a prosecutor has been the joy of my life,” Stamos told ARLnow through tears. “It was a truly grassroots campaign, but it wasn’t enough.”
She added she hopes to focus on a smooth transition with Tafti during her remaining six months in office and hopes the new prosecutor will recognize the skill of her assistant commonwealth attorneys and keep them on board.
Stamos added that she was “very grateful” for her supporters and is planning to start a new chapter in the county.
In another competitive local campaign, challenger Nicole Merlene lost but put up stronger-than-expected numbers against incumbent Barbara Favola in the 31st District state Senate race. With all precincts reporting in Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, Merlene has 38.1% of the vote compared to 61.9% for Favola. Merlene captured 41.2 percent of the vote in Arlington.
The other Arlington race with a challenger, the contest for the 49th House of Delegates District, has incumbent Del. Alfonso Lopez cruising to victory over retired Marine Julius “JD” Spain, Sr. With all precincts reporting in Arlington and Fairfax counties, Lopez has 77.2% of the vote to Spain’s 22.8%.
Total voter turnout in Arlington was just under 17%, relatively high for an election cycle without federal races on the ballot. Election officials attributed the increased turnout — a similar election cycle in 2011 yielded 11% turnout — to interest in the commonwealth’s attorney race.
The two candidates in the prosecutor’s race raised nearly $1 million, an unprecedented sum for a campaign of its kind in Arlington and Falls Church. That’s largely due to progressive political action committees that donated to Tafti’s warchest and allowed her to run ads on local TV and extensively on Facebook.
Elsewhere in Northern Virginia Tuesday Night, Steve Descano — another criminal justice reform advocate supported largely by the same PAC that funded Tafti’s campaign — has defeated incumbent prosecutor Ray Morrough in Fairfax.
Tafti is a former defense lawyer with a background in overturning wrongful convictions. She ran on a platform of criminal justice reform for Arlington County, clashing with Stamos over the county’s discovery policy for criminal cases and its handling of nonviolent marijuana possession cases. Tafti, for instance, said she would not prosecute cases of simple marijuana possession.
Stamos has been the county’s top prosecutor since 2011 and has defended her record of being tough but fair on crime throughout the race. She — and Arlington’s police department — hit back at Tafti last month when the challenger alleged she failed to address instances of police brutality in Arlington.
Despite higher turnout in residential northern Arlington, where both candidates live, strong support for Tafti along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, in many south Arlington precincts and in the City of Falls Church helped propel her to victory.
Arlington/Falls Church Prosecutor Theo Stamos lost re-nomination in the Democratic primary to more reform-minded Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. Major focuses of Tafti have been reducing incarceration, not seeking the death penalty, and not prosecuting minor pot crimes #VaPrimary2019 pic.twitter.com/dqG0NVLmcR
— Matthew Isbell (@mcimaps) June 12, 2019
While Tafti celebrates victory tonight, she appears to have an opponent in the fall. Frank Webb, a defense attorney who tried to run on a justice reform platform in 2015 but failed to make it on the ballot, filed to run for commonwealth’s attorney by today’s filing deadline, according to Arlington elections officials.
Ten local incumbents will be on the November ballot, running for re-election with no challengers from the Democratic party. Among the current elected officials on the November 5 ballot are Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey and member Katie Cristol, who will face independent candidates Audrey Clement and Arron O’Dell.
Arlington's unofficial turnout in today's primary was 16.95%. Thanks to all who came out to vote, and a BIG thanks to all our terrific poll workers!
— Arlington Elections (@ArlingtonVotes) June 12, 2019