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Virginia’s Fast Growth Brings Shifting Political Landscape

September 10, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Once a GOP stronghold, Virginia is a battleground state in the 2008 race. Jeffrey Brown examines changes in northern Virginia in the first of two reports on the tossup state.
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JEFFREY BROWN: At the Lucketts Fair in Northern Virginia recently, the ways of rural life — crafts, machinery, and music — were much on display.

There are strong roots and a lot of history in this area.

JOHN SHRY, Resident of Virginia: My family’s been here for almost 300 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Three hundred years?

JOHN SHRY: Yes, sir.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wow.

JOHN SHRY: We have been in Loudoun for a long time, back before we were the United States, British rule. We have been out here a long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: But for John Shry and others we talked with, Loudoun County is no longer so far out here. Just 25 miles from Washington, D.C., what was once a farming community has become the fastest-growing county in the state, and one of the fastest in the country — more building, more people, and, yes, lots more traffic.

MICHAEL, Resident of Virginia: It’s incredible. This used to be the country. We used to drive out here and ride out here just to go to the country. And now, of course, civilization has just rolled over this area.

TOM MCGORRY, Resident of Virginia: I was the 13th doctor in this county when I first came here. And now there’s 850 doctors on the staff. So, this county has changed big time.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are two key things to know about Virginia this election. The first is that the state has voted for the Republican presidential candidate going all the way back to 1964. This is historically a red state. The other new change, though, is demographic, especially in the last decade, which is having a profound impact on the state’s economy, culture and politics. Old and new, red and at least now partially blue, Virginia is, by all accounts, a purple battleground.

MARK ROZELL, Political Scientist, George Mason University: Virginia is transforming, there’s no doubt about that.

JEFFREY BROWN: George Mason University political scientist Mark Rozell says that Northern Virginia, adding more than 300,000 people just this decade, is seeing the biggest transformation.

MARK ROZELL: We have seen the swelling ranks of government employees who live in Northern Virginia, but might work in the District of Columbia, new immigrant populations that are coming into that area which are exploding in size as well. And then, of course, you have a new high-tech industry and private employment that’s just swelling the population of Northern Virginia.

Jobs, houses bring new people

Wayne Allan
Micron Technology Virginia
Well, this is a $3 billion facility and some of our equipment costs as much as $50 million for the equipment. So, we need highly skilled labor, technical labor.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rozell's university, in fact, is part of the explosion, with a main campus that continues to expand in Fairfax, the state's most populous county, and a new one in nearby Prince William, another county growing by leaps and bounds, where many of the fans we talked to at the minor league Potomac Nationals game were new to the area.

WOMAN: One of the things that got us here was a very good price on a home.

JAY HADLEY, Resident of Virginia: A lot of young people coming into this area, and very good schools, very good institutions, who are finding this is a great place to do a variety of technology-related work.

WAYNE ALLAN, Site Director, Micron Technology Virginia: In 2005, we actually surpassed tobacco from being the leading manufactured export from Virginia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wayne Allen is site director of Micron Technology Virginia, overseeing a plant in Manassas that makes computer memory chips. His facility opened here in 2002 and now employs 1,800 workers, many from other states, mostly the East and West Coasts, and abroad.

WAYNE ALLAN: Well, this is a $3 billion facility and some of our equipment costs as much as $50 million for the equipment. So, we need highly skilled labor, technical labor. We're talking primarily a four-year degree, but also about 15 percent of our technical labor have a master's or greater.

JEFFREY BROWN: Micron is part of a vast technology corridor that's sprung up in Northern Virginia, more affluent, more connected beyond the local region. And, Wayne Allen says, his workers pay attention to national politics.

WAYNE ALLAN: I think we have a very well-informed team here, and they're very interested politically. I mean, being 30 miles away from the nation's capital means that they're exposed to, you know, all of the political discussions and the political fray. They're very informed and definitely prone to vote.

JEFFREY BROWN: Political scientist Mark Rozell thinks the tech boom has had a clear benefit for Democrats.

MARK ROZELL: I think they see the Democratic Party as much more friendly to their positions on social and cultural issues, but they also see that the Democratic Party in the 1990s moved in a very, very different direction, I think, fiscally.

Immigration may have large role

Eric Jensen
Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans, Va
The newer immigrants might be more in the service industry and smaller small businesses, and they might be willing to throw their hat in with people who are advocating change, and they may lean more towards the Democratic Party.

JEFFREY BROWN: Immigration is another big part of the transformation of Northern Virginia, with a large influx of Asians and Hispanics. And here, too, there are signs of a political shift.

Eric Jensen, a first-generation Chinese-American, heads a non-partisan community organization.

ERIC JENSEN, Chairman, Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans of Virginia: Republicans might be, at least at an earlier time, generally stereotyped as more pro-business and more status-quo. And the newer immigrants might be more in the service industry and smaller small businesses, and they might be willing to throw their hat in with people who are advocating change, and they may lean more towards the Democratic Party.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark Rozell says all these demographic changes have political implications.

MARK ROZELL: They don't really have any deep connection to the Jeffersonian past and what that evokes for many older Virginians. They're -- they're looking more, I think, at the national political map and the -- you know, the Iraq war and immigration issues, for example, and which party has the right formula on those more nationally-based issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: The recent trend is unmistakable. Communities close to Washington have long voted for blue for Democrats. Fairfax, where one in every seven Virginians lives, used to be solidly Republican red, but voted for John Kerry in 2004.

Moving outward, Loudoun and Prince William both went for George Bush in 2000 and 2004, but helped elect Democrats Tim Kaine as governor in 2005 and Jim Webb to the Senate in 2006.

Republicans in the region are fighting back.

WOMAN: That's Barack Obama. I mean, he's got this great tune. And people kind of like the way it sounds. But, when you look closer about who he is, what he stands for, and where he comes from, that's not America. That's not Virginia.

JEFFREY BROWN: At a recent meeting in Prince William County, party members pointed to advantages they think continue to work in their favor, one key issue, the illegal part of the immigrant influx.

AMY FREDERICK, Resident of Virginia: A huge issue. I have gone to a 7/Eleven and gone for milk, and I have been heckled and catcalled. And that's not acceptable. People come here legally, and they deserve to be here, but people that come here illegally, they don't deserve to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last year, the county passed one of the nation's toughest laws: denying illegal immigrants access to some public services and increasing police enforcement.

Corey Stewart, chair of the county's board of supervisors, says the issue rallied voters of all stripes.

COREY STEWART, Chairman, Prince William County Board Of Supervisors: People came from the Democratic side. Independents, and Democrats, and, of course, Republicans strongly supported the county's efforts in cracking down on illegal immigration. And that's ultimately what won the election for us in 2007.

Candidates vying hard for a win

Becky Spicer
Campaign volunteer
When I'm going door to door, I try to bring it to them, for example, the Second Amendment. He's a supporter of the Second Amendment. He's clearly a man of faith, which resonates loud and clear with Virginians.

JEFFREY BROWN: This year, though, local Democrats gathering at a restaurant for a convention night party were convinced that other issues will cut their way.

Angel Thomas moved here 10 years ago.

ANGEL THOMAS, Resident of Virginia: This is a bedroom community of Washington, D.C. A lot of people here commute. So, definitely high gas prices, falling home prices, mortgages, higher education. I'm noticing more signs in neighborhoods for Obama. And that is just unheard of for Prince William County.

JEFFREY BROWN: Becky Spicer, a campaign volunteer, says the key in this traditionally conservative area is to make voters comfortable with Barack Obama.

BECKY SPICER, campaign volunteer: When I'm going door to door, I try to bring it to them, for example, the Second Amendment. He's a supporter of the Second Amendment. He's clearly a man of faith, which resonates loud and clear with Virginians.

JEFFREY BROWN: Both campaigns are now fighting hard to see what resonates in Virginia. Barack Obama's very first speech after sewing up the nomination was at a stadium in Prince William County. And he's returned to the state several times since. He was back again just today, speaking in Norfolk.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), Presidential Nominee: They're not just going to be competing against children in Richmond or children in Fairfax County. They're going to be competing against the entire world.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the recent convention in Denver, the Virginia delegation was given pride of place, right up close to the podium.

And it was no accident that popular former Governor and current Senate candidate Mark Warner was keynote speaker.

Mitch Stewart heads the campaign's Virginia effort, which now includes 41 offices in every corner of the state, including the Shenandoah Valley region, where one political hand told us, you can't usually find a Democrat with a search warrant.

MITCH STEWART, Obama Campaign Virginia State Director: I think everyone in our campaign, and frankly folks here in Virginia, are starting to recognize that this is an extremely close race, with the changing demographics that we're seeing across the state, that this state can actually vote Democrat on a presidential candidate.

JEFFREY BROWN: So far, the McCain campaign has just nine offices around the state, but he's also made numerous visits, and he, too, was in Virginia this morning, speaking in Fairfax, alongside running mate Sarah Palin.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), Presidential Nominee: The Commonwealth of Virginia is a battleground state. We must win it, and we will win it with your support.

JEFFREY BROWN: Keeping up with the opposition at their convention, Republicans also showered attention on Virginia's delegates.

At campaign headquarters, they think their man starts with several advantages, in addition to the state's past voting record: a large military and veteran presence, and the fact that the candidate himself is well-known here.

Sarah Simmons is director of strategy for the national campaign.

SARAH SIMMONS, McCain Campaign Director of National Strategies: The voters in Northern Virginia, the swing part of the state, where people say, gosh, it's really changing in Northern Virginia, are voters that are familiar with his record, especially his record that is really -- that makes him a unique member of the U.S. Senate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Clearly, the McCain campaign is taking nothing for granted, as both sides now seek to paint this key state in the bright color of their choice.