The primary for Fairfax County commonwealth’s attorney may be the most cutthroat race on the ballot in a year when local voters will also choose representatives on the Board of Supervisors, school board and General Assembly.
On Friday (April 21), Democratic incumbent Steve Descano and challenger Ed Nuttall appeared together on WAMU’s “The Politics Hour,” the weekly radio show hosted by Kojo Nnamdi and Tom Sherwood, and the conversation got spicy.
At one point, Descano accused Nuttall of associating with “MAGA, antisemitic conspiracy theorists.” Nuttall responded by calling Descano “a liar” and “incompetent.”
There was also considerable back-and-forth about each other’s work backgrounds, current crime rates, office morale, management styles, and political affiliations.
In between arguments and personal attacks, though, the candidates managed to work in some policy debate, disagreeing on how the commonwealth’s attorney’s office (CA’s office) should handle cases involving police officers, where to allocate county funding, and how to best support victims of violent crimes.
Descano and Nuttle did find common ground on some issues. Both agreed they wouldn’t prosecute residents for getting an abortion or purchasing the pill mifepristone if those health care options were ever limited or outright banned.
The two also praised the Board of Supervisors for its continued funding of the top county prosecutor’s office over the last two budget cycles, though they diverged on how exactly the money should be used.
But the agreements were overshadowed by discord and name-calling from the two Democratic candidates.
One of the main areas of conversation was how the CA’s office works with victims of violent crimes. On his campaign website, Nuttall pledges to hire a “victim services liaison” if elected to ensure victims’ concerns are heard — a part of the job that he says Descano has “mismanaged.”
“There are zero communications between the victim services department and the police department and Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office,” Nuttall said. “They don’t get along. They don’t communicate. He doesn’t return their phone calls. He doesn’t return emails.”
When asked if he believes Descano is doing this purposefully, Nuttall said it’s more about not knowing how to do the job.
“I think he doesn’t know how to handle crime. I think he mismanages the office. I think he’s incompetent,” the challenger said.
Descano countered that he’s made the office more professional with more hires, while improving its electronic database. He’s focused on diversion programs, which he says have made community members safer and more trusting of the legal system. Descano also highlighted a bond data dashboard released last year as evidence of his office’s transparency.
“What we’ve done is…made [the office] run more efficiently, made it run better, made it run better for victims,” Descano said. “One thing that really bothers me about this race is that Ed Nuttall…is being the Republican that he is and has taken Republican talking points and, quite frankly disgustingly, is using victims in a way that is pretty gross.”
Nuttall accused Descano of creating so much disharmony between his office and the Fairfax County Police Department that dozens of officers have left the force, leaving the department understaffed and overwhelmed. He also said a number of prosecutors have departed due to Descano’s management style.
Descano disputed that assertion, noting that the FCPD has the largest recruiting class in more than a decade. He said his office staff has “doubled” with only a 6% vacancy rate. In addition, the office’s casework is greater.
“We are one of the few Commonwealth Attorney’s offices in the entire Commonwealth that handles both felony and misdemeanor crimes,” Descano said.
Nuttall said many of those hires were “non-legal, essentially political positions,” including several social media people.
“What he’s done is instead of using those resources for prosecuting violent felonies, he’s lost violent felonies on discovery violations,” Nuttall said. “He’s lost important cases. He’s retraumatized victims by failing to provide the essential services that he needs.”
Police shootings also came up, including the Feb. 22 fatal shooting of Timothy Johnson outside Tysons Corner Center. Last week, a grand jury opted not to indict the officer accused of firing the fatal shot. Descano said, in his mind, it remains “an open case” and is looking for a path forward, while Nuttall said he would stand by the decision the grand jury made.
In December, Descano announced he would seek reelection after his narrow 2019 victory. Two months later, Nuttall, a former county prosecutor turned private defense lawyer, declared he would challenge Descano in the Democratic primary.
The “Politics Hour” conversation showcased the vitriol between the two campaigns. Descano accused his challenger of seeking support from “MAGA, antisemitic conspiracy theorists” after Nuttall appears to have welcomed a donation from someone who was spouting antisemitic rhetoric.
Nuttall denied that the incident played out as described, saying he asked for a donation prior to the person’s offensive remarks and postings.
“I am not antisemitic. I am not MAGA,” Nuttall said. “I am not a Republican.”
The Democratic primary will be held on June 20, with early voting set to begin May 5.
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