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Growing Minority Groups Shake Up US Presidential Race


The transformation of American politics is happening in miniature about 40 kilometers southwest of Washington, in Prince William County, Virginia.

Corey Stewart chairs the county board. He lives in a historic home where George Washington slept on his honeymoon. Stewart says the house looks a lot like the Founding Father's Mount Vernon manor did before wings were added.

"If you want to see what Mount Vernon originally looked like, come to Bel Air," he said.

Historically, Prince William County has been solidly Republican. Six of the eight county board members are Republicans.

But the party's dominance here could become as much a part of history as Stewart's house.

Increasing diversity

The county is changing. The sprawl of the Washington suburbs surrounds Stewart's home just beyond the tree line. Prince William County's proximity to jobs and relatively low cost of living has drawn minority residents in particular. Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans now outnumber whites.

And those groups don't lean Republican.

"As the county has changed, has become more diverse, you're also looking at a county that has become increasingly Democratic in their political loyalties," said University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth.

Prince William County board chair Corey Stewart lives in a historic home where George Washington once slept. (Photo: S. Baragona/VOA)

Prince William County board chair Corey Stewart lives in a historic home where George Washington once slept. (Photo: S. Baragona/VOA)

Barack Obama won the presidential vote in Prince William County in 2008 and 2012. Before that, the last time the county elected a Democratic president was 1964.

The demographic shift taking place in Prince William County is happening across the United States. By 2044, minority groups will make up the majority of the U.S. population.

"It makes Prince William County a bellwether county," Stewart said. "It's almost a perfect representation of America itself."

So it may be surprising that Stewart is running Republican Donald Trump's Virginia campaign. Trump, the party's frontrunner, has referred to some Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists and has proposed a ban on Muslim immigration.

‘Hispanic heart’

Carlos Castro is founder and CEO of Todos Supermarkets, two full-size grocery stores in Prince William County. Each is a "regular store with a Hispanic heart," Castro said.

Castro, winner of several business awards, first arrived in the United States in 1980 as an undocumented immigrant fleeing El Salvador's civil war.

He's a citizen now, and he votes. But not for Republicans. And definitely not for Trump.

He says he doesn't speak for everybody, but adds, "The Hispanic community in general feels abandoned by the Republican party. And obviously, Mr. Trump's rhetoric doesn't help at all."

FILE - A Latino couple walk with a pinata of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in downtown Los Angeles, Sept. 23, 2015. "The Hispanic community in general feels abandoned by the Republican party,” one Prince William County resident says.

FILE - A Latino couple walk with a pinata of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in downtown Los Angeles, Sept. 23, 2015. "The Hispanic community in general feels abandoned by the Republican party,” one Prince William County resident says.

Professor Farnsworth says Trump and Stewart are a perfect match.

"Corey Stewart has made a career, among other things, of being an anti-immigrant politician," Farnsworth said.

Stewart led a crackdown on undocumented immigrants that drew national attention. He has raised concerns that undocumented children could carry diseases. "That he would sign up with Donald Trump is entirely, entirely likely," Farnsworth added.

"One of the things that occurs as an area becomes more diverse sometimes is that the politicians who are more divisive can really do well in that environment," he noted. As minority populations grow, "there becomes a really powerful opportunity for white voters to talk about a more pro-white agenda. And that politics can be very, very destructive to immigrants."

Diversity not the problem

But Stewart says he's not anti-immigrant. Take the crackdown on the undocumented, for example.

"It wasn't the diversity that was the problem," he said. "It was the fact that we had people who were coming here illegally, committing crimes, and where the federal government just turned the other way." Crime is down, he noted.

"Diversity, for Prince William County, has been a very, very good thing," Stewart added. "The mix of religions, of ethnicities, of cuisine — all of these things work together to make Prince William County a more interesting place."

Stewart, the son of a Minnesota longshoreman, says he can relate to Trump's "very blunt, straight approach. … He just says what he believes. And I think people find that very refreshing."

And he doubts the Democratic Party's appeal to voters who feel abandoned by the federal government.

In politics, experts say, demographics is not always destiny. Minority turnout has been low in previous elections.

Castro says Hispanics and others are working hard to get more of their voters to the polls.

"There's a big push from all the minority groups,” he said, “but it takes time. It takes time and a lot of work."

Who wins the White House will largely depend on who shows up at the polls in November.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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