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Progressive prosecutors beat back primary challengers in Virginia

District attorney races have become political battlefields around the country after years of mostly noncompetitive races.
From left, Buta Biberaj, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, and Steve Descano in Washington, D.C.
From left, Buta Biberaj, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Steve Descano, pictured in 2019, won their Democratic primaries on Tuesday. Sarah L. Voisin / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

A trio of progressive prosecutors in large Northern Virginia counties swept their Democratic primaries Tuesday night — a vote of confidence from Democrats on their performance amid a national debate over what policies strike the right balance on public safety and criminal justice reform.

Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Fairfax County’s Steve Descano and Loudoun County’s Buta Biberaj were all elected in 2019, unseating incumbents with support from voters who embraced messages about shifting the traditional focus of district attorney offices, including directing resources to keep certain defendants out of prison. Each of them also had help from a PAC funded by Democratic megadonor George Soros, who has been a big-spending force in recent district attorney races around the nation.

But the prosecutors’ three-plus years in office have come amid rising crime rates nationally, and each generated backlash among a segment of the population over how they handled certain cases, from local Republicans to some Democrats who lined up against them.

Dehghani-Tafti faced a former subordinate in her office, Josh Katcher, in her primary, while Descano and Biberaj faced Democratic challengers who were experienced defense lawyers in their counties.

The three wins on Tuesday represent another step forward for the progressive prosecutor movement, which has seen dozens of new district attorneys elected in America’s biggest counties over the past decade. While there have also been some high-profile losses for the movement, including the recall of Chesa Boudin as San Francisco's district attorney 2022, many of the prosecutors elected in the mid-2010s have since been re-elected.

Dehghani-Tafti took 57 percent of the Democratic primary in Arlington County, according to unofficial results, versus 43 percent for Katcher. Biberaj won 56 percent against her challenger, Elizabeth Lancaster, a former public defender. And Fairfax’s Descano — the chief prosecutor in a county of over 1 million residents — captured 55 percent of the vote against challenger Ed Nuttall.

The three counties all lean Democratic, though Biberaj only narrowly won her general election in 2019 against her Republican opponent. A former Loudoun County commonwealth’s attorney, Bob Anderson, will be the Republican nominee against Biberaj this fall.

The Virginia races are part of a nationwide cycle of major races for local prosecutor in the next two years — a sharp turnaround for an office that has typically seen entrenched incumbents get re-elected unopposed until now.

The second-biggest county in Pennsylvania, Allegheny County, is also in the middle of a district attorney race with big policy implications: Democrat Matt Dugan, a former chief public defender, defeated District Attorney Stephen Zappala in the Democratic primary in May.

Dugan criticized the incumbent on reform grounds, arguing that the Pittsburgh-based county was not focusing resources on the most serious crimes because it was overcharging lower-level offenses. The debate will continue through the fall: Zappala won the GOP nomination as a write-in candidate and will face off in the November general election against Dugan, who got hundreds of thousands of dollars in support from Soros’ Justice and Public Safety PAC in the primary.

Dozens of other large counties will have major elections next year as well. They include Arizona’s Maricopa County, currently the largest county in the U.S. with a Republican chief prosecutor.

Illinois’ Cook County will also see a rare open-seat prosecutor race: Kim Foxx, the current state’s attorney there who unseated an incumbent in 2016 while running on a reform platform, announced earlier this year that she will not seek re-election in 2024.