Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a story suggesting that the Loudoun County government we knew—the crazy uncle of the Virginia suburbs whose tales of official corruption and homophobic rants made for good reading in the Washington Post—was a case of local politics seriously lagging behind rapidly changing demographics. No longer an exurban refuge for Fairfax residents seeking acreage, Loudoun has been drawing newcomers from as far away as Los Angeles and Dallas, and they’re younger, more diverse, and more affluent.
In November, Loudoun’s politics caught up. Phyllis Randall, a 51-year-old mental-health therapist and a Democrat, became the first African-American woman elected to chair a Virginia county’s board of supervisors and one of two African-Americans to win a seat in Loudoun. Though she previously ran for the board and lost, Randall expresses little surprise at the shakeup. “We did not have a board that reflected the diversity of Loudoun County,” she says.
Randall was the face of that diversity long before she decided to run. A Denver native who moved to Ashburn with her husband 23 years ago (and more recently to Lansdowne), Randall was drawn into her schools’ parent-teacher organizations as her two sons grew up, and in 2003 she ran unsuccessfully for the school board. Four years later, she was soundly beaten in her bid for supervisor from the Broad Run district.
In the intervening years, Loudoun became one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties. Its population, 83 percent white in 2001, has doubled since then to more than 360,000 and is now 8 percent black, 17 percent Asian, and 13 percent Hispanic. But the changes in Loudoun are generational as much as racial—for her win, Randall benefited from the younger, better-educated, high-income voters who have been moving to the county in waves. It didn’t hurt that Republican votes were split between a lawyer named Charles King and four-term incumbent Scott York, who had planned to retire but ran as an independent because he thought King couldn’t win.
Randall appealed to Loudoun’s new voters by challenging the county’s record on transparency. York delivered his last State of the County address, for instance, at a $75-a-plate breakfast held by the Loudoun chamber of commerce. Randall wants the board to adopt an ethics pledge that includes opening more meetings to the public. She also wants to expand full-day kindergarten to the entire county, which previous boards have dismissed as too costly.
But she’s no liberal firebrand. Randall once blogged under the name A Moderate Voice, and in 2013 Virginia Democrats reportedly passed on her as a state Senate candidate because of her 2006 rant about a “full-scale invasion” of illegal immigrants. If she sounds like a progressive urbanist—“My vision is a walkable community where people can work, live, play, eat,” she says—it’s because she realizes that Loudoun needs to build an economy that relies less on federal contracts. Her best hope is that Metro’s Silver Line, scheduled for completion in Loudoun just as Randall’s term is winding down in 2019, will generate the kind of boom its first segment spurred at Tysons in neighboring Fairfax County.
If that comes to pass, Loudoun’s culture will continue to be transformed in ways that will make Randall’s historic election seem a footnote.
This article appears in our January 2016 issue of Washingtonian.