Whether Metro riders at Dulles Airport use an underground station beneath the hourly parking lot or take a moving walkway an extra two football fields may come down to the political skill of a Virginia Democrat whom even friends have described as a “bulldozer.”
Mame Reiley is one of Northern Virginia’s most well-connected Democratic insiders — a powerhouse fundraiser with close ties to Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) — who is not well known outside political circles.
But she has emerged as the driving force for building an underground Metro station at Dulles International Airport and the target of criticism from those who prefer a less expensive aboveground location.
Reiley’s position, and her vigorous defense of it, has drawn the ire of a long list of local, state and federal officials from both parties who worry that her refusal to back down will jeopardize federal funding for the second phase of the 23-mile Metrorail extension to Dulles and Loudoun County. Construction is already underway on the first phase through Tysons Corner.
Reiley is just one of 13 members of the board of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is charged with managing the more than $6 billion project. But she leads the committee tasked with overseeing the rail line and is the point person representing the board in meetings this month with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
“So far she has not compromised, but we’re just starting a process,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said after the first two meetings. “She is one person, albeit a very strong and outspoken person.”
That someone with Reiley’s political savvy would be willing to pick a fight with such a broad coalition of elected officials has left some observers scratching their heads. It’s a question Reiley has asked herself.
“There are times I feel like the Lone Ranger out there and think, ‘What the hell am I doing fighting this fight?’ ” said Reiley, who lives with her pug in an Alexandria condo overlooking the runways at Reagan National Airport. “But to me, the worst thing in the world is not to take on the right fight out of fear that you are going to lose.”
Reiley, 58, is known as a fighter both personally and professionally. She preceded a meeting with LaHood with a 6:30 a.m. radiation treatment. Reiley has been battling breast cancer since last summer, coping with surgery, chemotherapy and the accompanying hair loss and fatigue. But she is reticent about the topic because she doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her.
Reiley’s concern about passenger comfort at Dulles is not personal, she said. As a board member, she parks for free — steps from the terminal in a lot also reserved for members of Congress. Reiley became convinced of her position, she said, after chatting with passengers making the trip from Daily Garage 1 to the terminal on a series of moving walkways that would serve those using an aboveground station.
To a person, passengers clamored for a station closer to the terminal, Reiley said, in an airport they already consider a trek. If the station is too far away, she worries no one would use it and the project would be a failure.
Reiley was tagged as a “bulldozer” by her longtime friend Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant who first worked with her on Moran’s 1990 congressional win. Trippi considers her the go-to person when he needs to get something done that’s “going to be rough,” he said.
“She is not easily intimidated,” agreed Moran. “Some people, I suppose, are taken aback by a woman being as strong-willed as she is, but in corporate circles it would be seen as an asset. She doesn’t let herself get railroaded as long as she’s confident she’s right.”
Ellen Qualls, a former adviser to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, worked closely with Reiley during Warner’s flirtation with a presidential bid.
“I’ve learned a lot from her over the years: You have to find your moral center, wrap it with your intellectual process, and then you just can’t be shaken from that no matter how much the people around you are shaking it.”
In the weeks after the airports authority board voted 9 to 4 in favor of the underground station, Reiley and her colleagues were pummeled with criticism. Fairfax and Loudoun counties, which are slated to pick up 16.1 percent and 4.8 percent of the cost, had urged the board to choose the aboveground station — about 600 feet farther from the terminal but $330 million cheaper.
Local leaders warned that the rising price tag, now estimated at $3.5 billion, would lead to tolls over $10 on the Dulles Toll Road. Reiley countered that the award of a hefty federal loan, not the location of the station, would make the difference in toll rates. That’s when LaHood stepped in to referee, concerned that an impasse over the station could threaten the viability of the second phase of the project.
Although the stalemate has centered on the airport station, the board’s action has reignited deeper concerns about its capacity to handle critical decisions. Early this year, the board’s search for a new chief executive bitterly divided members and included allegations of racism. The board has since started its recruitment from scratch.
Signaling his frustration with the board, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), whose district includes the airport, has introduced legislation that would make it easier for the governors of Virginia and Maryland and the District’s mayor to remove appointees to the regional board. Reiley was appointed by Virginia’s former Democratic governor Timothy Kaine.
Reiley’s conviction, she said, is rooted in her concern for the future of Dulles and the role of the airports authority. The unelected board took control of the project in part to insulate it from political pressure. For that reason, Reiley said she has not lobbied political allies like Warner and Moran to get behind her.
“This is the very reason we were given the authority,” she said. “There is no elected official that benefits from coming out and saying, ‘I want to do something that costs more money.’ ”
The daughter of a defense intelligence officer, Reiley was one of five children raised in a neighborhood near Mount Vernon, down the street from Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). She caught the political bug in third grade, inspired by the nuns at her Catholic school who were abuzz about the presidential candidacy of John F. Kennedy.
Although Reiley has been known to use brute force to make a point, she also has a softer side and an appreciation for pomp and circumstance that informs her event-planning and communications business. Reiley, who favors colorful scarves and hot pink lipstick, was among the early risers decked out to watch the royal wedding at the Ritz-Carlton. She was accompanied by her pug, Lucy Ricardo, who was wearing a miniature wedding dress.
Even those at odds with Reiley over the station believe her conviction is genuine.
“If I’m going into battle, she’s somebody I’d want covering my rear. I just think she got this one wrong,” said former Republican congressman Tom Davis, the board’s vice chairman, who voted for the aboveground station. “I’ve been with Mame and I’ve been against her, and it’s a lot more fun being with her.”
Reiley concedes that she is prepared to lose this battle if it is the only way to salvage the project.
“I’ll be disappointed that passengers are getting shortchanged,” she said, “but I’ll feel I fought the good fight.”