Tony Griffin is probably the most powerful person in the metro area you’ve never heard of.
As Fairfax County’s county executive for more than a decade, Griffin has quietly managed one of Virginia’s most diverse and dynamic jurisdictions, a suburb of more than 1 million people that covers nearly 400 square miles. Only one person has held the post longer.
Most agree that Griffin has done the job well. Whether handling the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, guiding the urbanization of Tysons Corner or collaborating on the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport, Griffin has demonstrated an unflappable style of leadership that was first tempered in the jungles of Vietnam.
Over four decades, Griffin has achieved a degree of success that might have been unexpected by his demanding father or the Marine Corps officers who thought he wasn’t sufficiently gung-ho to lead. Running Fairfax, it turns out, has been a good fit for an introvert with an abiding passion for local government.
“Some people know me, but in truth, I’m fairly anonymous,” Griffin said.
As a sort of unelected mayor, Griffin has overseen the nitty-gritty of the county’s daily affairs, but he also has had ample power to shape policy. In an organization with about 40 agencies and 12,000 employees, Griffin can rattle off pension fund ratios, school bus replacement cycles and federal regulations for water treatment plants.With guidance from the Board of Supervisors, he drafts a $6 billion budget that exceeds those of some states.
Griffin has also been immersed in regional issues. He was at the table with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last year to renegotiate funding for Metro’s Silver Line. He has helped allocate about $60 million a year in federal security funds since the Sept. 11 attacks, as head of a key committee for the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments.
“You wouldn’t think of him as a power broker, but he is,” said Supervisor Patrick S. Herrity (R-Springfield).
Griffin answers to the supervisors, but the board has deferred to him and given him much latitude since he took over in December 1999.
“Tony’s just remarkable,” said Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), who as head of the Personnel Committee has managed the board’s annual evaluations of Griffin. “In his very calm and studied way, he manages to find solutions to problems that I don’t think anyone else could.”
It’s no wonder that Chairman Sharon S. Bulova (D) accidentally referred to Griffin during a public meeting last year as “Supervisor Griffin.” Twice.
Some watchdogs and supervisors have complained that Griffin is too close-mouthed, and that he has not always made it easy to get to the core of the county’s inner workings.
“What he does is spin all those numbers to implement these tax increases,” said Arthur G. Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance “He doubled the typical household’s taxes from $2,400 to $4,800. That’s his legacy.”
On Griffin’s watch, immigration transformed the mostly white suburb into one of the most diverse regions of the United States, and home values doubled. But so did taxes.
Since the 2007-09 recession, Griffin has crafted budgets that closed deficits with minimal service reductions while spreading the pain and maintaining the county’s Triple A credit rating. His most recent years have been spent downsizing and gently chiding the board that it must do a better job of telling him what the government shouldn’t be doing.
His position puts him at the heart of many political debates, but his duties require that he be scrupulously apolitical. Get too far out ahead on an issue, or aligned with a faction on the board, and he runs the risk of being sacked. His most memorable misstep, several say, was last year’s unsuccessful push to buy a $418 million trash incinerator the county jointly operates with New Jersey-based Covanta Energy.
“That’s the one time I’ve seen him step out into the limelight and say, ‘We’ve got to buy this thing,’ ” Herrity said. “It was out of character for him to take such a public role in the decision-making process.”
Griffin thought that buying the incinerator was the smartest move for the county. But he was accused by Herrity and others of lobbying too hard and being out of step with the board. The business community also opposed the move.
Union heads, for their part, praise Griffin for his open-door, forthright style, even though they have sometimes clashed over compensation or workplace grievances. When the recession forced a pay freeze for county workers, Griffin declined to accept a raise even though some supervisors said that he deserved it.
“He’s a straight shooter,” said Officer Michael Scanlon, president of FOP Lodge 77. “I wish he could stick around for a couple more years.”
Residents have given Griffin high marks, too. Having spent most of his life in Northern Virginia, Griffin has a good feel for Fairfax’s nine magisterial districts. Making the rounds to explain this year’s budget, Griffin withstood a grilling at Mason District’s town hall. As residents complained about a higher stormwater services fee, Griffin explained that the county must overhaul its treatment plants to meet stricter state and federal regulations.
“What you’re doing is being intimidated by the EPA,” an audience member snapped.
Griffin stayed cool. At the end, another resident saluted Griffin’s service and the audience applauded.
He’s not a flashy guy. He doesn’t talk a lot. When he does, he barely opens his mouth, choosing words with care and delivering them in a monotone. If anything, he becomes even quieter when he’s angry, which he says is rare. A tool for evaluating leadership ability rates him a “strong introvert” — though he is not above reminding others that the scale of his job surpasses that of some private chief executives with bigger salaries. Yet, Griffin also learned that a low profile is useful.
“It’s a good day when my name’s not in the newspaper,” Griffin said. “My job’s to make things run smoothly. The whole idea is to be in the background and make things happen and let the board take the credit.”
Griffin grew up in Arlington County. His father was a psychologist who worked with the Veterans Administration. His mother taught at a school that prepared foreign nationals for U.S. citizenship. She was a bit of a free spirit, but his father was somewhat withdrawn — a reflection, perhaps, of having grown up with deaf parents. Griffin also had a brother who was so much older that Griffin felt like an only child.
“There wasn’t a lot of noise,” Griffin recalled. “One of the things my father impressed upon me was that unless I could improve upon the silence, I was to be silent.”
Bookish and shy, he got B’s at Yorktown High School, causing his father to complain that he wasn’t applying himself. He edited the yearbook, kept a newspaper route and later drove a delivery truck supplying chlorine for the motels along Route 1.
After high school, Griffin went to Hobart College to study history, thinking he might be a lawyer or a journalist. A week later, his father died. Griffin was 17.
Griffin, who opposed the Vietnam War, joined Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign after graduation — as a gofer, he says — and witnessed the violence during the Democratic convention in Chicago. But knowing he would lose his college deferment even in law school, Griffin enlisted. As a 2nd lieutenant in Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, Griffin became a forward artillery observer near Danang.
After the military, he went to work for Arlington, dealing with citizen complaints about the construction of Interstate 66 inside the Beltway.
Six years later, when the governing board fired his mentor, former county manager W. Vernon Ford, Griffin became acting manager. A key test came four months later, when an Air Florida jet crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and Arlington’s emergency personnel joined the rescue. Griffin was 35, younger than all his department heads.
After a six-year tenure as Falls Church city manager, Griffin joined Fairfax as a deputy county executive for planning and development during a period of rapid growth.
In 1997, Griffin became acting county executive after the board fired William J. Leidinger. Griffin made a play for the top job. But after an eight-month nationwide search, the board hired Hampton City Manager Robert J. O’Neill.
It was a disappointment for Griffin, but the grace with which he handled it came back to help him, said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.).
“He comported himself with such dignity. And that says volumes about his sense of duty,” said Connolly, who was then Providence District supervisor.
When O’Neill left after two years, the board tapped Griffin. His tenure has exceeded the eight-year average, according to the International City/County Management Association.
Griffin has a way of making the job look easy. Still boyish-looking at 65, he drinks no more than one cup of coffee a day, in part because of a heart condition. His office is neat. So is his desk. A picture of the Marine flag-raising at Iwo Jima hangs on a wall.
Making the rounds, Griffin does not tap obsessively at his BlackBerry. He is amused by the sight of all the people who do. His checks e-mail in the morning, at midday and before leaving the office. Then he turns off his BlackBerry.
“I probably shouldn’t confess this, but I won’t look at it,” Griffin said. He keeps a pager on the nightstand for emergencies, but usually sleeps well.
Griffin’s sober character shows in other ways. He doesn’t carry a county-issued credit card. He doesn’t socialize with board members or vote in primaries. In his free time he reads mysteries or golfs, wagering a quarter a hole. He and his wife, Lucy, who is a Cornell-educated lawyer and consultant, have two adult children and two cats.
“You have to have the right temperament to do this kind of job,” Griffin said. “There’s a lot of stuff always happening, and you can’t overreact to it. You can’t under-react, either. . . . And fortunately, I think I have a good temperament, and I have a passion for local government, and so that combination has served me well.”