Among the 3,000 bills filed before the Virginia General Assembly every January are two carried year after year by Fairfax County Democrats: local ordinances banning firearms in government buildings and recreation centers and adding sexual orientation to the county's anti-discrimination laws.
The bills die quick deaths in GOP-controlled legislative committees, receiving little or no debate as Democratic lawmakers resign themselves to the will of their Republican colleagues. While gun restrictions and protections for gays are popular in large swaths of the Washington suburbs, they are anathema to many social conservatives in Virginia's rural corners. And such views increasingly dominate the legislature's GOP majority.
Elaine N. McConnell has chided Democrats on the Fairfax board over the bills, repeatedly rejected by the legislature's GOP majority.
So why keep pushing bills that don't have a prayer of becoming law? Two Republican county supervisors, Michael R. Frey (Sully) and Elaine N. McConnell (Springfield), chided their Democratic colleagues last week for resurrecting the two measures in the board's package of legislative priorities for the coming session in Richmond.
"I don't think that we are helping ourselves by pushing those two issues," Frey said, threatening to oppose the package. The Board of Supervisors then voted on the gun and anti-discrimination measures separately.
McConnell later said the board should "save our guns for big battles" -- such as securing more state road money and authority to raise some local taxes to spread out the burden of real estate taxes.
The seven Democratic supervisors who outnumber McConnell and Frey say that folding on principles they and their constituents believe in would be tantamount to giving up on the civil rights movement because it was unpopular at the time.
"It's like any other issue that requires people to bring about appropriate social change," Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said after the meeting. "If you simply ignore it, you're unable to influence it. . . . Maybe there will be someone [in the legislature] who understands why we are not just flexing our muscles."
As regional and political rivalries play out, Fairfax leaders may find their principles at odds with pragmatism. As Virginia's largest county, Fairfax is its economic engine, delivering more tax revenue to the state than any other local government. Still, in the eyes of Virginians elsewhere, bigger is not always better, particularly when the county's views buck the tide of a legislature that severely restricts local authority.
"If you go around the state, they think we're crazy," McConnell said.
And there could be consequences for Fairfax beyond the annual defeat of the gun and anti-discrimination bills, Frey and several other Republicans said. Moderate GOP legislators, who have supported those and similar measures, are inviting challenges from the party's conservative wing. And other suburb-friendly legislation that might have generated grudging support from Republican lawmakers is likely to be stymied as well, some Republicans said.
"It dilutes their effectiveness," said H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), majority leader in the House of Delegates. "We just look at those bills and say, 'There they go again.' They tend to cast a light on those bills that may not be left of center."
Griffith said he would have opposed under any circumstances a series of bills that died last month in a House committee to allow some Washington suburbs, including Fairfax, to keep red-light cameras at intersections. But some GOP House members might have sided with supporters in the close vote had legislation from Fairfax not been perceived of consistently as a "liberal package," Griffith said.
Fairfax Democrats defend the bills, saying that principles -- not to mention their constituents' views -- stand for something.
"Virginia cannot afford to be sending a signal that certain categories of people are not welcome," Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said of the anti-discrimination measure. He said hundreds of private companies in the county already protect gays in the workplace. He called the gun bill a "limited provision to protect public safety and security in a post-9/11 world." He denied that the General Assembly has punished Fairfax, citing the legislature's boost in education funding last year.