By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Jamie and Stephan Lechner liked their house in Germantown well enough, but in recent years, they said, the neighborhood began to change in ways that made them feel less comfortable. There were some discipline problems in the school where Jamie taught. There was a shooting in a low-income area not too far from where they lived and other, smaller signs that made them think things were headed downward.
And so, with their twin boys near school age, the Lechners did what they figured anyone of means would: They packed up and moved to a place billed as a retreat from all that: Dominion Valley, a new, gated, golf course community of $700,000 homes on the rural edges of Northern Virginia, a place where the singular issue of traffic dominates and where the last memorable conflict was whether jeans would be allowed in the country club.
"We had conflict," said Jamie Lechner, referring to her old Germantown neighborhood. "And we wanted to move away from that. . . . That's why we're here -- to be sheltered."
As another election season beats on in Virginia, most political analysts agree that fast-growing exurban areas such as western Prince William County will remain a boon to the Republican Party. But the ultimate effect of new, private, often homogenous enclaves remains uncertain, because they have yet to define how their everyday interests play into state politics.
In recent Virginia elections, 15 to 17 percent of the vote has come from cities, 20 to 23 percent from rural areas and 58 to 62 percent from the suburbs, said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Of the suburban vote, he estimates, at least 25 percent has come from new communities in the outermost suburbs, as opposed to denser areas such as Fairfax County or eastern Prince William.
And yet behind the landscaped gates of Dominion Valley, where lines were two and three hours long in the last presidential election, voters said that few local issues besides traffic and sprawl rise to the level of requiring a political solution. Many said they would vote in the Nov. 8 elections more out of civic duty than passion, using long-held party affiliations as a guide.
"We never discuss politics," said Nina Kraemer, who was hosting a scrapbooking get-together at Dominion Valley's sports complex the other night. "I don't know, I guess something would have to spawn a conversation for one to occur. We talk about traffic -- we talk about that to the nth degree. We're afraid to go to the Target because we might not get back to the bus stop on time" to meet the children after school.
In the last presidential election, George W. Bush won 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the United States largely by appealing to social values through such issues as same-sex marriage. In the governor's race, Republican Jerry W. Kilgore is following a similar course with his death penalty ads, while both he and his Democratic opponent, Timothy M. Kaine, have made traffic a central theme.
So far, though, neither candidate's message seems to have penetrated very far into the consciousness of Dominion Valley voters, who struggle to recall what either man stands for and, sometimes, even to name either man.
One reason local politics seems so distant, residents say, is that when issues do arise -- say, speed bumps vs. stop signs -- they tend to look to their own private government, the homeowners association, for a solution.
The association is controlled by Toll Brothers, the developer, whose red flag flies alongside the American flag at the entrance to Dominion Valley.
Recently, 180 people turned out for a meeting on whether the developer should be allowed to build several hundred more houses and townhouses on adjacent land. Toll offered residents a new recreation center with an indoor theme pool as an inducement (there has been little opposition so far).
"This is a private community," Ed Craft said. "So we tend to look internally rather than outside" for solutions to problems.
He was chatting last week with a neighbor, Nancy Perilla, on Valhalla Drive, where green and manicured lawns were free of political signs, which association rules do not allow, and where on a sunny, warm afternoon near election time, there were no candidates going door to door, because solicitation is not allowed, either.
Craft and Perilla strained to name many issues that weighed on them heavily. "There's the quality of schools," said Perilla, without much enthusiasm.
"Yeah, but there aren't really troubles in the schools," said Craft, pointing out that they are too new. "Traffic and golf scores, those are the two big topics."
"There was the timing of the gate," Perilla said, "community issues like that. But if it doesn't affect you personally, you don't have to think about it, unfortunately."
"You don't have to leave here," said her neighbor, laughing. "That's the key. You don't have to leave -- it's almost scary."
Craft said he does not vote because he does not trust politicians and because "it will never be 1,000 to 1,000 and I'll break the tie."
Perilla, who does vote, moved to Dominion Valley from a house in Manassas, which is in the older, more developed part of the region, a diverse area where Mexican and Central American immigrants have settled and where neighborhoods of single-family homes might be adjacent to townhouses and apartments. Like the Lechners, she and her family moved in part because the old neighborhood was changing.
"It sounds awful," Perilla said, "but it was turning into a more working-class neighborhood. More pickups -- not that there's anything wrong with that. . . . There were problems we didn't want to deal with -- at least on a personal level."
The Lechners were of a similar mind. They liked the diversity of their Germantown neighborhood, they said, but they did not want to subject their children to what they perceived as racial conflicts and other problems they associated with nearby government-subsidized housing.
In moving, they traded an area that was about half-Democrat, half-Republican for one that is mostly Republican, as they are. They left an area that was about 59 percent white for one where at least 83 percent of their neighbors look like them. And they left an area where residents are dealing with issues of cultural and economic diversity for one where such problems, for now at least, are abstractions.
"At a certain point, you want your kids to grow up in Mayberry," Jamie Lechner said. "And this is as close to Mayberry as we can get."
In his book, "Democracy in Suburbia," University of Chicago political science professor Eric Oliver asserts that, in general, the absence of conflict in suburban areas tends to go hand in hand with diminished participation -- not necessarily in elections, but in other parts of civic life, such as volunteering. "It turns citizens into consumers, basically," he said in an interview. ". . . They disconnect and disassociate themselves from the greater community in which they reside."
Furthermore, he said, a dynamic emerges that pits one region against another for resources. "If you have a city," he said, "you have different groups of people contesting for public resources, so there are class divisions in what people want from government. . . . When the community is homogenous, those core issues go by the wayside."
Sabato said homogeneity may simply mean that citizens' interests are represented more clearly and forcefully, as is evident in the emphasis on transportation in the current election.
"Delegates and senators and members of county boards know pretty clearly what their individual districts want them to do," he said. "These are automatic votes: Are you pro-growth or anti-growth? They know what to do because there isn't as much internal conflict."
The problem, he added, is when the balance of power tips too far one way, and other interests are eclipsed.
"As exurbs become more powerful, more populated, more legislatively represented, there is the danger that the hidden concerns of the central cities and older suburbs will be ignored," he said. "We do tend to leave our problems behind, always searching for that new frontier that doesn't have any. Of course, there is no such thing."
In Dominion Valley, residents say they are very much aware that their community hardly reflects the problems of society.
"This is not a bubble," said Lisa LaBelle, who moved to the development three years ago from Massachusetts. The evidence, she said, is in all the charitable work that residents of Dominion Valley do. There is a drop box in the sports pavilion for victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, she said. People opened their wallets to help the family of a boy who had cancer. She recently helped raise $10,000 for breast cancer research.
"There is a lot of giving of ourselves, in terms of time or money, to the community," she said. "I think people are always going to be touched, no matter where they live."
When it comes to politics, though, LaBelle, who runs a real estate investment business with her husband, thinks more strictly in terms of her immediate interests as a small-business owner, which she thinks are more affected by national politics.
"I think we're driven because of having a small business," she said. "So I think in terms of taxes and how policies are affecting small businesses."
Otherwise, she relies mostly on the homeowners association to keep her apprised of what's happening.
"Come November," she said, referring to the state elections, "it will be a tough thing."