John F. Herrity

Thursday, February 2, 2006

JOHN F. HERRITY, who died yesterday at 74, was a scrappy pol of the old school -- tough, profane, pigheaded and fiercely devoted to Fairfax County. For a tie clip, Mr. Herrity favored a thumb-sized buzz saw, which seemed a fitting metaphor for his ripping rhetorical style. He would have been at home in Chicago's toughest precincts, but it so happened that he was a man of suburbia. As a fixture on Fairfax's Board of Supervisors for 16 years, including 12 as chairman in the 1970s and '80s, he took on the county's anti-growth forces, leading the drive to transform a sleepy suburban locality into the Washington area's largest and most economically dynamic jurisdiction. In the process he helped lure tens of thousands of new jobs and prestigious corporations to Fairfax and became a lightning rod for many who thought it was all too much, too fast.

"Talking about growth is like talking about the weather," Mr. Herrity would say when he felt like disparaging anti-growth activists, which was often. "It's out there, and what can you do about it?" In truth, Jack Herrity did plenty. Elected to the nine-member board in 1971, he waged a lonely guerrilla war as the board's lone Republican against the slow-growthers who then dominated county politics. Then, after he became chairman in 1976, things started turning his way. He pushed for construction of Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway and for the Dulles Toll Road, as well as for a major expansion of Tysons Corner, which became the metropolitan area's second downtown.

He was sometimes crude and always terrific copy. The son of a working-class Irish Catholic family, he'd been demoted for fighting in the Coast Guard and thrown in what he sheepishly called "the pokey." He cleaned up his act at Georgetown University, where he was captain of the baseball team, and Georgetown Law School -- but only so far. Once, he hauled a portable toilet into the county board's chambers to illustrate a point about sewage treatment. To Mr. Herrity, federal investigators probing allegations of race and sex discrimination in county hiring were "shysters" on a "fishing expedition."

He was easily the county's most ubiquitous politician, crisscrossing his 399-square-mile domain to speak to any citizens group that invited him and plenty that didn't. He was champion of countless civic causes and won reelection as chairman twice by large margins even as he suffered three heart attacks in office. Little by little, he was instrumental in establishing a fledgling identity for a sprawling place whose mix of wealth and poverty, old and new neighborhoods, longtime residents and newcomers had eluded any sense of unity.

In time, Mr. Herrity's lack of polish wore thin in a county whose increasing wealth gave it an unmistakable sheen. Certain that what was good for land developers was good for Fairfax, he fell out of step with a rising tide of frustration at the county's torrid growth. In 1987 he lost the chairmanship to his longtime rival Audrey Moore, champion of the anti-development forces he so scorned.

For years he railed against a proposal to build a $98 million government complex -- a Taj Mahal, he scoffed -- to replace what the county had outgrown. "As far as I'm concerned, we can build a circus tent and put the bureaucrats in it," he said. Eventually he changed his mind. Today part of the complex is named for him.

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