A War of Words, and Politics

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Fairfax County board chairman was livid. A bill he was pushing to ban teenagers from using cell phones while driving was killed by lawmakers in the General Assembly, with the deciding vote cast by a Fairfax Republican, Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis.

"I wish I could tell you that our teenage driving legislation has fared well," Gerald E. Connolly (D) told fellow supervisors in January. "The deciding vote, I'm sad to say, was by a Fairfax County senator." He later said Devolites Davis "didn't even bother" to attend a teen driving conference the county held last year, at which police suggested that restricting cell phone use would reduce fatalities among young drivers.

Connolly's broadside was the latest episode in a decade-long rivalry between two of Northern Virginia's most prominent politicians. The tensions, which transcend the usual partisan push and pull, have ratcheted up in the past year as Connolly and Devolites Davis have clashed over such issues as growth, Metro funding and campaign contributions from developers. The feud probably will continue to escalate as Fairfax Democrats, buoyed by their recent gain of five legislative seats, try to wrest away Devolites Davis's Senate seat in elections next year.

"I'm the number one targeted race up there," she said. "They are doing everything they can to discredit me because they want my seat." Connolly, she said, misrepresented her votes on the cell phone legislation, one version of which she supported before it died in the House of Delegates. The bill she opposed, which put additional restrictions on teenage drivers, could lead police to pull over drivers age 18 or older who would not be subject to the cell phone ban, she said.

"It was duplicitous," Devolites Davis said of Connolly's description. "Gerry got up and said, 'She voted to kill the bill,' but it was a lie. What he didn't tell anyone was that there were two bills."

Political observers are not surprised by the friction. Connolly, 55, a first-term chairman, and Devolites, 50, a former delegate in her first Senate term, have jousted since they first crossed paths in 1995 in a bitter race he won for Providence district supervisor. They are moderates in their parties. They are charismatic and ambitious. And they can be hot-tempered.

"Let's face it, you've got so many fish in a small pond in Fairfax County that we all just seem to bump into each other," said J. Chapman Petersen, a former delegate and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor who some observers said is seriously considering a race against Devolites Davis in 2007. "Gerry's a very competitive guy, and Jeannemarie's a prominent Republican in central Fairfax."

Their relationship is complicated by a third political powerhouse, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who married Devolites Davis in 2004. As the seven-term congressman raises his profile for a possible bid for U.S. Senate in 2008, Connolly is emerging as the leading Democrat to run for Davis's seat. He and Davis also are longtime rivals, tangling most recently over MetroWest, the high-density development planned at the Vienna Metro station.

Devolites Davis has been mentioned by political leaders in both parties as a possible candidate for her husband's seat or Virginia lieutenant governor in three years. Davis, who has been his wife's political mentor, kicked off his reelection campaign March 4.

Connolly acknowledged that he and Devolites Davis have been "at loggerheads" on some issues during the current session of the General Assembly. On others, such as a so-far futile effort to restore red-light cameras to Northern Virginia intersections, they are working together.

"It's just that all too few members of the General Assembly are used to scrutiny. It's shocking, frankly, when a Fairfax senator feels totally free to ignore one of our top priorities and vote against it and kill it," he said, referring to the cell phone legislation. His differences with Devolites Davis stem from "accountability, not politics," he said, but he acknowledged that they "need to work harder on our quality of communication."

They clashed in recent weeks over efforts to find a dedicated source of local funding for Metro. Northern Virginia Democrats were looking for a Republican to co-sponsor a state bill that would raise the regional sales tax. They turned to Devolites Davis as a natural choice, because her husband is the sponsor of a federal funding bill for Metro that requires matching money from the region's state and local governments.

But she wouldn't sign on. She and some fellow Republicans had their own transportation bill. Connolly, at a meeting of Fairfax officials to discuss state legislation, said he was incredulous that Davis's wife was refusing to help his bill to provide the transit system with desperately needed money. "We were stunned, all of us, at her refusal to put her name to the legislation," Connolly later said. "It was beyond our understanding why this senator would not want to sponsor a bill to move forward her husband's legislation."

Devolites Davis said she demanded -- and received -- an apology from Connolly at a reception for the building industry they attended a few days later. "I was just focusing on my own bill," she said, explaining that she was concerned that the Democrats' legislation relied on tax increases while the Republicans' did not. She voted for the Democratic bill, which failed. Connolly, in turn, said he supports the concept of the GOP bill, which is unlikely to survive the session.

Devolites Davis, meanwhile, infuriated Connolly by sponsoring a bill to require Fairfax supervisors to disclose campaign contributions from landowners petitioning the board for changes to the county's land-use plan. The measure was widely viewed as a slap at Connolly, who has been criticized by some constituents for his support from builders and developers. The idea came from civic activists opposed to MetroWest and other high-density projects, a group Devolites Davis has courted heavily in the past year.

The disclosure measure was swiftly killed along party lines by a Democratic-controlled Senate committee, with four of the "no" votes from Northern Virginia lawmakers.

Connolly said the bill was unworkable, partly because the land in question could have multiple owners whose contributions could be cumbersome to document. Devolites Davis said it was killed even after she tweaked it to address those concerns. She then concluded that Democrats had determined their position in advance. Connolly said Devolites Davis did not consult him on the original bill or any changes.

Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun), who is newly elected, said he voted no because he was concerned that the bill singled out one county. He said he asked the sponsor to broaden it, "but the answer was no." He said he "got the sense there was much more going on than was on the surface."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company