A Centrist's Legacy

Saturday, August 19, 2006

WHEN SEAN T. Connaughton assumed the chairmanship of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors in 2000, the job didn't look like much of a treat. Narrowly elected, he was the county's first Republican chairman in 136 years. The county, inundated by immigrants and other new arrivals, was in the midst of a demographic upheaval transforming a quiet, predominantly white bedroom community into a diverse place with a job growth rate among the highest in the nation. Prince William also held the dubious distinction of taxing residential property at a higher rate than any other county in Virginia.

That array of challenges and potential pitfalls would have confounded plenty of politicians. But Mr. Connaughton -- open, even-keeled, sensible and centrist -- kept his footing. Over 6 1/2 years he compiled a record as one of the region's most capable and politically adept local leaders. He adroitly managed Prince William's volcanic growth and put the county of 364,000 people on firm financial footing, while soothing the partisan passions that have poisoned politics elsewhere, such as in neighboring Loudoun County. Little wonder he was reelected with 70 percent of the vote in 2003.

So it is Prince William's loss that Mr. Connaughton, a maritime lawyer, is leaving local politics to become director of the U.S. Maritime Administration. The Senate recently confirmed his nomination by the White House.

His legacy is considerable. As Prince William's population of African Americans, Latinos and Asians boomed -- minorities will account for the majority of residents by 2009 -- the county has also become much more prosperous. Under Mr. Connaughton's stewardship, AOL, General Dynamics, Comcast, Eli Lilly and other major employers announced investments or expansions in Prince William. Property tax bills have grown, as they have throughout the region, but Mr. Connaughton helped ease the pain by cutting rates drastically and capping annual increases for homeowners' tax bills at 5.9 percent. Although revenue is shrinking because of the housing market's downturn, Prince William has cash reserves that will cushion that blow; it is one of just a few dozen counties in the nation with an AAA bond rating. The public schools, which are generally first-rate, are not at risk.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Connaughton had his foes, notably the zealots in his own Republican Party who couldn't abide his determination to govern pragmatically. The conciliatory and centrist instincts that made him an effective manager also undercut his political ambitions in Virginia; as a candidate in the state's GOP primary for lieutenant governor last year, he was defeated by a more dependably right-wing candidate. No matter. Prince William's next county board chairman, who will be chosen in a special election not yet scheduled, will find the job considerably easier thanks to Mr. Connaughton's record of achievement.

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