Area's Top Democrat May Be Setting Himself Up for the Hill

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006

It's one of the biggest open secrets in Northern Virginia politics: Gerry Connolly, the region's top Democrat, would love to ascend from Fairfax County board chairman to a seat in Congress representing the 11th District.

The first-term chairman says he's focused on his 2007 reelection campaign. And he's supporting Andrew Hurst, the Democrat mounting a spirited -- albeit uphill -- race against the 11th District incumbent, six-term Rep. Thomas M. Davis III. But if Davis (R) wins reelection, he's widely expected to make a run for the U.S. Senate in 2008, creating a rare open seat in Congress from the Washington suburbs.

So it hasn't escaped the notice of political observers that in these weeks before the Nov. 7 election, Connolly has been popping up in neighboring Prince William to help fellow Democrat Sharon E. Pandak's campaign for that county's board chairmanship. "I will enthusiastically support Sharon and do anything I can to help," Connolly said last week, calling Pandak, a former county attorney, a "natural successor" to Republican Sean T. Connaughton, who resigned in August to take a job with the Bush administration.

Connolly said a Pandak administration would continue Connaughton's "moderate" policies on growth and transportation funding, while her opponent, Corey A. Stewart, a conservative Republican on the Board of County Supervisors, would threaten cooperation among regional leaders.

Regional cooperation. It's the hallmark of good local government. Yet the hallmark of an ambitious politician is looking ahead, and that's exactly what Connolly, 56, seems to be doing as he lays the groundwork to run in a district that's 30 percent Prince William voters, 70 percent Fairfax.

"It's all about '08," Fairfax Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said. "There's no question. It's Gerry wanting to have that Democrat there to help him. It's buying allies."

Pandak and Connolly have scheduled a meeting to discuss campaign strategies and issues, and he says he plans to donate generously to her campaign, which recently had $16,600 in the bank.

Connolly, a former staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, flatly denies any interest in a seat in Congress. "Honestly, that's not the calculation," he said. "This job keeps me pretty busy, and I have no time to be thinking about other things."

Yet in recent months, he has attended the annual barbecue hosted by Prince William Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) and has appeared at several county events, including a news conference on regional transportation issues and a ceremony at Birmingham Green, a nursing home in Manassas for low-income residents from the city and surrounding counties.

"To me, it's hugely important that local governing officials work together," Pandak said. "I welcome Gerry's contribution."

The 11th District covers a large swath of central Fairfax, plus much of western and central Prince William, Woodbridge, Dale City and part of Dumfries. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) won Prince William by just under 1,500 votes, but the county still is friendlier to Republicans.

"There's a tilt of hard-core Republicans," Victor D. Bras, Prince William County's Democratic chairman, said. The GOP dominates the county board, 5 to 2.

Connolly, a pro-business moderate, is emerging as the leading Democrat to run for the seat in 2008 -- if Davis still holds it and decides to move on.

Connolly's competition in a Democratic primary, if that seat is open, could be Leslie L. Byrne, a former congresswoman and state lawmaker from the Falls Church area. They won't run unopposed, even if no one else runs from their party. Several Republicans are eyeing the spot, including Connaughton, Del. Timothy D. Hugo and state Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien, both of Fairfax.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company