Fairfax Candidate Fights For More Diverse Board

While door-to-door campaigning, Hall, right, meet residents such as Sharon Connelly, along with Charlie and Misty.
While door-to-door campaigning, Hall, right, meet residents such as Sharon Connelly, along with Charlie and Misty. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007

Vellie Dietrich Hall, a Republican seeking a seat this year on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, kicked off her campaign in January at the home of a native Bolivian. Her finance chairman is from India. Her two political directors are Korean.

And if that weren't enough diversity for a candidate seeking office in the immigrant-heavy Mason District in eastern Fairfax, there's Hall herself: a native of the Philippines who came to the United States 26 years ago and now runs a defense contracting business out of her home.

Hall says the Fairfax board, with nine white members and one African American, is long overdue for an ethnic makeover -- particularly the Mason District seat, which represents a community in which a majority of residents are foreign-born. She also says more must be done to address the challenges of a rapidly urbanizing community: aging neighborhoods, growth and crime.

Hall's candidacy reflects the tumultuous changes that have moved through Fairfax schools, neighborhoods and workplaces as thousands of immigrants have moved in. It also underscores the fact that a vast number of the county's 1 million residents -- one in four are foreign-born -- are not represented, demographically at least, on the Fairfax board.

"The Board of Supervisors needs a face there that represents the diversity of our community," said Hall, 55, a petite and lively marathon runner who holds a brown belt in tae kwon do. "I want to make sure that these new citizens know that the government exists for them. I can empathize more with what they're going through. I've been there. That is my advantage."

Her disadvantage is that she's a Republican. Northern Virginia, and eastern Fairfax in particular, have been choosing Democratic candidates by wider and wider margins in recent years. And the election results have been fueled by the preferences of the very voters Hall is seeking: immigrants and former urbanites from the District.

Hall's opponent, Democrat Penelope A. Gross, is seeking her fourth term representing the Mason District, most of which is inside the Capital Beltway. Gross is no stranger to the concerns of the immigrant communities she represents, from Koreans in Annandale to Vietnamese residents in Seven Corners to the Latino-rich apartment buildings throughout Baileys Crossroads.

Gross is a regular at dozens of civic association meetings across her district and runs a monthly group called Kaleidoscope that seeks to bring together residents from different backgrounds. Gross created the group about 10 years ago, when tension erupted in the southern end of the district between foreign newcomers and the families who had lived there for decades.

"That's what I've built my entire career as a supervisor on," Gross said. "I have a wall full of awards from various ethnic communities because I work so closely with them. Whether they're Hispanic or Arabic or Vietnamese: You name it, I've been working with those communities to make sure their issues are addressed."

Gross is also no stranger to the concerns Hall is raising about some of the older or more urban neighborhoods of Mason -- modest neighborhoods of bungalows and split-levels such as Edsall Park, where Hall raised her daughter but where families are now haunted by an unsolved murder from a year ago, as well as a recent spate of burglaries.

Hall laments the fact that although she could allow her daughter to walk freely through the neighborhood a decade ago, she would not do so today. Gross said she works closely with civic associations to encourage neighborhood watch programs to take an active role in keeping communities safe. The task is tricky with neighborhoods that are in transition, where new residents who are often foreign-born and not yet connected to the community are moving in.

"We have changing dynamics," Gross said. "I don't have any qualms about walking down any street in my district in the evenings."

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