Connolly's Authority Flows From Firm Hand

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 15, 2007

On the wall of Gerald E. Connolly's conference room at the Fairfax County Government Center is "The Johnson Treatment," a series of four 1957 photographs that capture the characteristic mix of flattery, manipulation and menace that Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson used to make his case to an overmatched committee chairman.

Connolly, a Democrat seeking his second term as chairman of the county's Board of Supervisors on Nov. 6, said he is no admirer of Johnson's and that there is no "Connolly treatment" for board members when he is seeking their support. The former Catholic seminarian likes to describe his role as "primus inter pares," or "first among equals."

But the photos, a Christmas gift from his staff, evoke something of Connolly's approach to the county's top elected post, a job with no real power other than that of persuasion: aggressiveness, relentless energy, an expansive policy agenda and a sometimes caustic attitude toward those who don't agree with him.

The former Providence District supervisor campaigned on six broad areas in his 2003 race: affordable housing, education, transportation, environmental stewardship, anti-gang enforcement and tax reform. There have been hits and misses and initiatives that his critics say are heavier on spin than substance. But to varying degrees, he has made a difference in each.

"My role is to be a noodge, a prod, a catalyst, an initiator," Connolly said.

Connolly pushed to set aside one penny of the tax rate to pay for improved storm water management and another for preservation of affordable housing. He's brought a new environmental consciousness to Fairfax government, partnering with the Sierra Club to launch a national "Cool Counties" initiative aimed at reducing local greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. His advocacy helped lead to expansion of early childhood learning and all-day kindergarten in county schools.

Connolly spearheaded creation of an anti-gang task force that recently reported that gang-related crime dropped by nearly one-third last year in Fairfax -- although police are a little fuzzy on how they derived their numbers. Under Connolly, the board has resisted pressure to follow Prince William and Loudoun counties in considering measures to withhold services from illegal immigrants.

Even those who don't buy into all of Connolly's programs admire the drive and political skill with which he has pursued them.

"Gerry has not made a lot of mistakes in the last four years," said Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield), who is not seeking reelection. "You can't find many chinks in the armor."

One soft spot in the armor is a tendency to take victory laps for such long-standing county achievements as low crime rates and high SAT scores. Critics say his success is more a triumph of marketing than governance.

"A lot of sound and fury signifying nothing," said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully). "Gerry is very articulate. He's wonderful at laying out a vision, articulating a vision and spinning it to have you believe we're doing something when we're doing nothing."

As an example, Frey cites the "Penny for Affordable Housing" program, for which the county has spent about $20 million a year over the past three years to purchase and preserve more than 2,000 moderately priced units.

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