Driven and Detail-Oriented, Connolly Gets His Way

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007

There was one voter in Gerald Connolly's first campaign, and his mom's answer was no.

He was too young to leave home, even to become a priest. "Who wants to lose their son at 15?" asked Mary Connolly, still struck by her son's relentless push to get answers -- and to get his way.

"He always wanted to know the whys and whereabouts of everything," said his mother, a nurse. He read dozens of books on the priesthood, introduced his parents to seminary fathers, visited church outposts with the priests and left no space to doubt his sincerity. She eventually accepted his decision to join the seminary. "We went along with it, but it took a lot of struggle on our part."

With bullheadedness and finesse -- and meticulous preparation -- Connolly, who is seeking a second term as chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, has spent much of his life pushing people to go along with his plans.

His forceful style has frosted opponents, who see him as meddling and grandiose, an old-school Boston boss lacking in Virginia charm. But he also exudes a sense of mission and responsibility that rings authentic to many of those around him. The core of his job as a local official, he said, is clear: "You're tending to people's needs. You're making it better for them."

"When you get power, you have an obligation to exercise it responsibly. But exercise it," Connolly said. "Otherwise, why seek it?"

Connolly has sought it, in part, because he clearly delights in politics, a passion that traces to his childhood in Boston's Allston neighborhood, where his family had ties to local Democratic powerhouse Tip O'Neill and where an 8-year-old Connolly erected placards for John F. Kennedy's U.S. Senate campaign.

"Here I am, 50 years later, still putting up signs," Connolly said. Connolly is drawn to the competition but balks at the label "political animal." It seems too crass, too cynical. Besides, it's wrong, he said.

"One of my strengths is I marry enormous wonkishness with, I hope, some rudimentary political skills. They don't always mesh. That combination excites me," Connolly said.

As a master of minutia, the onetime Capitol Hill aide who envisioned life as a missionary or diplomat has instead thrived in the often-arcane arena of local government. And after five decades as a tenacious son, student campaigner, hunger activist, congressional aide and county chairman, he still loves to spar with the powerful or misguided -- and he does so with much more than "rudimentary skills."

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Among Connolly's first targets was his church. After his mother acceded and he arrived at Maryknoll Fathers Junior Seminary in Pennsylvania in 1965, Connolly zeroed in on what he viewed as a glaring weakness: Church leaders were losing their moral authority by not railing against the Vietnam War. In an editorial for the school paper, he argued that the United States should not impose its will and lose its people there -- and was vilified.

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