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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."

* * *

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.

During six years in the seminary, he directed sharp questions inward as well. His interest in politics and policy deepened, and he campaigned for antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy and later Robert F. Kennedy. Continued disillusionment with the church over Vietnam, along with doubts about a life of celibacy, led Connolly away from the priesthood, like most of his classmates. "I was very active in the community. I wanted a different kind of life," he said.

Connolly took his combativeness and social justice ethic to Capitol Hill, where he again confronted the highest powers of a cherished institution. This time it was O'Neill, the old family friend. Over lunch with his father and O'Neill, Connolly challenged the future speaker of the House to do something about a Mississippi Democrat whom Connolly viewed "as a real Cro-Magnon."

"I was young, and this was what I was doing for a living, and, 'By God, Tip . . . what are you doing about Jamie Whitten?' " recalled Connolly, who worked on hunger and international aid issues at the time.

Whitten (D-Miss.), a former segregationist, opposed some anti-poverty programs, but O'Neill argued the case for collegiality. Connolly, reluctantly, took that as a lesson on how relationships make an institution "go or not go."

Connolly spent the 1980s as a Senate specialist on foreign development aid, an unpopular topic, said Geryld Christianson, his boss on the Foreign Relations Committee.

"He had that very great sense of trying to help people," Christianson said. But he couched his passion in terms of national self-interest, which was more convincing, Christianson said. Plus, there was that "enormous wonkishness."

"He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Foreign Assistance Act," Christianson said.

That made a difference. In one instance, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) had the votes to rewrite President Ronald Reagan's foreign aid bill. Connolly was the expert, and as he finished a Democratic budget that stressed poverty over Cold War fights, a GOP aide stopped by.

It was after midnight, hours before a key meeting. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the Foreign Relations chairman, didn't want to be rolled.

"If we endorse your mark, can you call it Lugar-Dodd instead of Dodd-Lugar?" Connolly recalls Lugar's aide asking in 1985.

Dodd agreed, Lugar saved face and Connolly had made it happen.

"They trusted my numbers, and they also realized they couldn't counter them," he said. "It was one of my great moments in life."

* * *

Connolly often ended his days on the Hill, and later as vice president of a Washington research firm, by going home to meetings in Fairfax to tackle problems with roads or land use or gypsy moths, anything to fill his need to improve his community. He became president of his neighborhood association.

But if you would have told him, after a trip to a place like Lebanon or Syria, that he would become a local elected official, "I would have laughed at you," Connolly said. "'What do you mean? I'm going to be an ambassador someday!"

Then an oil leak was discovered in his Mantua neighborhood. Suddenly hundreds of residents came to his community meetings, and he gained an appreciation for good local government. Every level of government failed them except Fairfax's, he said. He ran for supervisor in 1995, then chairman in 2003.

"I learned I love local government," he said. "In a sense, we have to live on the edge. In local government, people expect results," especially in well-to-do and well-educated Fairfax.

His focus turned to issues such as fake turf fields, a countywide trail finished last year and a library that opened in Oakton last month after he championed it for years.

Closing miles of gaps in the trail took some wooing of the Park Authority, and some prodding. "You try to persuade them it's going to make them look good, too," Connolly said, adding that he "wasn't above letting them know" that his support for their other spending plans "could flow more easily" with their backing.

Getting things done in Fairfax can mean relying on those in the real estate industry, and Connolly has been criticized for appearing to get too close. Some people believe it is "uniformly bad" to build ties with the industry, he said.

"It isn't. Not if you're calling them to a different agenda and they are cooperating," he said. His talks with a developer netted the land for the Oakton library, he said.

"It's going to be a focal point of the community," Connolly said. "It gave me so much gratification that you could leave that behind."

There is talk that Connolly might want to return to the Hill as a congressman from the 11th District. Connolly said he's undecided. "I'm Irish and fatalistic. I'm very superstitious about somehow laying out a plan for the future," he said.

* * *

Connolly says he brings passion to measurable goals. But he has a flair for drama that critics see as hype. At a Tysons Corner banquet after becoming chairman, he was confronted by Mark Meana, chairman of the youth football league, who was angry at a new $5.50-per-head fee for county fields.

"I said, 'Look, I've got the stage . . . and it's my microphone, and I would really like this thing to be reevaluated,' " Meana said.

Meana wanted the money spent on quick-drying polyethylene fiber fields. Connolly checked with a parks official, then stepped to the podium before 700 people and promised to earmark funds.

"It could be a career-ender if you don't mean it," Meana said. "He backed up his word."

But not without irking at least one colleague on the 10-member Board of Supervisors, which has the final say on spending decisions.

"If we make a decision to spend X amount of dollars on turf fields, that's our business. Those decisions are made each year," said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully). "A lot of his leadership is PR, not necessarily substance."

Connolly called Frey's comments "sour grapes" and chuckled as he recalled outmaneuvering his colleague on the fee issue.

Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), a powerful outgoing legislator and longtime foe, said, "He's the chairman, and I think he likes to act like he's the mayor of the city of Boston, where he has his hands in everything."

* * *

Those closest to him say his drive and calling to public service are deeply rooted. His youthful path from home echoed an earlier journey by his grandmother, Mary O'Kane, who left her mother in Derry, Northern Ireland, at 17 to immigrate to Boston. She worked in a silk mill and paid for her family to follow. "She taught me generosity," said Connolly, who fought back tears as he spoke of her passing.

"She was a little strong-willed," said Connolly's sister, Rosemary. "So maybe Gerry doesn't get that from the wind."

His daughter, Caitlin, came as a surprise gift after 15 years of marriage to his wife, Cathy Smith, a former nun he calls Smitty. "Being a parent was glorious and miraculous. We just figured we'd never have a child," Connolly said.

His community and family lives are tightly linked. Caitlin was 3 when he was first elected, and she's grown up tagging along to block parties with her hyperkinetic dad. All three are part of the Providence Players theater troupe, where Connolly has been an entomologist, a contract killer, a drunken politician and a lilting Officer O'Hara from "Arsenic and Old Lace."

Rosemary Connolly, a lawyer in the Massachusetts attorney general's office, said her brother harnesses a love of politics -- "Some guys know baseball stats. He can do that with electoral colleges. He can do that with what the vote was in '72. That's just his thing," she said -- to help people in communities "pursue their own happiness."

"Sometimes that's the big stuff, and sometimes it's the little stuff. Sometimes it's the AstroTurf," she said.

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