Contenders Reach to the Left in House Race in Va.

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008

In a matter of months, Northern Virginia's 11th Congressional District has morphed from the home court of popular Republican Tom Davis to a left-leaning battleground in which two major Democratic candidates are spending most of their time trying to outdo each other's liberal credentials.

Davis, 59, who will retire at the end of this year, has easily won elections in what had been safely Republican territory for much of his 14-year tenure in the House. With a recent history of choosing Democrats, however, the 11th District is viewed nationally as fertile ground for a takeover. That has prompted a fiercely competitive four-way primary contest for the Democratic nomination this year. And it has pitted the two most well-known, well-funded candidates -- Leslie L. Byrne, a former representative, and Gerald E. Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors -- against each other in a fight for what they view as the liberal soul of the district.

The other two candidates on the primary ballot are Iraq war veteran Douglas J. Denneny and physical therapist Lori P. Alexander.

"It is clear that Fairfax County has turned blue and has had a great series of elections," said Del. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax), who has endorsed Connolly. "Democrats are gaining ground at all levels, and I think we have a real good shot at picking up this House seat. Clearly, both candidates are going after the folks who have been Democrats a long time and believe in a substantial amount of the Democratic values."

That dynamic has produced a series of attempts at left-leaning one-upmanship between Byrne and Connolly, who have traded comments questioning their opponent's progressive credentials and highlighting their own. Just this week, Byrne accused Connolly of misappropriating the logo of the National Organization for Women in a mailing. The group has endorsed Byrne. Also this week, Connolly cited two major union endorsements as evidence that Byrne's hold on the labor movement is not as strong as she states.

"Leslie's narrative is just blown apart," Connolly said.

Responded Byrne: "He has to do that because he has no record to appeal to the base of the Democratic Party. He has to reinvent himself."

Byrne, 61, has a long history of liberal activism on such issues as women's rights, labor, health care and the environment. In Congress, where she served for one term before Davis defeated her in 1994, she voted for the landmark Family and Medical Leave Act and pushed such issues as protection of federal wages and increased federal oversight of energy pipelines. She promoted a similar agenda during her seven years in the Virginia House and four in the state Senate.

As a result, Byrne has a list of endorsements from such large and influential groups as NOW, Emily's List, the Communication Workers of America and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "Leslie has been there and has sought us out over the years," said Marj Signer, president of the Virginia chapter of NOW. "We don't have to ask her where she stands on our issues. She has defined many of those issues."

Connolly, 58, does not concede that point. A popular politician in Fairfax who overwhelmingly won reelection as board chairman in November, Connolly has built a progressive record by promoting energy conservation, fair wage policies and a county rule sought by a grocery workers' union to restrict Wal-Mart and other "big box" stores in Fairfax.

Connolly's history of liberal activism doesn't reach back as far as Byrne's, but he and his supporters believe his relationships in the business community and his winning electoral record make him the better candidate to face a well-funded Republican, Keith S. Fimian, in November.

"He's never lost an election, and Leslie's won some and lost some," Scott said. "People understand that. They believe that this is such a great opportunity, and they've got a proven winner in Gerry."

Connolly also has his own list of endorsements, including the Service Employees International Union, the International Association of Firefighters and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

"She's got the steamfitters and the steelworkers," Connolly said. "That's great; they're rewarding her. But the dynamic unions that are growing and that have a different take on things have endorsed me."

The bottom line is that both have good records on labor and are splitting those votes down the middle, said Daniel Duncan, president of the Northern Virginia Central Labor Council. "People have friends on both sides," said Duncan, whose organization is staying neutral in the June 10 primary. "Leslie has walked many a picket line with us and shown up at many an event. And Gerry, after working with him and lobbying him, did help get the living wage and the big box ordinance."

Less clear is how the two split the women's rights vote. NOW issued a statement this week criticizing Connolly for sending out a mailer that included a photograph of an abortion rights rally and NOW placards. "It felt like we were being used," Signer said.

Connolly said that the mailer's purpose was simply to state his views on abortion and women's rights and that the picture was intended to generically illustrate an abortion rights rally. Although he sought an interview with NOW to secure its endorsement, Connolly said, the organization endorsed Byrne without granting him one. Signer confirmed that but blamed scheduling and missed phone calls.

Byrne's longer history on women's issues made her a natural choice for endorsement, Signer said. "We know her," she said. "We know her really, really well."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company