Connolly's Colleagues Foresee a Bit More Quiet

Newly minted congressman Gerald Connolly, with daughter Caitlin Rose on Election Day, will leave his chairman's spot on the Fairfax board in January.
Newly minted congressman Gerald Connolly, with daughter Caitlin Rose on Election Day, will leave his chairman's spot on the Fairfax board in January. (By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 6, 2008

Democrat Gerald E. Connolly's election to Congress on Tuesday will remove from the helm of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors a stentorian voice, an arm-twisting consensus builder and the man largely responsible for guiding county policies this decade to protect the environment, preserve affordable housing, fund public schools and push Metrorail to Dulles International Airport.

It's not that Connolly will stop promoting those issues in January, when he replaces retiring Republican Rep. Tom Davis in representing Virginia's 11th Congressional District. And it's not that those whom Connolly leaves behind -- seven Democrats and two Republicans who agree far more often than they don't -- are likely to suddenly change the county's course.

But Connolly's move to Washington will make the county quieter and the board less personality-driven, without him there to grill speakers or deride a staff member or explain with characteristic dramatic flair the goodness of this or that decision, his colleagues say.

"There may be different leadership styles," said Clark Tyler, chairman of the Tysons Land Use Task Force, who has worked closely with Connolly to try to transform Tysons Corner into a vibrant downtown district. "For example, if Sharon Bulova becomes chairman, as I suspect she will, her first weapon of choice won't be a two-by-four and a steamroller. But she's no less effective at making a good case."

Bulova (D-Braddock) is one of two supervisors expected to announce her candidacy for chairman in the coming days; the other is Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield). Once Connolly resigns in January, it will be up to a Circuit Court judge to set an election date for the chairman's race, probably in February.

Bulova presents a starker contrast to Connolly, but a victory for her would probably yield a more seamless transition. The two are political allies and good friends. Herrity and Connolly have often sparred, particularly on budget issues. Bulova is soft-spoken and nonconfrontational and has earned a reputation for gentle consensus-building as chairman of the county board's Budget Committee.

"It will seem odd not to have Gerry. He's such a force," Bulova said with a laugh. "But you know Fairfax County will continue to move forward."

Connolly agreed. "I think the county is in good hands," he said. "We have a fiscal challenge that is obviously going to be painful. But I'm confident that we have a process in place that's very sophisticated and very involved with the public. We'll meet this challenge."

Detractors who have found themselves at the receiving end of Connolly's gavel celebrated his impending departure.

"Roses and flowers are blooming everywhere, and birds are singing and little animals are hip-hopping through the field," said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully). "I'm not unhappy to see him leaving. When Gerry disagreed with the majority, it was for the highest moral principles. When I disagreed, I was a partisan hack or a know-nothing."

If there is one area where boosters say they worry that Connolly's leadership will be missed, it is with the transformation of Tysons and the accompanying plans to extend Metro through the area and on to Dulles Airport. Bulova, whose district encompasses primarily quiet residential neighborhoods along Braddock Road and in Burke, has developed a sterling reputation as a neighborhood advocate but is less experienced as a force on bigger-scale, countywide policy initiatives. Herrity, a frequent Connolly foe on county spending, supports the transformation of Tysons, but he has criticized Connolly for focusing on Dulles rail to the detriment of other transportation priorities.

"There's no doubt that Gerry's been a forceful advocate for rail," said William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. But, Lecos said, the federal government's decision to approve rail is nearly at hand, so there is little more leadership needed at the county level. But others noted that Connolly will be no less an advocate in Congress on issues such as Tysons than he has been on the county board.

"We need a county advocate on Capitol Hill," said Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee). "We've got rail-to-Dulles issues. We've got Metro funding deficiencies, and we've got federal mandates that have gotten out of control. "

In the end, the biggest issue that will probably occupy the board for the foreseeable future is the budget. With a $500 million-plus shortfall in its $3 billion budget, board members will have no choice but to work together, no matter who is in charge, Lecos said. "It's such a crisis. I don't think there will be a minority report saying, 'Let's fix it this way.' "

It is also true that Connolly is not the first big-personality Fairfax chairman to move on to higher office. Davis did it in 1995, the year he assumed congressional office. His shoes were filled quickly by Democrat Katherine K. Hanley, who served two terms and now serves as secretary of the commonwealth in Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's Cabinet.

Connolly has long spoken of his love of civic involvement, and he alluded to that theme repeatedly in his congressional campaign against Republican newcomer Keith S. Fimian, whom he criticized for never having been active in county affairs.

Connolly waxed sentimental yesterday about the civic universe he will leave behind.

"I love local government," he said. "I really do think it's the most noble level of government because it has to deliver. It has no choice."

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