By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2009
In their 28-day dash to election day in Alexandria, Democratic lawyer Charniele Herring and Republican legislative aide Joe Murray have had to scramble for attention from distracted voters.
The special election to represent the heavily Democratic 46th District in Virginia's House of Delegates kicked off about a week before Christmas and ends Tuesday, a rushed exercise in democracy to fill the seat left open when Brian J. Moran (D) stepped down to run full time for governor. Officials need to fill the office before the legislature convenes in Richmond on Wednesday.
"We've had Christmas. We've had New Year's. Folks are going back to work, getting their kids back to school," Murray said. "We have [President-elect Barack] Obama's inauguration. Quite frankly, it's just been me, as much as possible, without offending voters, trying to say hello to them."
"On the street, wherever I go, I let people know about the election," Herring said.
But it hasn't been an even fight.
Herring, 39, has benefited from the extensive political network that has made Alexandria a trusted blue bastion (Obama won the city with 72 percent of the vote). She and her supporters have made thousands of phone calls to potential Democratic voters.
"They have been calling like crazy since the night after the caucus was over," said Susan B. Kellom, head of the Alexandria Democratic Committee. "Everyone in Alexandria is pitching in to give her a hand."
Murray, meanwhile, said he has hosted three Christmas parties in his home with about 10 voters each. "Most of them are Democrats in my neighborhood, so they didn't come," said Murray, 33.
Both say their personal histories have made them hungry to represent Alexandria -- and a sliver of Fairfax County in the Skyline area -- as leaders in Richmond debate responses to the painful economic downturn.
Herring, who became homeless as a teenager, said her immediate focus would be on needy families.
"My mom had a job and she was downsized. We just couldn't make the rent where we were living," Herring said. She spent her 16th birthday in an Econo Lodge off Interstate 395 on the outskirts of Springfield. "A Big Mac was my dinner," she said. "Now I can laugh. It wasn't funny then." The family lived in a shelter for six months.
She emerged and made it to Catholic University's law school, and she and her brother eventually bought her mother a house in Alexandria. Herring still lives there with her. "I'm probably a cheapskate, that's what people tell me," she said. "You can see where my attachment comes from to needy families."
In policy terms, that translates into a plan to push in Richmond for a rental assistance program that would take advantage of available federal funds, Herring said.
Her inspiration for seeking public office came through her work on women's issues in the city, she said. Herring said she learned that volunteers at clinics for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault can be subpoenaed to testify in court cases, something that she's lobbied, unsuccessfully, to change.
If elected, she would also make a push for new funding for early-childhood education in Virginia, she said, although that would have to wait until later legislative sessions, after the $3 billion budget deficit is closed. "This is not the year," she said.
Murray said planting family roots in Alexandria nearly four years ago helped lead him toward his first run for office.
He worked on the staff of Republican Bret Schundler's unsuccessful bid to become New Jersey's governor in 2001, sparking a deeper interest in politics. "I decided that Washington, D.C., would be a great place to get involved in public service and government, and here I am," he said.
He started night classes at law school (also at CU) and launched a consulting business that helps political action committees comply with election law. He continues to go to law school and handles correspondence for Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.). He characterizes himself as a "pro-business and pro-jobs . . . pragmatic Republican."
Murray would make a big push in Richmond for job-retraining programs, he said. "I'm a fresh face, too. I'm willing to work hard," he said.
Murray said he would also focus on transportation issues, such as making sure that thousands of Defense Department jobs moving into Alexandria come with critical road improvements.
"My attitude, and my wife's attitude, is this is going to be the best place to raise our child," he said. "Democratic as it is, it's still a terrific place."
As he has faced what he says is an "uphill battle" in the Alexandria race, he said he has been thinking about his 18-month-old daughter, Joella, who has a genetic skin disease.
"She has the courage to face challenges every day. I thought, what a great story to be able to tell her someday, that her dad faced challenges as well," he said.