For Fairfax County Chairman

Sunday, January 25, 2009

THE CHAIRMAN of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is both the de facto voice of the county and a power player in regional politics. Democrat Gerald E. Connolly filled the position ably -- and loudly -- for the past five years but resigned after his November election to the House of Representatives. His successor, who will be elected on Feb. 3, must grapple with an unprecedented budget deficit that threatens the county's exceptional services, and must coordinate with Washington area leaders to advance regional goals, such as rail service to Dulles International Airport.

The two major candidates are current board members but have little else in common. Longtime supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock) is quiet and consensus-driven and has impressed even Republicans with her competence. Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), only on the board about a year, asks tough questions that help keep the Democrat-controlled board honest, but he sometimes puts ideology before smart policy.

Ms. Bulova isn't the exciting choice, but she's the right one. She has been a relentless advocate for important regional issues, and her experience as chair of the board's budget committee will be invaluable in navigating the fiscal crisis.

It's that fiscal crisis -- a $650 million hole in a $3.4 billion fiscal 2010 budget -- that has dominated the campaign. Both candidates agree that the property tax rate must be raised and that deep cuts will still be impossible to avoid. But Mr. Herrity contends that Ms. Bulova and her Democratic colleagues increased spending recklessly in recent years and didn't do enough to gird for the current crisis.

There's some truth to this. Although the property tax rate was actually reduced as home values skyrocketed, the amount of taxes homeowners paid doubled in the past seven years. But the spending wasn't profligate -- about three-fourths of the increased revenue went to education and public safety. Some of the money also went to a reserve fund Ms. Bulova wisely created in the 1990s. It's hard to fault her for failing to foresee an unprecedented financial collapse that has left localities across the region reeling. And, if Ms. Bulova deserves some criticism for not anticipating the downturn, then she also deserves some credit for overseeing a long period of robust growth.

Mr. Herrity, whose father, John F. "Jack" Herrity (R), served 12 years as chairman in the 1970s and 1980s, would certainly shake things up. It's unclear, though, that the well-governed county is in need of such upheaval. Some of Mr. Herrity's proposals for the county, including a call to scale back Fairfax's affordable-housing program, are worth debating. But he has been on the wrong side of many regional issues, including rail to Dulles. He initially supported bus rapid transit, an option that had its merits. But once it become clear that support had coalesced around rail, Mr. Herrity persisted in his support of bus transit and became an obstructionist to the project. He has also been ambiguous in his support of a mixed-use redevelopment of Tysons Corner. Ms. Bulova, meanwhile, has been an unequivocal champion of both projects.

It's not Ms. Bulova's position on issues that gives us pause. Rather, it's her unassuming leadership style. Governing by consensus has its limits and, as board chair, Ms. Bulova would have to make tough, and at times unpopular, decisions. If she is elected, we hope that she rises to the challenge.

Two independent candidates, Carey Campbell and Christopher DeCarlo, are also on the ballot. Mr. Campbell, an accountant and well-known civic activist, wants to add a lane of light rail to the Capital Beltway. Mr. DeCarlo, a businessman, opposes the county's steep taxes and wants more government transparency.

The surprisingly narrow victory of the Democratic candidate for House of Delegates in Alexandria this month is evidence that special elections can be unpredictable. This should be all the more reason for voters to head to the polls on Feb. 3.


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