Va. Parties Invest In Fairfax Board Race

By Amy Gardner and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 2, 2009

In the final weekend before a special election for Fairfax County board chairman, the contest has become as much a referendum on Virginia partisan politics as it is on who can lead the region's largest community during a brutal economic downturn.

Democrats in particular have taken an all-hands-on-deck approach to ensuring victory for Sharon S. Bulova (Braddock), the vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors, who faces Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (Springfield), a Republican, and two independents in tomorrow's election. The candidates are competing to replace Democrat Gerald E. Connolly, who won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

State Democrats say their goal is to keep momentum strong as they head toward crucial fall elections for governor and the House of Delegates. They also want a partner at the helm in Fairfax, home to one in seven Virginians, to tackle such issues as congestion relief, environmental stewardship, school quality and job creation, several said.

Leading the cast of state leaders pitching in was Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who led a get-out-the-vote rally in Annandale on Saturday with Bulova at his side. The three Democratic contenders for governor sent in small armies of volunteers to phone voters and knock on doors. And the Service Employees International Union dropped a $50,000 check, thought to be unprecedented in a county election, into Bulova's campaign last month.

Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, has sent paid canvassers into Fairfax to knock on doors for Herrity. But Herrity said he is not getting the same measure of outside help as Bulova -- and that's fine with him.

"It sounds like Sharon doesn't have a message resonating for Fairfax County, so she has to go outside and make this about party instead of common-sense solutions," Herrity said. "This should be about who is the best person to lead Fairfax out of this fiscal crisis, not about who's a Republican and who's a Democrat."

Tuesday's election is more than a political bellwether. Although the chairman of the Board of Supervisors has just one vote in 10, the job brings with it a bully pulpit from which to articulate a vision for the county's future. During his tenure, Connolly promoted, and cajoled his colleagues into supporting, an activist's agenda on such issues as environmental regulation, affordable housing, Metrorail to Dulles International Airport and the transformation of Tysons Corner from sprawling office park to dynamic urban center.

Herrity has said he will eliminate most county spending on affordable housing and would bring a skeptical eye to the Tysons redevelopment to make sure it won't saddle the county with unmanageable costs. Bulova has said she will follow Connolly's path and be a partner with state and regional leaders on a variety of shared priorities including transit, workforce training and air quality.

The next chairman will also lead the board's management of an estimated $650 million budget shortfall, which is likely to require some combination of service cuts and new taxes. Herrity has said he would bring more scrutiny to the budget but has vowed to protect teacher salaries and increase spending on school construction. Bulova has said that her 21 years of experience on the board, 17 of them as chairman of the budget committee, make her the better choice for that task.

State and local leaders of both parties said they are motivated in part by an unexpectedly narrow election last month in Alexandria, where Democrat Charniele Herring defeated Republican Joe Murray by 16 votes for a seat in the House of Delegates. The two were competing to replace Democrat Brian Moran, who resigned to focus on his gubernatorial campaign.

The close race, in a city that for years has voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, showed how unpredictable special elections can be, because they attract such low turnout. Democrats vowed not to take anything for granted in Fairfax. The party's candidates for governor are involved. Moran donated a staff organizer, Terry McAuliffe transformed his McLean headquarters into a phone-banking center, and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds set up a phone bank in Bath County.

Local Republicans, meanwhile, said they are trying to build on the momentum from the Alexandria campaign. A Herrity victory could launch, at least symbolically, a resurgence within the Republican Party, which many GOP activists say is alive and well in Northern Virginia.

"If Pat Herrity becomes chairman, that changes the political chessboard significantly in later elections in 2009," said Anthony Bedell, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee. "It shows a Republican can win in Fairfax County, which has recently been written off as a Democratic county. In a way, it would show that Northern Virginia is still in play for Republican candidates."

The gubernatorial contenders also see the campaign as a dry run of sorts to test their own organizations. After Virginia's vote in the fall for President Obama, Kaine said it was crucial to keep the grass-roots organization in place that made that victory happen. Roping in volunteers from last year for phone banks and canvasses keeps them active and engaged, leaders said.

Fred Hudson, chairman of the Albemarle County Democratic Committee, near Charlottesville, said his local party includes a number of University of Virginia students who became accustomed in the fall to traveling around the state and the nation to promote Barack Obama. They are applying those same skills to support other Democratic candidates, Hudson said.

"It was so wonderful to see Virginia vote Democratic," said Catherine Taylor, 50, a middle school teacher who made calls for Bulova on Thursday after Terry McAuliffe's campaign called her up and invited her to a phone-banking party with the candidate's wife, Dorothy. "It made me feel for the first time that my vote mattered. I also put my own time into the Obama campaign, and now I just want to keep going."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company