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Bulova Declares Victory in Fairfax

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By Amy Gardner and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Fairfax County voters narrowly elected Sharon S. Bulova chairman of the Board of Supervisors yesterday, keeping a Democrat at the helm of the region's largest jurisdiction and handing her the challenge of leading the county through its worst economic crisis in a generation.

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Bulova won by 1,217 votes out of 107,713 cast, according to unofficial returns. Her main opponent, Republican Supervisor Pat S. Herrity, did not concede the race last night. But Bulova claimed victory, securing -- if only barely -- a crucial Democratic win in Northern Virginia as both parties prepare for critical November elections for governor and the House of Delegates. She also promised to continue emphasizing a long list of local priorities, including environmental stewardship, redeveloping Tysons Corner and protecting public schools.

"This was a challenging race because it was right after a historic election, because it was interrupted by the holidays and because it was interrupted by a historic inauguration," Bulova told a boisterous crowd of hundreds at a Fair Oaks conference center. "It was a challenge to reach out to voters in Fairfax County, and we did it."

They were unable to do it decisively, making yesterday's special election the second in a matter of weeks in which Northern Virginia Democrats have squeaked by in a region where they are supposed to be a dominant political force.

"We're still trying to figure out what the numbers say," Herrity told his supporters in Tysons Corner. "We're not going to make our concession tonight." Unofficial results put Herrity behind by more than 1 percent. If the numbers hold, he would not qualify for a recount.

Also on the ballot were independents Carey C. Campbell, a 52-year-old accountant, and Christopher F. DeCarlo, 50, owner of a propane fuel company.

Bulova campaigned largely on a promise to keep Fairfax County on the path blazed by her predecessor, Democrat Gerald E. Connolly, who used the chairman's bully pulpit before he was elected to Congress to cajole an 8 to 2 Democratic majority into adopting sweeping policies on affordable housing, environmentalism, gang prevention and urban-style development in Vienna and Tysons.

Whether Bulova, 61, will succeed at a similarly activist agenda is unknown. A soft-spoken consensus-builder with little taste for confrontation, Bulova's leadership style represents a conspicuous departure for Fairfax, where not only Connolly but several board chairmen before her built reputations for big agendas, big personalities and big political ambitions.

Bulova, by contrast, has represented the Braddock District for 21 years and says she has no plans to pursue office beyond chairman. During the campaign, she touted her long years of experience as well as her leadership, for 17 years, of the county board's budget committee. That experience would become particularly relevant as Fairfax grapples with a $650 million budget shortfall and the prospect of deep cuts and tax increases.

Still, if Bulova's leadership of the budget process is a measure, she will bring a deliberative, process-driven style to the chairman's job that is likely to keep relationships pleasant but is untested, in a generation of leadership in Fairfax, as an effective way to get things done.

"I think she's an excellent listener," said Laura I. McDowall, a former school board member from the Braddock District. "She's more reserved than some leaders I've seen, but she wins people over because she pays attention and she brings people together."

On a day that began with snow flurries but ended with brilliant sunshine, voters trickled to the polls in minuscule numbers across Fairfax County's 400 square miles. County election officials reported that almost 108,000 of about 680,000 registered voters, or 16 percent, cast ballots yesterday.

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