New Board Chairman Brings Different, Quieter Style

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 9, 2009

Sharon S. Bulova doesn't interrupt. She doesn't raise her voice. Unlike so many in public office, she doesn't sprinkle her sentences with too many "I's." She has even gotten coaching to overcome a mouth-drying phobia of public speaking.

That makes Bulova, 61, a new kind of leader for Fairfax County, where, on Friday, she became chairman of the Board of Supervisors -- and thus one of the most influential politicians in all Virginia. Her soft-spoken style makes her so different from her predecessors that it raises the question of whether she is suited to lead the region's largest jurisdiction through an economic crisis and its evolution from bedroom community to urban jobs hub.

Friends and colleagues say unequivocally that she is.

"We've been given massive dollops of vision," said Dana Kauffman, a former county supervisor who used to call Bulova "Our Lady of Braddock" because she is perpetually calm and nice. "But people are concerned -- frightened, in many respects -- with the here and now. They want a leader who listens and gets it and understands what it's like to be wondering whether you're going to get a job, whether the police officer is going to come when you call, whether the ambulance is going to be there when a loved one is grabbing their chest.

"Sharon," Kauffman continued, "is foremost someone who can connect with people and connect with where they are today. Frankly, that's been missing for a while."

Bulova is a runner whose son, David, is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. She narrowly defeated her Republican opponent, Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (Springfield), in a special election last week. She replaced Democrat Gerald E. Connolly, who is now in Congress -- and by all accounts, she will bring a vastly different leadership style to the board when she leads her first meeting today. Connolly, like a long line of county chairmen that includes former representative Tom Davis and Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Katherine K. Hanley, carried himself like a mayor. He decorated an office wall with all the spades and helmets from the countless groundbreaking ceremonies he attended. He promised bold initiatives, such as eliminating gangs, addressing climate change and transforming Tysons Corner from office park to city.

Bulova, in contrast, prefers to leave the talking to others. A former homemaker and civic association president, she became the Braddock supervisor 21 years ago only after much cajoling from her predecessor and then-boss, Audrey Moore. But Bulova never thought she would be chairman. She has been well-liked and quite content in the her district. She is known as much for her willingness to listen as her ability to act on such local concerns as neighborhood decline and the condition of storm-water spillways.

"She is very even-tempered," said Moore, her predecessor in the Braddock District who went on to be chairman before Davis. "She is a person that tries very hard to get along with people. I don't mean she's a patsy or anything like that, but she's a person who works out problems. An awful lot of the time, this is what is needed in local government."

John C. Cook, a constituent of Bulova's from the Kings Park neighborhood along Braddock Road, befriended Bulova three years ago, when one of his community's pool clubs faced bankruptcy. Cook, a Republican who is running to replace Bulova in the Braddock District, proposed that the county park authority purchase the land, demolish the pool and prevent it from becoming a blight or insect-breeding ground.

"A week later, I got a phone call, and it was done," he recalled.

Bulova is proud of such stories, even if they don't address whether she can make the jump from neighborhood advocate to leader of the region's largest jurisdiction.

"I've been just as happy as I could be as supervisor of the Braddock District," she said. "It's been my whole little world to tend, and I think I've done a really good job."

Bulova pledged repeatedly during her fast-paced campaign against Herrity to continue Connolly's advocacy regarding Tysons and other countywide issues. But often, she stopped short of speaking in the same grand terms for which Connolly is known. During a radio interview on the "Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU (88.5 FM), Bulova touted her 17 years of experience leading the board's Budget Committee. But when asked to name likely program cuts to eliminate a $650 million budget shortfall, her fondness for process and consensus shone through.

"We've engaged the community through community dialogues to help acquaint the community with how serious the situation is," she said.

And: "We need to look across the entire spectrum of what we do as a county."

And: "We need to have that discussion with the community. The budget will be advertised. If I had made up my mind about which reductions I would take, why have a public hearing?"

Cook, the neighborhood activist, said the new chairman's strength is consensus-building. But it might also be her weakness.

"I have seen Sharon in many meetings, with people in the room with different viewpoints, getting a lot of ideas on the table," he said. "That skill will serve her well. Does the chairman sometimes have to take a little bit more command? Probably. We'll just have to see. I wish her well."

Staff writer Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.

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