By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 2009
Somewhere between the neighborhood beautification meetings and the community potlucks, John C. Cook plotted a little political uprising that has given hope to Republicans across Northern Virginia.
Cook worked his way up the ranks of the Kings Park Civic Association, spending the past two years as its president. He emphasized the importance of being neighborly, ushering in a spirit of volunteerism and sprucing up the neighborhood's sprinkling of unkempt and abandoned properties.
Last week, the Republican pulled off something equally dramatic: winning a seat on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors that had been occupied by a Democrat.
The narrow victory in Tuesday's special election to succeed former Braddock District supervisor Sharon Bulova, who became chairman last month, heartened Republicans, especially those who have argued that a pragmatic, centrist candidate focused on neighborhood-level needs could win despite the Democratic tide that has overtaken Northern Virginia.
"Fairfax County is competitive again," said former congressman Tom Davis, a moderate Republican who often clashed with his party's conservative wing. The county's voters "are smart people. They want pragmatic leadership."
Cook is among those in the Virginia GOP who blame the party's slide in recent years on a misguided embrace of divisive social issues, including abortion, same-sex marriage and gun rights. The approach, they say, has allowed Democrats to lay claim to such day-to-day issues as transportation and education.
"I've been active in the party and have some strong views on why [we have experienced a] string of defeats," said Cook, 45. "Now that we've won, it's my intent to say to the party, 'You did it that way and you lost, and we did it this way and we won. So choose: Do you want to win or lose?' "
Democrats say Tuesday's special election does not mean they are losing ground. Scott Surovell, chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, said small special elections do not draw the younger or minority voters that have bolstered the party overall. Also, he said, there is complacency because George W. Bush is no longer in the White House, where he galvanized voters against the GOP.
Still, Republicans are adopting a less ideological approach in hopes it will yield results.
Gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell (R), the former state attorney general, has positioned himself as a moderate bent on improving the economy, reducing traffic and preserving the environment. He has played down his support of policies that would have restricted divorces and abortions, as well as his ties to religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.
Next month, GOP activists are scheduled to meet and decide whether to oust their state chairman, Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick (Prince William), who was selected to lead the party last year with the support of anti-tax and social conservatives. And Corey A. Stewart (R), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, has toned down the anti-illegal-immigrant fight that was his signature stand two years ago.
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) said he doesn't think conservatives should mask their beliefs to attract votes. Known for his attention to local issues, Marshall has had support from a broad spectrum of voters despite his fervent opposition to abortion and gay rights.
"If you try to hide who you are, it shows," he said. "And voters will pick up on that lack of genuineness."
Cook said he is not playing down anything. Rather, he says, the party has fallen out of favor with voters because so many of its candidates have focused on society's deepest fissures.
On the campaign trail, Cook advocated fiscally conservative policies, including keeping taxes low, ending the county's practice of buying affordable homes, and handing over some social service duties to nonprofit and faith-based groups and private companies. He made no mention of his socially conservative views, which he said Friday are personal and not relevant to his job as a county supervisor.
"John is a uniter," said Larry Krakover, who heads the GOP's efforts in the Braddock District. "He had support from everyone in the party, literally everyone, [even] people who don't share the sandbox real well."
When Cook took over leadership of the civic association, he saw some of the neighborhood's biggest problems as the result of a disconnected community.
Through block parties and other events, he surmised, neighbors would get to know each other and feel more comfortable approaching each other with problems. They would know which elderly or disabled folks needed help with home maintenance. They would familiarize themselves with county rules that required a level of home upkeep. They could overcome cultural differences.
"Rather than saying, 'Oh, that person is a different background from me, I'm not going to have anything in common with them, I'm not going to get to know them,' we said, 'Let's do the opposite.' " he recalled. " 'Let's make an extra effort to get to know that person.' "
The approach worked. While countywide complaints about junk-filled yards and overgrown lawns doubled in the past two years, the complaints from Kings Park declined, Cook said.
A change was even evident when the need to clean up the landscaping around the Kings Park sign at the entrance of the community arose, he said.
"Three years ago, you couldn't have gotten three people to go out there and cut down bushes," he said. "Now we get a dozen people. They'll be out there all day long, they'll get poison ivy all over them, they'll go out there in the rain. That community spirit motivates them to do something that otherwise wouldn't get done."