Remembering His Roots in N.Va.
GOP's McDonnell, Who Grew Up in Fairfax, Hopes His Local Ties Will Resonate With An Increasingly Liberal Electorate

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Robert F. McDonnell grew up in a neighborhood of military and government families not far from Mount Vernon, where his mother organized tours. He worked summers as a busboy and caddy at Fort Belvoir. He played football at Bishop Ireton High School, once scoring a touchdown against the undefeated T.C. Williams team celebrated in "Remember the Titans." And in 1976, McDonnell married a Redskins cheerleader from McLean.

It was a pretty typical Northern Virginia childhood and one that the Republican constantly focuses on in his gubernatorial campaign, which hinges in part on whether he can convince area voters that he understands their problems and knows how to fix them. McDonnell has spent almost half his time campaigning in Northern Virginia, has mailed 10 brochures and has spent more than $1 million on television ads in the region.

At his official kickoff rally in Annandale in the spring, McDonnell said he has firsthand knowledge of the area's unique issues and shares its residents' values. "I was raised in Fairfax County by a dad who was a World War II veteran and a mom who balanced family and work," he said. "Growing up in Northern Virginia, I learned from them the values that have lasted a lifetime."

But Northern Virginia has changed dramatically since McDonnell left for college in 1972. Fairfax's population has more than doubled to 1.1 million, and foreign-born residents have increased from 3 percent to almost 30 percent. Tysons Corner was mostly farmland in the early 1970s, and many of today's vital commuter routes, including the Dulles Toll Road and Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway, were years from being built.

As it has grown, the region has become increasingly liberal and is the main reason Democrats have won several recent statewide races and turned the once reliably Republican state into a national battleground.

That could pose a challenge to McDonnell, whose conservative social positions -- he opposes abortion in all instances except when the life of the mother is in danger and favors a ban on same-sex civil unions -- could turn off many area voters.

In vote-rich Northern Virginia, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds is leading McDonnell 45 percent to 42 percent, according to a new Washington Post poll. Deeds handily won his party's primary in June, and against two candidates who live in Northern Virginia, the rural Bath County resident carried the region.

Deeds said McDonnell's priorities are out of touch with the region's voters on social issues, roads and education. He has sought to highlight McDonnell's position on abortion, having held a rally on the issue Monday in Annandale.

"This election is not about where you're from, it's about what you stand for," Deeds said.

McDonnell has played down his conservative views, focusing on proposals that address such quality-of-life issues as transportation and education, both of which were announced in Northern Virginia.

Standing on a parking deck overlooking I-66, he pledged to widen the highway inside and outside the Beltway and set aside a portion of sales tax collections in the region for road projects. At George Mason University, he said he would put the state on a course to award 119,000 additional associate's and bachelor's degrees in the next 15 years.

He acknowledges the vast changes in Northern Virginia since he left for college, but he says that he has continued to travel regularly to visit his father and his wife's family in the area and that he understands the concerns of its voters.

"Not only did I grow up there, I maintained a constant connection to Northern Virginia," said McDonnell, 55, who lives outside Richmond after 20 years in Virginia Beach.

"What I'm saying to people is, 'I am a Fairfax native. I grew up here. I've maintained 50 years of connection to your community. I have seen this community grow. I understand what you contribute to the commonwealth of Virginia. We must keep you strong.' "

Paul Skelly, an Alexandria lawyer and a former classmate from Bishop Ireton, said he encourages people to support McDonnell because of his regional connections.

"He's very attuned to Northern Virginia with the deep roots he's got," he said.

"Bob has been in and out of Northern Virginia as a real person for decades," said Tom Farrell, a high school pal of McDonnell's who is president of Dominion Resources and one of the Republican's biggest donors. "He lived a real life there -- going to the pharmacy, going to the grocery store. He knows a lot about daily concerns there."

McDonnell spent the first years of his life in the Fort Hunt area and, after a three-year stint in Germany, his family settled in a two-story brick home in Riverside Estates near Mount Vernon. His father, John, was in the Air Force, and his mother, Emma, stayed home for a while to raise their five children.

He describes his neighborhood as Mayberry -- a simple, tranquil place where families rarely thought about safety and often left their doors unlocked. His longtime neighbor, Mary D'Amico, said most of the families on Wagon Wheel Road had a large number of children who would play together outside with no fear of crime. "They were free to do what they wanted," she said.

McDonnell lived down the street from Mame Reiley, now one of the state's top Democratic political consultants, and in high school he dated Dee Gilmore, now chief of staff to Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.).

He worked every summer, lining baseball fields for the city of Alexandria, delivering the Mount Vernon Gazette and even briefly working construction on the McPherson Square Metro stop.

His sister, Eileen Reinaman, who lives in Stafford County, said the family spent Saturday mornings collecting driftwood and skipping rocks at a nearby spot dubbed River Annex near Fort Belvoir and spent Sunday mornings at Good Shepherd Catholic Church, where McDonnell was an altar boy.

McDonnell frequently visited Mount Vernon, which led to a lifelong admiration for the nation's first president and a belief in the Founding Fathers' desire to create a government that did not trample on individual rights. An enormous painting of George Washington with his head bowed in prayer adorned the wall of the state attorney general's office when McDonnell held the post.

His yearbooks are filled with references to football. He was team captain, played wide receiver and was one of the few to score a touchdown against T.C. Williams. "It was far and away the best game of my career," McDonnell said.

McDonnell described himself as a "geeky jock" obsessed with his telescope and had considered a future in science or engineering. But instead he joined the Army and went into business and eventually law.

He met his future wife, Maureen, at a party in Northern Virginia after his first year of college. The third of nine children, Maureen was working at the State Department and taking classes at Northern Virginia Community College.

They married after he graduated from Notre Dame and briefly lived in a one-bedroom apartment at Belle Haven Towers in the Alexandria area before leaving Northern Virginia.

The family still has the house on Wagon Wheel Road, although it is empty. McDonnell's father, John, 93, moved into a rehabilitation facility more than a year ago. A blue-and-white "McDonnell for Governor" sign is in the front yard.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company