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Virginia special election has balance of power riding on it

Jobs and economy are
Jobs and economy are "important things we're going to deal with." -- Del. David W. Marsden, Democratic candidate (Jahi Chikwendiu/washington Post)
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By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 2010

As special elections go, the race for the Virginia Senate District 37 seat in southwestern Fairfax County has a little more riding on it than most.

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Tuesday's election to fill a seat being vacated by Attorney General-elect Ken Cuccinelli II (R) is being billed by political observers as crucial to the balance of power in the state Senate. With the Cuccinelli vacancy and another in Virginia Beach, Democrats will outnumber Republicans 21 to 17 in the chamber, and a GOP win could cut the Democrats' advantage and make compromise more likely going into 2011 when partisan redistricting -- the drawing of the state's congressional boundaries -- gets underway.

The race between Del. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) and Republican Stephen M. "Steve" Hunt, a former school board member, also promises to provide the latest signal of which way the political winds are blowing in Northern Virginia. The district, a cross section of Fairfax outside the Capital Beltway, is considered a bellwether for the region.

The fast-growing 37th District is a sprawling area that stretches from Springfield to Centreville, including Chantilly, Fair Oaks, sections of Burke and West Springfield. It's a mix of older neighborhoods where military families began settling in the 1950s and new subdivisions that have created crowded classrooms and some of the region's worst traffic.

With many voters returning to work after the holidays, dealing with winter weather or not paying attention to politics, observers say the race could turn on which candidate can better mobilize his party's faithful.

In 2002, Cuccinelli won a special election in the 37th after his predecessor, Republican Warren E. Barry, accepted a gubernatorial appointment to the state Alcoholic Beverage Control board. In that race, Cuccinelli addressed voters' concerns about traffic and school crowding while promising to work to cut the county's rising property taxes.

Since then, jobs and the economy have become the priorities. Both candidates pledge to work in Richmond to create a better climate for small businesses and to get more money for schools and transportation projects.

Landscape shifting

Marsden, 61, a two-term House member, spent 29 years working for the Fairfax County Juvenile Court, the last 17 as the director of the juvenile detention center, before being appointed by former governor James S. Gilmore III (R) to head the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice. He now works for Development Services Group, where he manages a Department of Justice program on youth gangs.

As some sense a shift in Northern Virginia's political landscape with the election of Robert F. McDonnell (R) as governor in November, Marsden has taken a more moderate approach than his Democratic colleagues in previous contests. He has called outgoing Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's budget proposal "dead on arrival" and has touted the Governor's Opportunity Fund, small business loan guarantees and his own record as the head of a state agency with a multimillion-dollar budget as chief among his priorities and qualifications.

"It is a critical thing that we get our economy back, because that's where the good things come from," Marsden told members of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce at a candidate forum last week. "Jobs and the economy are the two most important things we're going to deal with."

Marsden, who grew up on a family farm where the Woodburn Village apartments stand, has come under fire from Republican critics for an unusual housing arrangement, in which he rents the lower part of a Democratic donor's house in the 37th. Marsden has owned a home a few hundred feet from the Senate district boundary line for more than 25 years but had to move to meet county and state voter residency guidelines.

Hunt, a blunt-talking former at-large Fairfax School Board member who served from 2004 to 2007, is an analyst for Science Applications International Corp. and a retired naval flight officer who often uses analogies involving F-4s and F-14s to describe how state government is "flying in the wrong direction." Hunt has supported McDonnell's no-tax pledge and has promised to push for more public-private partnerships to reduce the size of government and expand public charter school options.


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