Voters in Northern Virginia swing district restless but not as angry as others

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010; 8:54 PM

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly's pitch to voters in Northern Virginia's 11th District comes down to this: Look at all the stuff I've done for you.

After 14 years in public office, including as chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and two years in Congress, Connolly (D) can tick off the local projects he has been involved with, including completion of the Fairfax County Parkway, extending Metro to Dulles International Airport and finding money to buy locomotives for Virginia Railway Express.

But Keith Fimian, Connolly's Republican challenger, is asking voters to think beyond local politics. Fimian, who challenged Connolly and lost in 2008, is running as an outsider, hammering on the fast growth of federal spending and blasting Connolly for piling on the debt. In essence, Fimian has been arguing that what is good for one congressional district might not be good for the country.

On Tuesday, voters will choose sides in a swing suburban district that went Democratic two years ago with President Obama's landslide, and where the issue of national good vs. local benefit has a strong resonance. It is wealthy, with the highest median household income of any congressional district in the nation. It is brainy, having been ranked eighth in the percentage of people who have postgraduate degrees. And it is packed with people who make their living from the U.S. government, either as full-time federal employees or federal contractors. It leans left of center in parts of Fairfax, including Fairfax City, while trending more conservative in Prince William.

"Prince William really is the boundary line between Northern Virginia and the rest of Virginia, and it has been since the Civil War," said Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), adding that even the Route 1 corridor, which tends to have many low- and middle-income families, is generally more conservative. "The 11th is really a tale of two cities," he said, and his counterpart in Fairfax County, Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D), agrees.

"I don't think there would be tea party appeal in the Fairfax County part of the district," Bulova said. "It's a swing area. People are more moderate in their thinking, and more educated. When you go to community meetings, you better know your stuff."

More than once, she said, she has spoken at forums on topics such as the Clean Air Act only to find that someone in the audience worked for a political body or agency that helped to draft the regulations or laws in question.

Conversations with voters across the district suggest that Washington's spending has insulated the district from some of the worst of the recession, and its jobs have spared the district from the anti-establishment anger elsewhere in the country. As a result, voters in the 11th seem restless, but not as rebellious as voters in parts of the country who appear poised to give the boot to dozens of incumbents.

"Things are not as bad around here, even though they're tougher here than we're used to," said Steve Nugent, 46, a private contractor from Vienna with three children who was tailgating during Vienna's annual Halloween parade Wednesday.

As the owner of a small business, he agreed that Congress should seek to reform health care, but he was not sure lawmakers went about it the right way. He also said he understood the need to cut federal spending, although it could hurt the local economy. And he wondered about the wisdom of extending the Bush-era tax cuts.

"From a selfish standpoint, I'd probably like to keep them going, but I really don't have an opinion if that's the best thing in the world for everyone else," Nugent said. "I mean, we've got to get the country in the right direction somehow."

Kevin Foley, 46, a defense-contractor employee who estimated that 80 percent of his neighbors work for Uncle Sam, said that although talk of trimming government might not go over well in Northern Virginia, some federal workers also see firsthand examples of waste and worry about bureaucratic overkill, not to mention their own rising tax bills.

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