Splits Over Growth Fuel North Va. Races
By Michael D. Shear and Justin Blum
One day this summer, a prominent Tysons Corner developer went before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors seeking approval for plans to transform McLean's beloved Evans Farm into an upscale town house community.
But before the hearing could begin, supervisors were required to make an admission: One by one, eight of the 10 board members announced that they had received campaign donations from the development group before them, which ultimately won approval for the Evans Farm project.
The acknowledgments from the dais reflected some basic truths about the flow of money in Northern Virginia's politics this election season.
With county board races on the line in Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington, one in every four dollars raised by candidates in itemized donations has come from developers, real estate brokers and related interests, according to a Washington Post analysis.
At the same time, the intensifying debate over growth in the Washington region also has created a new kind of political donor: slow-growth activists.
Three of the 10 largest donors to county board campaigns in Northern Virginia were anti-sprawl groups or wealthy individuals who made it their mission to level the financial playing field for slow-growth candidates, according to the analysis of giving during the last 16 months.
"That is surprising," said Steve Calos, the executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause of Virginia. "I expected at some point that we would see well-heeled people concerned about growth issues start giving large amounts, but I don't know of anywhere else where it's actually happened."
This year's local elections have generated a frenzy of fund-raising, netting candidates more than $2 million, with individual campaign accounts ranging to more than $200,000.
Together, contributions of more than $100 from those in the development industry and from slow-growth activists dwarf those by any other sector of the region's economy.
Small contributions play a large role in local elections, and in this election season, candidates overall have received about 25 percent of their donations in unidentified gifts of $100 or less. By the same token, local elections also draw less cash than state and national contests from big industries such as health care, insurance and utilities. Taken together, those accounted for only 4 percent of contributions above $100 this year to board candidates.
"Obviously, the real estate community . . . has a direct stake in the outcome of how the board manages land use," said Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence). "The groups that spend tons of money on state races don't pay a nickel for our races."
Republican Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.) tops the list as the biggest donor to local campaigns this season. Giving personally and through two political organizations, the former Fairfax County supervisor showered $37,646 on local GOP candidates.
But most top givers have an interest in the debate about growth and development.
Take Jeffrey Osborn, of Loudoun County, where eight spirited Board of Supervisors races are being fought over growth. A 40-year-old retired millionaire who made his fortune as an executive at Internet firm UUNet Technologies, Osborn is the No. 2 contributor to supervisor campaigns. His stated goal: Give slow-growth candidates in Loudoun a chance to win.
"There were things happening right in my neck of the woods, and if you applied money to them you could change them," said Osborn, who gave $25,000 to seven slow-growth candidates. "I hope it will allow the voters of the county to be able to hear both sides."
Or Fred Potter, 41, a Prince William resident who started giving money to slow-growth candidates this year.
Potter gave $7,560 in a losing effort to defeat Gainesville Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III in the GOP primary, and he describes his contributions as an attempt to help counteract donations from developers.
"We're faced with two alternatives: to say the system's broken and I can't affect it, or to reach down and decide to compete directly with the development community," Potter said.
Home builders, developers and others in the real estate business have been equally aggressive.
The Apartment and Office Building Association funneled $21,750 to supervisor candidates in several counties, making it the fourth-largest contributor.
"We wanted to make sure that we supported those people who . . . were on the record of supporting pro-business--people who are willing to be fair and balanced," said Tom Hyland, vice president for government relations. "There are a lot of people who basically look at everybody in the property management field . . . as though they are the devil."
West Group spokeswoman Kathryn Maclane, whose $2,335 in gifts to supervisors this election season sparked the repeated disclosures at the July board meeting in Fairfax, makes no apologies for her own donations and others by company officials.
"It does not buy a yes vote," she said. "It just says keep the playing field open and understandable and predictable. What does this company want? We want good people, people who vote their conscience."
The pattern of giving by the real estate industry--and by those who want to slow growth--has itself become an issue, as candidates accuse each other of being "bought and paid for."
In Loudoun County, more than half the candidates for the Board of Supervisors are refusing developer money. Others are attacking candidates who are taking hefty donations from anti-sprawl forces.
Loudoun Supervisor Scott K. York (R-Sterling), the Republican nominee for board chairman, said that development interests spend freely in local races to "protect their interests" and that he's refusing development dollars to make it clear that he won't be influenced.
York received $1,600--or 2 percent of his itemized contributions--from development-related interests. He argued that slow-growth donors to his campaign, who have given him much more, have the county's interests in mind, while developers act more out of self-interest when they write checks to candidates.
But one of York's opponents, Republican incumbent Dale Polen Myers, who is running for reelection as an independent, disagrees sharply. She received 48 percent of her contributions of more than $100 from development interests, according to the Washington Post analysis, and said such money does not affect her vote in any way. "I'm not for sale," Myers said. "Never have been. Never will be."
A Loudoun political action committee recently took out a newspaper ad attacking candidates who have taken money from slow-growth interests.
"Who are they kidding?" the advertisement said. "Who's 'buying' whom?"
In Prince William and Arlington, challengers have accused their opponents of voting to please pro-development contributors.
Arlington County Board member Mike Lane (R) said he took large contributions from several developers because they are friends who share common values. "An honest public servant divorces himself from his contributor list," Lane said.
Longtime Prince William Chairman Kathleen K. Seefeldt (D) disputed the analysis finding that 34 percent of her contributions of $100 or more came from members of the real estate community. "I have a broad base and a great cross section of the community giving to me," she said.
The back-and-forth about campaign contributions has been especially heated in the Fairfax County district where West Group plans to build at Evans Farm.
Democratic challenger Barbara Phillips has repeatedly accused Republican Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (Dranesville) of being swayed by developer money.
Mendelsohn's donors "stand to benefit monetarily," she said. "How can voters believe that this man's vote on Evans Farm is just what he believed?"
Campaign finance records show that 24 percent of Mendelsohn's reported contributions, those over $100, come from real estate and development interests, compared with 2 percent for Phillips.
Mendelsohn said the analysis misses the fact that many of his contributors give small contributions and have no ties to development. And he said that his decisions on Evans Farm and other cases are not influenced by the money he receives from real estate interests.
"Absolutely not," he said. "It doesn't even come into account."
Staff writers Lisa Rein and Ann O'Hanlon and researcher Bridget Roeber contributed to this report.
This report is based on a Washington Post analysis of board of supervisors campaign finance reports compiled by Poole Index Consulting. The database includes contributions reported to the State Board of Elections in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties.
The database contains all itemized cash and in-kind contributions of more than $100 reported by candidates since June 1998. Poole Index Consulting used a coding system of more than 200 industry categories. Codes were assigned to contributors based on the candidates' self-reported description of contributors' occupation, or by consulting with the campaign staffs, researching business reference guides and, in some cases, telephoning contributors.
The database does not include loans candidates made to themselves. Some candidates chose to report contributions of $100 or less.
The Post's analysis does not include $38,738 in contributions to Arlington Democrats Charles Monroe and Paul F. Ferguson that were reported in filings for a joint campaign committee set up by the two politicians.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company