Until Vivian Watts, a suburban activist with two children, came along this fall, most of the political opponents who have challenged Fairfax County Board Chairman John F. Herity in recent contests were moderately to extremely nasty.
One former opponent accused Herrity, who's suffered two heart attacks, of running for office with a heart that is "one-third dead."
Another opponent regularly rolled his eyes, scrunched up his nose and suppressed incredulous laughter whenever the board chairman spoke.
Vivian Watts, 39, is not that kind of a candidate. She politely applauds Herrity after he makes a speech. She hasn't mentioned his heart (which doctors say is healthy) or indulged in facial insults.
"Oh, I know the others have been more negative," Watts said in an interview yesterday.
Watts, a Democrat, who's spent 15 years in Fairfax County serving on so many volunteer committees it takes 18 typewritten lines to list them all, said she is trying to unseat the Republican board chairman in the Nov. 6 election by using "substance."
"I don't see the need to play a political game," said Watts, whose speeches detail how the country budget can be better managed. "I simply go forth and do what is needed. One hopes the intelligence of the electorate will recognize what I have to offer."
Watts's straightforward, no razzmatazz approach, however, is not working, according to many country politicians and one Democrat-sponsored poll.
"Vivian is a real long shot," according to one Democrat on the county board. The board member, who supports Watts and considers her well-informed, said Herrity is just too powerful in th county to be defeated by a "quiet, intense woman who is persuasive over the long run."
The winner of the Watts-Herrity race will get what is classified as a part-time $18,455-a-year job, an office suite with a panoramic view of the county, and a platform that makes him the equal of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry or Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan.
By hauling porta-toilets into the county boardroom and by staging cross-county jogging runs, Herrity has demonstrated an uncanny knack for getting his name in newspapers and his face on local television news during his seven and a half years in office.
A Democratic Party poll in September showed that only 9 percent of county residents had not heard of Herrity. The poll showed that 81 percent hadn't heard of Democrat Watts.
"I should have started campaigning in January," said Watts, who began her challenge to Herrity in June after no other Democrat in the county volunteered to take on the board chairman. While she claims she's gained name-recognition by campaigning relentlessly since September, Watts admits her main problem is not having enough time to reach Fairfax's 245,000 registered voters.
With only 11 days of campaigning left, Watts says she's not going to change her quiet style. "I'm running against a very flamboyant man. There is no way I can out-flamboyant him," Watts said.
So, instead of throwing insults at Herrity, Watts tells the small audiences who've listened to her in high school auditoriums across the county that Herrity's flameboyance creates more problems than it solves.
"Herrity tends to drive wedges between groups. He sets people against each other," Watts said, referring to te board chairman's participation in a suit that failed last year to stop the federal government from building subsidized housing in the Springfield area of the county.
Watts claims that Herrity's approach to regional water, transportation and sewer problems is to "slam his fist on the table and threaten to sue." She claims the issues require study and conciliation.
For his part, Herrity says many local governmental problems require belligerence. He participated in the unsuccessful lawsuit that tried to keep the federal government from building subsidized housing in an area that Herrity claimed already had enough low-cost housing. Herrity threatened a lawsuit against the Army Corp of Engineers before Fairfax was granted the right to take water from the Potomac River.
"Sometimes you have to hit a mule over the head to get its attention," said Herrity.
Herrity, 47, a lawyer, who gave up practicing law to sell insurance out of his Springfield home, is completing his first four-year term as board chairman, the county's top elected position. Before that he served one term as supervisor from the Springfield District.
Watts claims that Herrity -- who only has one vote and who can only lead the other eight by persuasiveness -- makes a fundamental mistake by trying to push his colleagues around.
"Hitting the mule over the head is not the way to be effective on the board when the chairman is an equal among equals," Watts said. She said the chairman should try to create a consensus on controversial issues, not drive the supervisors apart.
Herrity has been criticized during the last year by both Republican and Democratic supervisors for "grandstanding" during board meetings.
In a county of 406 square miles and nearly 600,000 people, Watts says she's had serious problems in raising the money needed to make her name and her beliefs known. So far, she says her campaign has raised about $20,000.
Herrity's campaign people will not disclose exactly how much the board chairman has raised, saying only that their goals is to raise between $35.00 and $50,000.
Campaign finance reports are due to be filed next Monday.