Virginia Del. Warren E. Barry, a six-term Republican from southeast Fairfax County's 52nd District, summed up the general sentiment about his race: "The apathy is astounding. There is a frenzy of apathy," he said, spouting one-liners more like Henny Youngman than the House of Delegate's minority whip.
A combination of early confusion about redistricting, state-wide races, concern over national issues and recession economics that have families more worried about making ends meet than about being politically active, has led to what Barry called "a campaign season with steam but no sparks."
Despite the apparent lack of voter enthusiasm, Barry said the candidates "have a different attitude." They are Republicans -- Barry, 48; Frank Medico, 57, and B.K. Partin, 55 -- and Democrats -- incumbent Gladys B. Keating, 58; Brendan P. O'Hara, 24, and David L. Temple Jr.
In the tradition of Northern Virginia politics, they have gone to candidates' nights where only eight people showed up, walked miles door-to-door, appeared at shopping centers. Now, as their campaigns enter the final days, phone banks have been cranked to their peaks and last-minute campaign literature is being mailed.
The 52nd is in the southeast part of the county, just below Alexandria. It encompasses the modest tract housing of Springfield and the urbanized and blighted Rte. 1 corridor, Fort Belvoir and the boot-shaped penninsula that is Lorton, the county's rural frontier where two lane blacktop roads lead past aging farmhouses and $300,000 riverfront homes.
Since it holds a cross section of Northern Virginia voters, the rich and the poor, government bureaucrats, military people and blue collar workers, the district is a microcosmic lesson of politics, 1981-style, said Robert Hawkes, dean of the division of continuing education at George Mason University and professor of political history.
The area's voters, Hawkes said, are more concerned about U.S. vulnerability to Soviet attack than about issues closer to home. "It is an incredible irony," Hawkes said, "that Jefferson and others predicted that the best government was government closest to the people, and that people's interest would be focused on local elections. But now we are seeing just the opposite. National issues and Reagan's policices are being interjected . . . Everybody's trying to see who can be the most conservative."
Democrat Temple, principal of the Lincolnia Center School, said he agreed that the candidates are running conservative campaigns. He too, attributes it to apathy.
"Because the community is sitting silent and not giving the candidates some idea of where they are, the candidates are diving under for fear of alienating the community." The candidates "are scared to stand out and shake the tree of apathy for fear of appearing controversial," said Temple, who ran unsuccessfully for delegate last year. "It's a very vicious cycle."
What has resulted, the candidates agree, has been a tame, gentlemanly race. The candidates even got together after the primary and agreed to stop their "poster war," and limit the placement of their campaign signs to strictly legal spots.
Incumbents have in general rested on their laurels and challengers have stuck to the issues of crime, roads, education, taxes and getting a fair share of the Virginia budget pie for the people of Northern Virginia. What voters will see -- if they choose to see at all -- is six different sets of credentials.
Barry has served in the House for 12 years and is a member of the Governor's Legislative Steering Committee. Last session, he worked successfully to raise the age at which beer can be bought in grocery stores from 18 to 19 in Virginia and has been the chief patron of 208 bills and a copatron of 521. He has never missed one of the 635 legislative days. "People may not always agree with the way I vote," he said, "but I'm always there."
Medico, a newcomer who surprisingly came in first in the Republican primary, is an accountant and retired assistant director of the U.S. General Accounting Office.
Partin is a retired Air Force brigadier general who once worked as an aide to the conservative headmaster of Fairfax Christain School, Robert Thoburn, in seeking to overturn legislation that required Christain day care centers to be licenced. Thoburn, a former delegate, was defeated in an attempted comeback.
Keating, a two-term incumbent, is the only woman in the race. She sits on the Corporations, Insurance and Banking, the Counties, Cities and Towns and the Militia and Police committees. She stresses her varied experience not only as a legislator, but as a member of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, a former library board member and the organizer of a girl's softball team. "I'm with the people, and that same energy has been channeled into being a legislator."
Temple has gotten strong support from area teachers. He stresses education and the ERA, and, as the only black in the race, said "a handful of black legislators have been able to command attention politically to themselves and areas with large black populations, because the blacks are able to untie and put pressure on local legislators . . . I have the potential for directly affecting either the positive or negative outcome of meaningful legislation."
O'Hara, the youngest person in the race, is the son of former liberal Michigan congressman James O'Hara. Last year, he worked on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's presidential campaign.