Cincinnati has The Big Red Machine.
In Florida, it's the Gray Panthers.
But in Fairfax County, they speak of The Green Team. And they speak with respect. The Green Team is unbeaten, untied, unopposed. Politicians know it is unwise to cross The Green Team's path.
"I wouldn't want to get in the way of that steamroller," said John F. Herrity, chairman of the County Board of Supervisors.
The Green Team is the Fairfax citizens lobby for the park system. In a suburban jurisdiction like Fairfax County, where available open space dwindles with each new subdivision, the county's 14,000 acres of parks are a popular cause, and The Green Team is a powerful lobby.
The Green Team is now swinging into action to get out the vote for a $58 million bond referendum that will come before Fairfax voters Nov. 2. Its campaign is a small-scale case study in suburban politics. Tactical details are carefully considered: Voters are targeted, brochures drafted, slide shows prepared, newspaper ads and radio spots planned. The group's fund-raising drive is in high gear -- $1,500 has been promised or received so far, and $3,500 more is sought.
The parks have never lost a referendum, but The Green Team is taking no chances in this year of tight money. At a public hearing in June to determine the questions in the upcoming referendum, 44 of the 54 speakers stepped to the podium to plug parks. The other speakers quibbled about a road bond, a Metro bond and a proposed government center bond that did not make the ballot. Not one person spoke against the $58 million parks bond -- $50 million for county parks over seven years and $8 million for regional parks over five years -- and the supervisors voted unanimously to place it on the ballot.
Supervisor Nancy K. Falck of the Dranesville District said at an Aug. 2 board meeting that she wondered whether it is wise to have a bond referendum at all in the current economy. "But," Falck explained, casting her vote for the bond package, "I'm sure not going to be the one on this board who votes against the parks."
"Parks in this county have a lot of support," said Joseph P. Downs, the County Park Authority director. "Any elected official who campaigns against the parks -- there's some risk involved with that."
So now, with the supervisors' blessing, The Green Team is swinging into action, organizing a campaign to pursuade Fairfax voters to approve the referendum question at the polls. The group's political strength and style is, of course, grass roots.
With a steering committee already in place featuring a chairman, eight district chairmen and chairmen for finance, publicity and the speakers' bureau, The Green Team is rapidly recruiting 160 precinct captains (20 for each of the county's eight districts) to get out the vote.
Green Team members, characterized by the group's chairman as "primarily from middle-class America," include three former members of the park authority, three persons involved in area youth groups and a smattering of others with some interest in the park system. Employes of the park system, though they provide information and meeting space to The Green Team, say they are careful not to get involved in campaigning for their own bond.
The Green Team's principal strategy is to target the more densely populated parts of the county -- where people are believed to be sympathetic to parks--and to get the residents to the polls. The thinking is that voters in Fairfax's more sparsely developed western region are less likely to need parks or vote to borrow $58 million for them.
"We're not really going to change anybody's mind about parks," said Ellamae S. Doyle, The Green Team's chairman. "You just have to let your supporters know that the referendum is coming. It's very much like a political campaign. You get the enthusiasm up among those who you do know are your supporters."
The parks' natural constituency, Green Team members say, are young adults, senior citizens and all sorts of recreational groups -- especially athletic organizations. More than 25,000 young people play organized baseball in Fairfax, according to one estimate, and most of them play in the parks.
Doyle, a former chairman of the Fairfax County Park Authority, is The Green Team's workhorse and premier cheerleader. She says she plans to put in 30 hours a week until election day to make sure that the park bond is approved.
Doyle and The Green Team have history on their side. The latest park referendum, in 1977, called for $51 million over five years and was approved with a nearly 6,000-vote margin, or 10 percent of the votes cast. Park bond referendums in 1971 and 1966 were passed with even greater majorities.
The result has been the development of a large county park system, with an $11 million yearly operating budget, more than 600 employes and assets worth some $200 million. The county park system boasts three major lakes, four golf courses and three large recreation centers. About half the system's income comes from user fees and sales, and the other half comes from county taxes.
Despite the parks' popularity, the bond may face some unorganized opposition this fall. The county already has stockpiled $159 million in bonds that have been approved by the voters but remain unsold because of the floundering economy. Some of the bonds yet to be sold were approved in referendums in 1977. Doyle says voters may fear this is the wrong time for the county to become further indebted by authorizing the sale of millions of dollars in new bonds.
Still, most Green Team members and supervisors say the park bond will be very tough to beat this fall. "I didn't hear Mr. Herrity's comment about the steamroller," said Downs with a smile. "But I suspect he was referring to God, motherhood, apple pie, the American flag and parks."