When Loudoun County Supervisor Frank Raflo went before the Virginia Association of Counties to accept its presidency, most in the audience were probably expecting the usual speech: "I appreciate your support, I'll be counting on your help, thank you very much."
Not Frank Raflo.
He stepped onto the podium, filled two glasses with water and balanced one atop the other, proclaiming, "This is VACO. Unmoving. Still. Inert."
And with that, he swatted the glasses, sending them flying off the podium, splashing water on the people in the front row, creating an uproar.
"Now look!" he said triumphantly. "Waiters are rushing in from the wings with towels. Women are wet, brushing at their dresses. VACO is moving again, there is activity. We're going to get attention."
It was not a typical Virginia political speech, but then Raflo, who has embodied politics in Loudoun County for nearly 30 years and is chairman of its Board of Supervisors this year, is not the usual suburban politician.
A liberal Democrat, Raflo, 65, is by his own account an anomaly in a conservative, increasingly Republican county where horse-country gentry and gentlemen farmers are just beginning to share their power with the suburban homeowners who live around Dulles International Airport.
It has been several years since Raflo knocked the glasses into the audience, but he has lost none of his ability to call attention to himself and his ideas.
"I've gotten to the point where they expect me to do something more than just speak," he explained. "You try to do a little show to get people's attention. That's what political life is all about. It's a selling process, being able to market your philosophy like a can of soup. A lot of good ideas die because nobody listens to them."
And from the way he dresses -- frequently olive plaid pants and a pale blue plaid tam-o'-shanter with a red pompon bobbing atop -- to the way he talks, Frank Raflo is a difficult man to ignore.
"My great-grandfather was a Russian rabbi," he tells a visitor. "My wife's great-grandmother was an American Indian, and my son sang in the Baptist choir, and if that isn't ecumenical enough for you that's the best I can do."
The line, he admits, is old, and not even exactly true if you want to dwell on details, but like so much of his formula for political success, it gets people to stop a minute and listen, if only to figure out what to make of this man who keeps twirling his Phi Beta Kappa key and unfurling his opinions.
"Some people have a lot of thoughts that they keep to themselves," said state Del. Kenneth B. Rollins (R-Loudoun), a longtime political nemesis of Raflo, who defeated Raflo for mayor of Leesburg in 1963. "Frank wants you and me to have the benefit of his brainpower. He's got an opinion on everything, be it informed or uninformed."
But because of Raflo's attention to detail and knowledge of Loudoun, he has made himself an important force in Northern Virginia politics. When state officials believed that Loudoun County officials would do anything to get the much-touted Center for Innovative Technology near Dulles, they forgot that Raflo would be one of the first to insist that the state promise better roads for the area in return.
"Frank's worth three votes on the board -- his own and two others -- on any given issue," says Steven Stockman, a conservative supervisor who clashes frequently with Raflo on land-use issues. "He puts in a lot of time and effort, and he knows what he wants to accomplish."
As chairman this year of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, Raflo is at the peak of his political career, which is to say his entire career, since Raflo professes that nearly everything he does is an extension of local politics.
Raflo and Loudoun have grown up together. When he was born above his parents' discount general store on Leesburg's then-unpaved Main Street, the county's population hovered around 20,000, as it had for nearly 100 years.
Then, in the 1960s, development gained a bridgehead in a section of eastern Loudoun just north of Dulles and the county's population exploded, doubling by the 1970s and nearing the 70,000 mark today.
Predictably, that growth -- where it should be channeled, how fast it should come, and how it should be orchestrated -- has become the key political issue in Loudoun.
Raflo is identified as an advocate of slow growth, which he prefers to call "controlled" growth, but not because of routine votes or his support of the county's often convoluted land ordinances.
Raflo's fame stems from his "cheese speech," a characteristic bit of hucksterism that has annoyed his opponents and attracted attention for years.
In the speech, Raflo takes a cleaver and a block of Swiss cheese up to the podium and, narrating all the while, hacks it into four chunks, then eight, then 16, then hundreds, as more and more hypothetical people want to share the food.
Soon there are cheese slivers everywhere, all over the floor, and Raflo proclaims to a bemused audience: "My bottom line is that finally nobody will taste any cheese, and that's what affordability is all about. If 500 people move into western Loudoun County, nobody's going to enjoy anything. That's not saying no to everything, just trying to figure out how many people you can afford so everybody still gets something."
The cheese speech is typical of Raflo's histrionics. He hangs Wrangler jeans from a high school lectern, not to make any special point, he explains, but to get the students' attention. He fills supermarket carts with consultants' reports to illustrate their worthlessness. He stands on stepladders to display stacks of county ordinances.
Occasionally, he acknowledges, his message gets lost in the medium.
To his critics and political foes, Raflo's knack for generating publicity is sometimes irritating.
"I'm a buttinsky," acknowledges Raflo. "I stick my nose in where others fear to tread."
But even if they wince at the mention of his name, Raflo's opponents also agree that he always is well prepared, and spends more time and energy doing spadework on issues than most supervisors.
Adding to his advantage over rivals is the amount of time he is able to devote to politicking in the county. Raflo is self-employed and supplements the $10,000 he receives as board chairman by publishing a monthly newspaper called The Public Pamphlet, as well as tourist-oriented brochures and guides. A sign on his office door reads: "Frank Raflo, Public Writer."
Even The Public Pamphlet, Raflo concedes, is an extension of politics for him; it features good news only, sunny sketches of local just-plain-folks, the sort of stuff that goes down easy. He sells the advertisements, takes and develops the photographs, writes the copy, and delivers hundreds of copies of the green-sheeted tabloid himself.
Defining what Raflo wants to accomplish is no simple task, however. Raflo has supported many traditionally Democratic goals: programs for the poor, the sick, the elderly. He calls himself "a layman's expert" on the deinstitutionalization of mental patients, and has concentrated on the issue of mental health.
He maintains that he spends money on people, not things, and that he is suspicious of consultants' reports and computer systems and the "infrastructure." He calls himself a fiscal conservative, which is a popular label in Loudoun, where fast-rising taxes and property assessments are a source of discontent.
But others find the conservative tag a misrepresentation and an example of what they see as Raflo's chameleon-like political image.
"He promotes fiscal conservatism, yet he spends money like it's going out of style," said one citizen active in the local taxpayers alliance who asked not to be identified. "He's very good with the minorities, but he has no qualms at all about raising the tax rate, which is hard on them. He somehow manages to pull the wool over people's eyes."
Raflo's one-year term as chairman expires at the end of 1985, after which he will remain supervisor from the Leesburg District. He has heart problems, he said, and will not indicate whether he intends to run for the board again in 1987. Before the 1983 election, he said, he consulted three doctors about whether to run for his fourth four-year term on the board.
"One said, 'Yes,' one said, 'No,' and one said, 'It doesn't make any difference,' " he recalled. "So I figured the vote was 2 to 1."