Ernest J. Berger grows all types of vegetables and flowers in his McLean back yard, but one crop dominates the well-groomed garden: two dozen Hungarian hot pepper plants.
It's a fitting image for the conservative Fairfax County supervisor. Since being elected three years ago, Berger has spiced the County Board with an in-your-face, ambitious style that, to the dismay of Democrats and even some of his fellow Republicans, has put him in position to contend for the board's chairmanship.
Betting Board Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R) will oust Rep. Leslie L. Byrne (D-Va.) this fall, Berger has cultivated enough support among business leaders to raise nearly $90,000 for a run at the chairmanship.
In doing so, Berger, 62, has angered board colleagues who agreed not to campaign for Davis's seat until it is certain the chairman will leave.
In recent months, Berger has sought the spotlight, brashly -- critics say clumsily -- thrusting himself into many of the county's most contentious issues. He was the chief booster of a failed effort to save money by having a private company maintain school buses and has aggressively pushed for a Christian activist to be appointed to the Library Board so a gay newspaper could be banned from Fairfax County libraries.
Berger, who represents Dranesville, has become the favorite of some conservatives, who back his efforts to slash county spending and ease restrictions on developers.
"The county always needs watchdogs to make sure the money is being spent in the best possible way," said Donald deLaski, of Great Falls, chief executive officer of a Tysons Corner software company. DeLaski and his wife have given Berger more than $1,500 in recent years. "Berger is a hard worker, and there is nothing wrong with trying to run the county like one would run a private business," deLaski said.
But to critics, including several of his Republican colleagues, Berger has become a GOP version of former Fairfax board chairman Audrey Moore, whose abrasive style created a backlash among residents and government officials that sunk her proposals and drove her from office. They say Berger's tendency to be uncompromising and point fingers when his initiatives fail indicates he would be a poor board leader.
"He has created this situation where he does not have the ability to build a coalition within the Republican majority of the board, let alone the entire board," said Supervisor Robert B. Dix Jr. (R-Hunter Mill), who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Davis.
Some critics say Berger's fuming over the failed bus contract embarrassed the county. He accused County Executive William J. Leidinger, other county officials and unions of collaborating to make sure a Florida-based company could not keep up with school bus maintenance schedules.
"A lot of people are just afraid of crossing Ernie," said one Republican supervisor, who asked not to be identified so as to avoid triggering a public fight with Berger. "He has a serious temper problem. You have to be constructive, not just bash, bash, bash all the time."
But Berger said part of his agenda is never having to say you're sorry. Berger, whose hero is Ronald Reagan, believes most of Fairfax's 845,000 residents like his style and what he stands for.
"I am not apologizing for what I have done," Berger said. "I have cast myself as an absolute bulldog on watching the budget and making absolutely sure we get the biggest bang for the buck. And that is just what county residents want."
Berger has been active in politics since 1959, when he worked on John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in West Virginia, his home state. But he didn't run for public office until 1991, when he defeated incumbent Democrat Lilla D. Richards for the Dranesville supervisor's seat.
The son of a Belgian-American family in which all the men were glass cutters and Democrats, Berger said he became a Republican in 1963 after deciding the best kind of government was one that stayed out of people's lives.
"Often, government is not the solution; it is the problem," he said. "I don't think the county should be providing services that private industry can do better and for less money."
Berger worked in the corporate world for 31 years, most of that time for the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. in Northern Virginia. He was president of his local Rotary club; a director of the Arlington, Prince William and Fairfax County chambers of commerce; and president of the McLean Orchestra.
After leaving C&P, Berger worked for four years at George Mason University, where he helped to plan a multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign.
Along the way, Berger developed dozens of contacts in Northern Virginia's business community. Such relationships have served him well in politics. Berger has proved to be a master fund-raiser, attracting so much money during his 1991 campaign that he donated some of it to fellow Republicans to help them retire their debts.
Some of Berger's most regular contributors are restaurant owners, many of whom say they support him because two years ago he voted against placing a 4 percent meal tax on a countywide ballot. Supervisors put the measure on the ballot, but county voters rejected it.
Two months after Berger's vote against the meal tax, he held a 60th birthday party and fund-raiser, with $1,600 in food donated by restaurants, such as Chesapeake Bay Seafood House and J.R.'s Steak House. Berger raised about $10,000 at the event, with several of the donations coming from restaurant owners. One restaurant, Fritzbe's, of Annandale, even named a sandwich after him: the Ernie Berger, a blackened chicken breast with Cajun spices.
His corporate ties have led to criticism that Berger sometimes tries to return favors in his role as a board member. The day after attending a Johnny Mathis concert in 1992 at Wolf Trap Farm Park with his wife, courtesy of Virginia Power, Berger persuaded county supervisors to drop a planned court appeal of a power company rate case. Berger said supervisors are constantly being invited to events by corporations and other groups and are expected to attend.
"He has been faithful to the people who helped put him in office, the developers and corporate types, and sees to it that they get what they want," said William J. Byrnes, a Democrat who is president of the McLean Citizens Association. "But he has not done an awfully good job for the ordinary citizens of Dranesville."
Berger has been blasted in recent weeks by residents in his district for not being quicker to oppose efforts by an office complex to expand near a residential area.
Berger's commitment to reducing the size of the county government has drawn him the most attention. In the last two years, he has proposed a long list of budget cuts, with each one quickly being shot down -- or not even seconded -- by fellow board members.
"I think he has an unrealistic idea of what's involved in providing the necessary services to the citizens of Fairfax County," Dix said.
In 1993, Berger proposed $10.6 million in cuts, including eliminating the Department of Community Action, whose services he thought were redundant; 10 of the county's 11 urban foresters; and Fairfax's archaeological office, which he said spends its time digging up 50-year-old pots and piecing them together with Elmer's glue. (The archaeologists have done digs of areas once inhabited by American Indians, said Jack L. Hiller, chairman of the Fairfax County History Commission.)
Berger also angered many county officials last year when he wrote a memo to Leidinger suggesting that 63-year-old Deputy County Executive Richard A. King, who makes about $115,000 a year, should retire. King oversees public safety operations.
"He gets paid $115,000 to come in at 9 a.m., get a cup of coffee, read the newspaper from front to end, and every once in a while, he has to walk down the hall to the bathroom," Berger said.
King and Leidinger declined to comment on Berger's remarks.
Berger said that any criticism of him is merely politics and that Dix and several other board members are talking about running for the chairman's job if Davis is elected to Congress. He said he learned from his hero, Reagan, that he must be unwavering in pursuing his goals.
"You never had to question where Reagan was coming from," Berger said. "... He was never testing the wind to see which way the willows were leaning."
Staff writer Robert O'Harrow Jr. contributed to this report.