It was early spring in 1986, and John F. Herrity was thinking it might be nice to go to Richmond.

Not to visit or to lobby; he'd done that so often he was tired of it. Besides, he had been informed that his blunt talk and brusque manner had done more harm than good with the courtly lawmakers who hold power in the capital of the Old Confederacy.

No, Herrity was thinking he'd like to go to Richmond to take up residence there. He was thinking he'd like to be governor.

This is not ancient history, but it might as well be.

In the aftermath of a second straight Democratic sweep of statewide offices two years ago, a few GOP officials, looking for new leadership, glanced north to Fairfax County, where Herrity was marking his 10th anniversary as chairman of the county's Board of Supervisors. They saw a tough-talking Irish pol who had overcome three heart attacks in office, attracting rave press notices and the sympathy of his 700,000 constituents by jogging his way back to good health. They saw a leader who had helped supercharge Virginia's most dynamic local economy, producing tens of thousands of new jobs and luring some of America's most prestigious corporations.

Today, eight days before the Nov. 3 election for county board chairman, the 55-year-old Herrity is struggling to keep his job, and thoughts of a gubernatorial bid have faded. Stung by a misdemeanor conviction stemming from a state disclosure law violation last year, embarrassed by reports of his driving infractions and politically damaged by his alliance with real estate developers, Herrity trails in the polls behind his longtime antagonist and chief rival for the county's top elected position, Democratic Supervisor Audrey Moore of Annandale.

Also seeking the chairmanship are independents James S. Morris Jr. and R. Terry Robarge. Political observers say they are not expected to be a major factor in the race.

After a 16-year winning streak in local politics, Herrity, who prides himself on being a winner, who says he hates to lose even at marbles, is running at full throttle in his toughest reelection campaign. Polls show he has been gaining and many analysts expect the vote to be close.

What is at stake for Herrity is more than a $35,000-a-year, part-time post that carries no executive duties and just one vote on the county's nine-member Board of Supervisors. The real prize is a job that Herrity, the fourth county chairman but the only one to serve a full term, has single-handedly defined and one that defines him completely. In the view of many of his longtime supporters, Herrity is almost literally running for his life.

"The job is 98 percent of his life," said William J. Madden Jr., a circumspect Washington lawyer who is Herrity's campaign chairman and one of his closest political advisers. "It's hard to sit down and discuss football or family or hobbies with him. All he wants to do is talk about local problems, local politics, how to put together an answer to the problems."

Said Herrity: "I've spent a good part of my life, including three heart attacks, building what I consider to be a great place to live and work. I frankly don't want to see it screwed up."

That proud vision -- of Fairfax's fragile prosperity, nurtured by responsible government and now threatened by someone he dislikes and regards as an imprudent, meddlesome flake -- is a reflection of Herrity's political outlook and upbringing, according to many who know him well.

Born in Arlington and brought up in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, Herrity is the eldest son of a working-class Irish Catholic family, of two generations of Herrity men who built and repaired elevators.

The Herritys were men of labor, union officials, rock-solid Democrats who believed in hard work and getting ahead and in parochial schools for their children.

Herrity grew up in Prince George's County's Green Meadows neighborhood, just over the District line west of Hyattsville, and attended St. Anthony's High School (now All Saints High School) in Northeast Washington's Brookland neighborhood, where he muddled through classes and starred on the basketball team. Summers, he worked as an elevator mechanic's helper, trying in vain to learn his family's trade, and hitched rides into the District to catch pickup games at Turkey Thicket playground in Brookland.

Graceful on the basketball court and scrappy off it, Herrity barely graduated from St. Anthony's, he recalled. A few months later, during the Korean War, he enlisted in the Coast Guard. He was 17 years old, had never been away from home and was, by his own description, "not exactly stoic, to say the least."

The Coast Guard apparently agreed: For the next few years Herrity had an up-and-down career, marked by mischief and melees, discipline and visits to what Herrity affectionately calls "the pokey."

By the time he left the service with an honorable discharge, Herrity was better-read, more mature and ready to get on with his education. He returned home, breezed through Georgetown University, where he was captain of the baseball team, and Georgetown law school, attending classes day and night. He met his future wife Justine in 1957, married her in 1958 and graduated from law school in 1959.

"The fact that Herrity grew up in a working class background and fought his way up through the ranks {means} he's seen how hard it is to get on top," said one developer who asked not to be identified. "Probably, in his mind when he looks at what Fairfax County has accomplished, he sees it as sort of a miracle, an indication that the system works, but also that it's something that was very hard to create, that is very fragile and that could easily go away. That's what makes Jack so much more appealing to people who are in business and do have to manage risk on a day-to-day basis."

After practicing law briefly and holding a number of insurance jobs, Herrity and his young family bought a house in Springfield's Rolling Valley neighborhood for $27,000 -- a modest, two-story home without central air-conditioning. The Herritys still live there.

True to his political roots, he became a Democratic precinct captain in the late 1960s and founded a civic association in his Rolling Valley neighborhood.

A few years later, however, he joined many other southern Democrats who abandoned the party, which they thought too liberal, and joined the GOP. "I was born in Virginia, and a Virginia Democrat is conservative," Herrity said recently. "I joined the Democratic Party when it was fairly conservative, and when it became part of the national Democratic machine of McGovern and that ilk, I took off."

Just months after he switched parties in 1971, he ran for supervisor from southwestern Fairfax's Springfield District and won a seat on the county board.

As the only Republican among eight Democrats, Herrity delighted in playing to the galleries and tweaking his colleagues: forcing them to vote on his proposal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (he won on a split vote); arguing against placing a student on the School Board as a voting member; and later hauling a portable toilet into the board chambers to prove a point about sewage treatment, a display denounced by one of colleagues as "disgusting." "I was hell on wheels," Herrity said in an interview last year.

In 1975, tired of battling the Democrats and what he considered their pie-in-the-sky notion that the county could shut the door on market forces and population growth, he ran for the board chairmanship and won with a little more than 51 percent of the vote.

Quickly, Herrity and the board's new probusiness majority reversed the county's direction. Instead of fighting developers in court, as Fairfax had done for several years, the county undertook a massive economic development program designed to attract businesses, new employment and new tax revenue. To Herrity, it was the only sensible approach to providing the funding the county needed to build new schools and sewers and parks.

The board chairmanship and Herrity soon became synonymous in the minds of many county residents. Part of the reason was Herrity's knack for the outrageous quotation; part of it was the sheer vitality that he brought to the job.

To Herrity, a request for sharply higher school funding in 1982 was "the biggest slop bucket I've ever seen"; federal investigators looking into an alleged pattern of race and sex discrimination in hiring by the county government were "shysters" on a "fishing expedition"; a state highway commissioner who didn't see things the county's way was a "dictator"; a low-cost-housing proposal would create a "ghetto" in the suburbs. As for a proposal to build a new government center to replace the one the county had outgrown, Herrity said: "As far as I'm concerned, we can build a circus tent and put the bureaucrats in it."

At the same time, the chairman was everywhere, a familiar sight jogging around Springfield with his fringe of golden hair and size 13 sneakers, showing up to speak to every civic and neighborhood group that invited him to its functions -- and more than a few that did not.

With a combination of fierce parochial pride and uncanny political instincts, Herrity made every issue his own, and harked back to a few favorites -- such as the District's management of the Lorton Reformatory in Fairfax, which he considers inept -- whenever the opportunity arrived. He seemed to regard other jurisdictions, including those that share borders with Fairfax, with scorn and condescension. When Virginia officials were considering locating a new high-technology center in Prince William County, Herrity derided the idea, likening it to opening "a ski resort in the Sahara." Asked about Washington once, Herrity responded that he only went there "when I have to."

The effect of Herrity's strident public persona was to establish a fledgling identity, if still indistinct, for a 399-square-mile county whose extremes of wealth and poverty, urban and rural areas, older and newer neighborhoods in the past eluded even the appearance of unity.

"People liked him kicking Lorton in the teeth," said Marc Bettius, a prominent zoning lawyer in Fairfax. "They liked that bulldog in him."

A solid conservative, Herrity has consistently opposed the nation's agenda of social change. He voted against county board resolutions supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and affirmative action and against establishing a county human rights commission. Nonetheless, he insists that his creed is fundamentally nonideological: "to get potholes fixed, as quickly and inexpensively as possible."

As Herrity's standing has grown and his policies of encouraging commercial development have taken effect, he has forged a political alliance with the development industry and others in the county's thriving business community, who saw that the chairman was good for business.

For some citizens groups, Herrity's ties to the county's developers have been unsettling; some say he has become arrogant in office. "When the developers go before him at public hearings, he greets them warmly and very graciously," said Thomas B. (Bo) White Jr., a former president of the Fairfax Federation of Citizens Associations. "Then when the citizens get up to speak, he's very abrupt and he ignores you."

Herrity said that he never changed his views and that what is good for business leaders and developers has been good for the county as well. That is a position that most in the business community agree with and have supported with large donations and fundraising efforts for his campaigns, including the current race.

"Jack has sold well in corporate headquarters for 15 years," said Francis A. McDermott, one of Northern Virginia's leading land-use lawyers. "He's got a business community orientation and that's his basic value system."

But the progrowth consensus that Herrity worked so hard to build seems to have eroded in the last two years as the county's commercial development has outpaced that of the District and every other locality in the Washington area, according to most observers in Fairfax.

When Herrity was accused last year of failing to disclose his business partnership with a developer before voting on the developer's land-use application, it appeared to cement many voters' impression of him as in league with Fairfax's powerful real estate interest. In 1977, Herrity sold $500,000 in life insurance to a pair of developers shortly before voting for their application to build an office building at Tysons Corner. Herrity has declined to supply reporters with the names of his other insurance clients, citing the confidentiality of the agent-client relationship. He says he does not sell insurance to firms that do business with the county.

Herrity is acutely sensitive to the perception that he is controlled by developers, an image that polls show has damaged him politically.

"There's a lot of feeling out there that Jack Herrity is in the pocket of developers," he said. "If that was the case, then why the hell do I live in the same house I've lived in for 20 years, drive the same car as I always have? Why isn't my wife whipping around in mink coats, why do I have almost no money in the bank? . . . That's not a picture of someone who's in the developers' pocket or running around making a lot of money on land deals . . . . "

Herrity has told friends and advisers that he thinks his current standing in the polls is a reflection of his misdemeanor conviction and traffic infractions. He has had seven traffic convictions since 1985 for infractions including speeding, losing control of his car and running a red light.

His legal problems aside, several of his advisers and other analysts argue that the county's tumultuous growth and tens of thousands of new voters would have posed a political threat to Herrity in any event.

Some of Herrity's allies are also concerned that voters may turn him out of office simply because they want a change. They worry that Herrity, with his rough-hewn style of speech and attire, may strike some voters as yesterday's man, out of step with the new Fairfax County of high-technology corporations and expense-account-priced restaurants.

Despite his first-rate education, said Joseph Ragan, a friend and adviser to Herrity for 20 years, "He comes across as a blue-collar person. Some people love him for that because he's real, he's a man's man, he doesn't put on any airs, he's not a plastic person . . . . But women don't like him -- they're less forgiving of that lack of polish."

Said Madden, Herrity's campaign chairman: "He's a pragmatist and he's a realist. He doesn't pretend to have charisma, doesn't pretend to be a visionary for mankind on any large scale . . . . He's somebody who has all the brains and the wits but not necessarily the polish or the grace." JOHN HERRITY

Date of Birth: Jan. 23, 1932, Arlington.

Education: Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, B.S. 1957; Georgetown University Law School, L.L.B. 1959; Georgetown University Graduate Law School, L.L.M. 1965.

Military: U.S. Coast Guard.

Family: Married Justine Margaret Kratz, a teacher, 1958; children: Patrick, 27; John, 26; Tom, 25; Tim, 24, and Mary Beth, 23.

Career: Lawyer, National Labor Relations Board, early 1960s, and for various insurance companies; owner, Jack Herrity & Associates, pension planning and insurance, and general agent for U.S. Life Insurance Co., 1969-present; Springfield District Supervisor, 1972-76; chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, 1976-present.

Citations: Washingtonian of the Year, 1981; Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year, 1985; Outstanding Community Service Award, American Heart Association.