In an article Wednesday on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors race in the Mason District, total contributions to Penelope A. "Penny" Gross's campaign were incorrectly reported. Gross tallied $72,898 in contributions in the most recent campaign finance report. (Published 10/15/1999)
Tina Trapnell, a candidate for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, wasn't getting many takers for her brochures at Westlawn Super Market near Seven Corners, where shoppers were more likely to be non-English-speaking immigrants than longtime Virginians.
But then the former supervisor, a Republican who is challenging incumbent Democrat Penelope A. Gross, encountered the type of voter who may hold the key to victory in November.
Karen Lamb grabbed Trapnell and complained that her neighborhood was being threatened by an influx of Hispanic and Asian transplants. The newcomers, she said, ignore local zoning regulations by piling multiple families into the area's Cape Cods, and Gross won't do anything about it.
"Penny wants us to embrace diversity," Lamb said. "It's a wonderful idea until you have to live next to a house with 20 people living in it. I don't mind change, but not at the expense of our quality of life."
Much of the section of Fairfax -- the Mason District -- that Gross and Trapnell are fighting to represent was originally settled by residents who moved out of the District of Columbia in the 1940s and into homes on winding streets hugging the boundaries of Arlington and Alexandria.
Now the area comprises some of the county's oldest sections, stretching along Route 7 and Columbia Pike. Housing runs the gamut, from expensive spreads along the shores of Lake Barcroft, to leafy lots with 40-year-old split levels, to low-rent garden apartments.
In the past decade, a surge of immigration has created enclaves of ethnic minorities and sometimes flared tensions, as recent arrivals from countries ranging from Bosnia to Cambodia live side by side with aging original settlers.
Now those tensions are surfacing as an election issue, a reflection of the county's changing face.
Fairfax has changed racially and ethnically. The county was 86 percent white in 1980 and is about 67 percent white today. Over the same period, the proportion of Asian and Hispanic residents has quadrupled.
Demographic changes have been particularly dramatic around Baileys Crossroads, at the heart of the Mason District, where the latest estimates are that 55 percent of the residents are nonwhite.
This district is also where Republicans believe they stand the best chance of dissolving the Democratic control of the county government.
Democrats hold a 6 to 4 majority on the Board of Supervisors, and Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D), the only board member elected countywide, has no strong opponent. Unlike Maryland, where county governments are led by an elected executive, Fairfax and other Virginia counties are fully controlled by their boards, which appoint the executives.
A win by Trapnell wouldn't change the chairmanship, but it would create a 5 to 5 party deadlock, assuming the GOP holds its other seats.
"It will be another way to take control," said Fairfax County Republican Chairman Joseph Underwood. "With a deadlock, Kate [Hanley] would have to build a consensus on the board, and that means Kate will be forced to make accommodations" to Republican members. The biggest decision facing the new board will be choosing a county executive to succeed Robert J. O'Neill Jr., who is resigning.
In the Mason District, the prickly relations between longtime residents and immigrant newcomers have forced both candidates to respond.
When approached by Lamb, Trapnell promised that she would be more responsive than Gross has been, and she noted her campaign pledge to work for prompt response to complaints about zoning violations.
"We're told [by county officials] that their hands are tied and they can't do anything about it," Lamb told Trapnell as they stood outside the grocery store next to a Vietnamese beef soup restaurant. "I think that's baloney."
"I'll never tell you that," Trapnell assured Lamb.
Dorothy Newman, 79, who has lived in West Lawn since 1960, said she welcomed Trapnell's bid to regain the office she held from 1992 to 1995.
"I think that Tina Trapnell could do a better job," said Newman, a "staunch" Republican who says she believes her neighborhood has been declining. "It was a lot better when [Trapnell] was around."
In a speech before the Mason chapter of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees, Trapnell drew approving nods from some in the audience when she said she would require English immersion programs in schools.
"We know that we have a large population that is coming from other lands," Trapnell said. "It is through education and economic opportunity that they can become part of the mainstream instead of remaining on the outside."
Referring to recent debate about Korean merchants in Annandale who put up store signs written only in Korean, she added, "This is a wonderful land of opportunity, and sensitivity works both ways."
"I have told the members of the Korean community I believe that the signs should be in English also," Trapnell said in an interview later. "They may reach a broader market, and as I've said before, retaining cultural identity is very important, but so is becoming an American."
Gross, who says her polls show her with a "substantial" lead, accused Trapnell of fueling divisiveness.
"I am troubled by the amount of animosity by some in the community about `those people,' " Gross said. "One of the things I hear at civic association meetings is a concern that folks who are moving in don't have the same appreciation as those who are moving out. I'm not sure that's the case."
Some longtime residents, who spoke on the condition that their names not be used, said the neighborhood has more noise, traffic and crime, which they attribute to the influx of immigrants. In West Lawn, many of the new residents live with extended families, increasing the number of cars and parking problems, they say.
Gross said these residents are not breaking the law, which restricts the number of unrelated people -- but not relatives -- who can live in one house. For their part, some recent arrivals in the neighborhood said they are hard-working families who resent being singled out.
"When people don't make enough money, you have to live together," said Maria Ramos, a short-order cook who lives in a two-bedroom Baileys Crossroads apartment with her husband, her four children, her uncle and his two children.
Ramos, an immigrant from El Salvador whose family moved to the area six months ago, said relations with her neighbors have been strained from the beginning. "They complain all the time. We can't even send our kids out to play," she said. "It's been very difficult."
A 30-year-old construction worker from Mexico who declined to give his name said he struggles to pay rent for the one-bedroom apartment where he lives with his wife and four children.
"Because the salary is so low and I don't have any skills, it's been more difficult to find housing," the man said, adding that he may move into an apartment with another family. "If they didn't allow us to share, it would make it very difficult for us."
Gross defended her position on housing issues and her record in dealing with resident complaints.
Trapnell "has accused us of not doing enough about zoning," Gross said. "She is wrong. We have a tremendous amount of suspected violations, and we turn them over to county officials, but some things, like families living together, are not illegal."
But Trapnell said that the complaints have been increasing in recent years and that they need to be addressed rather than "just throwing up your hands and saying nothing can be done."
She denies that she is encouraging divisiveness in the community.
"I don't want to target anyone, and I certainly don't want to discriminate against anyone, but there are some situations, whether cultural or not, that are just against the law," Trapnell said. "I believe in education and acculturation so we can all live together. That's not being divisive."
Some political activists say that many voters may interpret Trapnell's tactics as being just that. Many of the 12,000 new voters in the district are likely to be foreign born, say activists, and they could snub Trapnell at the polls.
Sang Park, acting executive director of Advocates for the Rights of Korean Americans, said recent voter registration drives among a host of immigrant groups have helped to increase the roll of immigrant voters.
"If you look at voter registration in recent years, the majority will be recently naturalized U.S. citizens," Park said. "I don't think they would vote for a position that would have a chilling impact on immigrants."
Meanwhile, the GOP is going all out in the Mason District, calculating that Gross's razor-thin 327-vote victory in 1995 means she is vulnerable.
Last week, the national House Republican Campaign Committee, chaired by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), directed $10,000 to Trapnell's campaign, which had already surpassed Gross's fund-raising take, $87,876 to $41,444, in the most recent campaign finance filing, Sept. 15.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.