Candidates for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisor’s Braddock District seat met in the first of 10 planned debates Wednesday night, offering competing views on matters involving all of Northern Virginia’s biggest jurisdiction and neighborhood minutiae.
More than 100 people overflowed a meeting room at the Braddock District office to observe the 90-minute contest between Republican Supervisor John C. Cook, Democratic challenger Janet S. Olezsek and Carey C. Campbell, an independent.
The candidates agreed on the need to continue building a new Metro line to Dulles International Airport, sparred over public employee pensions, and sketched differing philosophies of government while trying not to seem too partisan.
Oleszek and Campbell nonetheless suggested that Cook was too conservative for the district, while Cook placed himself within the spectrum of his immediate predecessor, Sharon Bulova, a Democrat who now chairs the board, and former Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican who held the Mason seat.
Starting with his introductory remarks, Cook sought to emphasize his hands-on service as Braddock supervisor. He talked of conducting leadership clinics for volunteers and community leaders, alleviating traffic problems with low-cost, low-tech solutions, and reducing county staff assigned to himself and other supervisors so more money could be given to the auditor’s office to root out waste.
Cook, who won the seat in a special election after Bulova (D) became board chairman, also played up his ideological independence. He mentioned several issues on which he differed with two Republican counterparts on the board: redeveloping Tysons Corner, moving forward with Phase II to build Dulles rail, and upgrading sewage treatment plants even though it would drive up users’ water bills.
“The fundamental question in this election is. . . which candidate will help best take care of our neighborhoods?” Cook, 48, said. “It’s about getting things done.”
Oleszek, 64, also emphasized a long resume of community service, including previous work as an aide on Capitol Hill and in the Virginia House of Delegates, volunteering with the PTA and formerly serving as an at-large member of the Fairfax County School Board.
“And I bring to the table how to balance budgets and how to get things done,” Oleszek said.
Oleszek also took some veiled jabs at Cook, making him out to be a part-timer whose job at a law firm hinders his effectiveness. After Cook highlighted a long list of county projects he had supported, Oleszek said that most had been in the works before Cook took office. She also criticized Cook’s suggestion that the county expand private-public partnerships, such as perhaps transforming the Fairfax County Parkway into a limited-access roadway that would cross the Potomac River into Maryland.
“I’m just amazed that someone would privatize our roadways,” Oleszek said..
Campbell, who turned 55 on Wednesday, was easily the brashest of the three. He referred several times to Cook as the “borrow-and-spend incumbent,” accused Cook of dishonesty, and said he disliked attending Braddock District Council meetings because of what he described as Cook’s tendency to spew “neocon ideological nonsense.”
“I am the most fiscally conservative candidate here tonight,” said Campbell, an Air Force veteran and chair of the budget and transportation committees at the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations.
“We need more trains, less traffic,” was his mantra for the evening. He also called for installing solar panels on county buildings. Campbell even rattled off some rusty German and Spanish in response to a question about whether the candidates had the background or experience to deal with the county’s great diversity.
“I live diversity every day,” said Campbell, who said that his wife is Peruvian. “I’ve seen all these people door to door. I’ve knocked on the Korean American community’s [doors] -- some of the politest people in our neighborhoods.”
The three candidates expressed support for funding Phase II of the project building rail to Dulles International Airport and pledged to do what it takes to shake more money out of the state so that Fairfax taxpayers alone are not shouldering too much of the burden.
In regard to shaping county budgets, Cook said his first priority is making sure that schools are properly funded. He touted his record of broadening citizen involvement in deciding how money should be spent.
Oleszek emphasized that budgetary policies often flow from core values, and she assured the community that hers were in tune with theirs.
“My core values have to do with fairness,” Oleszek said. “I will never vote against the benefits [or] the funding of first responders: our firefighters, our teachers, our police.
The candidates were sharply divided over a question about how to make up $1.7 billion in unfunded pension liabilities for county employees.
“Those are voodoo numbers,” Campbell said. “It’s bunk.” Campbell said the county pension fund would only be in jeopardy if almost everyone retired now. Oleszek also argued that the dire prediction on its solvency was alarmist, saying that the Virginia Retirement System remained sound.
“Sorry, but unfortunately they’re not voodoo numbers,” Cook said, noting that the level of pension funding has dropped to 68 percent. He called for a commission of county employees and citizens to find solutions to shore it up. And he corrected Oleszek on one point, saying that she had confused the state retirement system, which covers some Fairfax County’s teachers and state employees, with the county’s pension fund for police, fire and general workers.
One of the more humorous exchanges came in response to a question about the profusion of campaign signs on public roadways.
“I have to tell you that I think of signs as a bouquet. They are so colorful. They’re in groups. Think of them as flowers enhancing your landscape,” Oleszek said, evoking laughter. “The fact of the matter is, if our voters actually voted with a higher percentage than they do, you wouldn’t have to hit them over the head to say ‘Will you come out and vote?’”
“Janet, I agree with what you said, except for the ‘bouquet,’” Cook said. “I think they’re ugly, mine included.”
But Cook also said the signs were necessary because people pay little attention to local elections.
“In other parts of the world, people dodge bullets to vote, and we have 40 percent turnout, and that’s why we need signs,” he said.
Turning necessity into a virtue, Campbell, as an independent candidate short on cash, said he couldn’t afford signs.
“I have not littered your highway with a single sign,” Campbell said. “I may be guilty of a lot of things, but I ain’t guilty of signs.”
An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that Tom Davis previously held the Braddock seat on the board of supervisors; Davis held the Mason seat.