With President Trump deeply unpopular in Fairfax, and with union and gun-control activists blanketing parts of the region to support Democrats in key state legislative races, political analysts say it is getting harder for any Republicans to win in the county of 1.1 million residents.
“Donald Trump may not have much to do with county issues, but these days you go in with a partisan tide or you go out with a partisan tide,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “If you happen to be [a Democrat] running for a Board of Supervisors seat in an area where there is a strong Democratic campaign for the House of Delegates or the Senate, that can only help you.”
For decades, Fairfax’s county board was mostly evenly split, with Republicans holding a short-lived 5-to-4 majority in the mid-1980s and a brief 6-to-4 majority in the mid-1990s. The GOP members ensured a moderate approach to spending on schools and other services as the county underwent explosive growth.
During the early 2000s, Democrats won a 7-to-3 majority that increased to 8 to 2 in 2016. The shift fueled calls from advocates for the county to create more affordable housing, build more classrooms and pay greater attention to the effects of climate change.
Now, Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) is stepping down after 10 years. Vying to replace him are Republican Jason Remer, Democrat James Walkinshaw and independent Carey Campbell.
Longtime Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) is seeking a fourth term against Democrat Linda Sperling, who along with Walkinshaw is benefiting from a surge of volunteers and other support from labor and advocacy groups.
“This is going to be an amazing election for change,” said Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, which along with several other organizations has launched get-out-the-vote efforts for Democrats.
With board chairman Sharon Bulova (D-At Large) and three other Democratic supervisors also leaving the board in January — and more liberal Democrats vying to replace them — Adams and others expect the board to shift further to the left.
Meanwhile, the group Everytown for Gun Safety is backing Democrat Dan Helmer’s effort to unseat Del. Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax) in a state legislative district that overlaps with Herrity’s.
And the NARAL women’s rights group is working to reelect Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax), whose district overlaps Cook’s and who has become a GOP target over a failed bill she sponsored last year that sought to loosen restrictions on late-term abortions. Tran is opposed by Republican Steve Adragna.
In the face of that outside energy, Republican board candidates Herrity and Remer — who have smaller troops of volunteers soliciting votes — are arguing for a need for partisan balance.
“I don’t think that one party controlling any government body is good government,” Remer said, “even if it was my party.”
Remer, 60, is downplaying his party affiliation, pitching himself as a renewable-energy consultant who seeks common-sense solutions about traffic and issues related to mental health. He uses an electric scooter while canvassing for votes.
Walkinshaw, 36, who is chief of staff to Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), pledges to focus on climate change and a growing problem with rush-hour traffic spilling onto residential streets. He has worked to undercut Remer’s image, attacking him for hiring a campaign manager who serves on the board of a fundamentalist Christian group that has espoused anti-Muslim views.
There is no evidence that Remer shares those views. He said he did not know about the Christian group when he hired Albert Strong and that he has since severed ties with him.
“I do not endorse hate in any way, nor do I tolerate anyone working with me on this campaign who is a member of any group that does,” Remer said in a Facebook post addressing his supporters.
On the campaign trail one recent day, he struggled to find support. In the Braddock Lake neighborhood, Paul Fedio, a self-described liberal, feigned running away from Remer after learning his party affiliation.
“I’m not running on national politics, sir,” Remer said before making his case for being vigilant about spending.
Fedio, 85, promised he would consider supporting him.
But, he joked, “don’t tell anybody.”
Herrity, 59, is well known in his southwestern district. He is the son of former board chairman John F. “Jack” Herrity and almost won his own bid to become chairman in 2009, losing to Bulova by 1,206 votes. Since then, Herrity has been a voice of fiscal restraint on the board, while also championing pension-system changes.
His district includes portions of Hugo and Tran’s districts, and both state races are garnering national Democratic interest.
Sperling, Herrity’s 42-year-old opponent, said she is getting a boost from all the attention.
“People are really energized,” she said.
Jim McDivitt, who voted for Herrity in 2015, said his frustration with Republicans in Washington has driven him to switch his support this year.
“I ain’t voting for any Republicans any more,” McDivitt, 72, said when Sperling arrived on his doorstep in the Fair Lakes area. “I’m tired of it.”
Sterling’s campaign platform includes increased spending on schools, public transportation and affordable housing. Herrity says he is focused on being fiscally prudent and working on broader issues, such as better accommodating the county’s growing elderly population.
He recently was out soliciting votes near his home in the Clifton area, his pocket filled with biscuits for voters’ dogs. A street with freshly laid asphalt showed the end result of a road improvement the supervisor recently championed.
When he reached Mallary McCullough’s home, Herrity asked whether she was happy with the new street.
She was, but she was more interested in talking about the threat of school shootings.
“I’d like a little more compromise on that issue,” said McCullough, 60, who teaches at a local Catholic school.
Herrity said he is all about compromise and told her he has been trying to get the Fairfax board to endorse a Republican bill in the General Assembly that would make it easier to convict people who sell illegal firearms.
“That’s one of the things I’m running on,” Herrity said, “bringing balance to the board.”