Sharon Bulova, the genial and pragmatic chairman of Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors, won’t seek reelection next fall, ending a 30-year career in which she helped lead Virginia’s largest jurisdiction through dramatic growth, a financial crisis and sweeping demographic change.
In recent years, Bulova (D-At Large) helped defuse scandals in the police and fire departments in Fairfax, a county of 1.1 million people that has transformed from sleepy to urbanizing over the past three decades.
She also helped found the Virginia Railway Express commuter rail line in 1988 and, as board chair, oversaw the massive redevelopment of Tysons Corner and the launch of the Silver Line while maintaining the Triple-A bond rating of a county that has become an economic powerhouse.
“I’m looking forward to being able to spend time with my husband and with my family,” Bulova, 70, said in an interview before the Thursday announcement. “And just get a little bit more time to travel, smell the roses — things I haven’t had the time to do while serving in office.”
Bulova’s departure will be the biggest change in what is shaping up to be a major transition for the 10-member, predominantly Democratic board after the 2019 elections.
Supervisors Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) and John C. Cook (R-Braddock) have also said they won’t seek new terms, while Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) has not indicated whether she’ll run.
Meanwhile, Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) said Thursday that he will run for chairman in Bulova’s absence, leaving his own district seat open. Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), who is facing a Democratic challenger for his seat, said he also is seriously considering a bid for chairman.
Bulova’s gently firm style — sprinkled with the occasional self-deprecating chortle during public meetings — masked a shrewd politician who worked aggressively to build support on school funding and transportation improvements while pushing Fairfax’s agenda in Richmond.
A native of Pikesville, Md., Bulova and her husband settled in Fairfax County in the early 1970s. They raised two children: state Del. David L. Bulova (D-Fairfax) and Karin Bulova Johansson, an insurance company project manager who lives in Seattle.
Sharon Bulova entered public service in 1984, leaving her role as president of the Kings Park West Civic Association to become a legislative aide to former Supervisor Audrey C. Moore (D) in what was then known as the Annandale District.
She won her first election in 1987, when Moore successfully ran for board chair and asked Bulova to seek her seat in what was later redrawn as the Braddock District. Moore then made Bulova chair of the board’s all-important budget committee, a post she kept for two decades.
Former county executive Edward L. Long Jr., who was budget director during that period, said he watched Bulova bring order to what had been a chaotic budget process, with supervisors debating individual line items during marathon meetings that sometimes stretched past midnight. Bulova built consensus in advance by meeting with each supervisor individually, Long said.
“She had a way of meeting with people and [would be] just so nice and so pleasant, yet firm, in terms of how to put a package together and put something together that was balanced,” Long said.
In 2008, then-board chair Gerald E. Connolly (D) won a seat in Congress. Bulova ran for the position and beat Herrity by 1,206 votes in a special election. The victory led to her greatest political challenge: dealing with the aftermath of the 2008 recession.
A weakened local housing market and cuts in federal spending that left several million square feet of office space vacant meant depleted tax revenue. Bulova oversaw unpopular increases in real estate taxes and cuts to programs in libraries, schools and social service agencies in what became a multiyear balancing act to preserve the county’s high quality of life.
Her deliberative approach to those challenges — seeking to accommodate differing viewpoints in a series of board committee meetings and community forums — allowed Fairfax to weather the economic storm without too much political strife, Connolly said.
The county has continued to grapple with revenue limits as the number of recent immigrants and low-income and elderly residents grows, increasing the need for expensive social programs. A meals tax proposal to generate money for schools failed in 2016. Earlier this week, the board approved a measure to slightly trim pension benefits.
Separately, the police department found itself in the spotlight in 2013, when, during a domestic disturbance call, a county officer fatally shot an unarmed man named John Geer after confronting him outside his Springfield home.
Bulova said she regrets the way the county handled the subsequent investigation into the shooting, initially refusing to share details with the public at a time when concerns over police-related violence were sparking protests nationwide.
“We were sort of using methods that had been used in earlier years,” Bulova said. “I think we were wrong in some of the things that we did.”
She eventually formed an ad hoc committee of community leaders that recommended $35 million in ongoing police reforms.
Bulova said the county became more responsive to other allegations of misconduct after county firefighter Nicole Mittendorff — who had been the target of repeated online sexual harassment from within the department — hanged herself in 2016.
Bryan Hill, who took over as county executive a year ago, said Bulova has been pushing for increased diversity in the fire and police departments. He noted the recent hiring of Fire Chief John Butler, who is African American, and the appointment of several women to top leadership positions.
“Sharon basically told us that a change in culture was something that I had to coordinate, and this is exactly what we’re doing,” Hill said.
Bulova, who plans to support McKay for board chair in 2019, said she expects the rest of her tenure to be busy.
Among other challenges, Fairfax is still struggling to fully fund its growing school system. The pending arrival of an Amazon headquarters in nearby Arlington County — bringing 25,000 jobs — will likely cause more traffic congestion and boost the need for affordable housing. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“A year is a long time,” Bulova said. “We’ve got a lot to do in the meantime.”