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Fairfax sees rare primary battle for board chair amid political transformation

From left, developer Tim Chapman, at-large school board member Ryan McElveen and Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) are running in the Democratic primary for chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. (Tim Chapman; Abby Sun; Evan Cantwell)

For a while, it appeared Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff C. McKay might coast to the top political job in Virginia’s largest jurisdiction.

The moderate Democrat had been groomed as a replacement for retiring longtime board chair Sharon Bulova (D-At Large). And there was no broadly appealing Republican contender in increasingly blue Fairfax County, a place where leadership changes often seem like handoffs.

But the ascension of McKay (D-Lee) now seems less certain, amid a surge of progressive candidates that will generate the first Democratic primary for board chair in decades, as well as a host of competitive races for other board seats.

Energized by resistance to President Trump, a revitalized Democratic Party has altered the landscape of Virginia politics during the past two years, flipping seats in Congress and the state legislature.

A shift further to the left could also occur in Fairfax as newcomers push for bolder policies on housing, climate change and other issues.

That, in turn, could open the door for moderate Republican candidates, some observers say, who focus on fiscal oversight and limiting taxes.

“Voters in Fairfax are basically voting Democrat not because they’re in love with Democrats but because they don’t like the national Republicans,” said former congressman Tom Davis, a moderate who chaired the county board in the early 1990s and was the last Republican to hold the post. “He who owns the center owns the suburbs.”

New political era

The county of 1.1 million people is headed for a new political era in November, with five of 10 seats open on the board.

Besides Bulova, Supervisors Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) and John C. Cook (R-Braddock) are leaving, while McKay’s bid to replace Bulova leaves his district seat available.

With a March 28 filing deadline, 17 candidates have thrown their hats into the ring for the June 11 Democratic primary.

Fairfax County could be headed for political transformation

“This is arguably the most important election in Fairfax County in a generation or more,” said David E. Broder, president of the Service Employees International Union local that represents Fairfax and Loudoun employees and other area workers.

“People are struggling,” Broder said, noting the growing number of households below the federal poverty line even as some of the nation’s wealthiest neighborhoods continue to prosper. “It calls for a county board that is going to be more aggressive in supporting families.”

McKay, 43, is still considered the front-runner in his primary race against at-large school board member Ryan McElveen, 32, and Reston-based developer Tim Chapman, 50. He has wider name recognition than his opponents, and the $134,000 in his coffers dwarfs what they have raised.

Those opponents are trying to cast McKay as part of a county leadership that has lagged in dealing with some of the region’s most pressing issues, such as affordable housing and overcrowded schools.

McKay, who is backed by Bulova, said he hopes to “hit the accelerator” on fixing problems that Fairfax did not have the resources to address after the Great Recession.

He wants the county to begin replenishing its stagnant affordable-housing fund by setting aside roughly $20 million a year for developer incentives. He touts his leadership of the board’s important budget and legislative committees, his role in redeveloping the Richmond Highway corridor, and the 2017 “One Fairfax” initiative, launched by him and Hudgins, that uses social and racial equity as a lens for county spending and planning.

“I’m the only candidate in this race that has the experience necessary to govern this county,” McKay said.

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McElveen and Chapman say that Fairfax has been less active than neighboring Arlington County or the District in seeking broader solutions to the region’s rising cost of living or punishing traffic congestion.

In addition to providing far less affordable-housing funds than the District, Fairfax has not paid its teachers as much as some surrounding jurisdictions and only recently began accommodating bike-share companies.

McElveen, who on the school board pushed through a measure to protect LGBTQ students from discrimination, said the board of supervisors has not been sufficiently forward-thinking.

He advocates building charging stations for electric cars, hiring a chief technology officer and coordinating with telecommunications companies to ensure that county residents are connected to the growing 5G wireless network.

“When we look at our current county government, the overall vision is to address the problems that are wrong now,” he said. “That’s all well and good, but we have to be looking out into the future to address the problems that are coming at us.”

Chapman, a former chair of the Virginia Housing Development Authority, said Fairfax should target more county-owned land for affordable housing and build more permanent classrooms to deal with the “growing crisis” of school crowding.

The school system uses 754 temporary classroom trailers, though plans for four new schools are underway.

Chapman said he was motivated to run in part by watching the Democratic Party establishment — including Bulova and her predecessor as board chair, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D) — close ranks around McKay.

“Clearly they got together two years ago, or last year, in a backroom and decided: This is the guy who’s going to be the next chairman,” he said.

A dearth of primaries

Neither county elections officials nor local Democratic leaders could recall when the party last held a primary election for board chair. A review of election results and archived Democratic Party newsletters suggests the most recent was in 1967, when Frederick Babson was nominated, then elected, as the county’s first at-large board chair.

Republicans last held a primary for board chair in 2003, when Democrat Katherine Hanley was leaving office. Mychele B. Brickner won the Republican nomination, then lost to Connolly — at the time a Providence District supervisor — in the general election.

In 2009, after Connolly was elected to Congress, the party designated Bulova as his successor. She beat Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), the Republican nominee, by just 1,217 votes in a special election.

Herrity said he is undecided whether to run this year, given the deep anti-Trump sentiments in Fairfax and the fact that a Republican has not won countywide since Robert F. McDonnell’s 2009 election as governor. No other Republicans have indicated interest in Bulova’s spot.

“In my heart, I want to run for the chairman,” said Herrity, who would have to relinquish his district seat to do so. “I’ve got to figure out whether that race is winnable in this environment.”

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The county’s legislative delegation in Richmond, too, is increasingly Democratic, with Del. Tim Hugo the sole Republican to survive the 2017 elections. State Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D), whose district includes Fairfax, is one of the most progressive lawmakers in the state.

Surovell said the county board “has been AWOL on progressive priorities for the last decade,” even though all but two seats are held by Democrats. He promised to back some of the new left-leaning candidates in hopes of prodding the county into further raising teachers’ salaries or funding more child care.

Bulova said the county board has tackled pressing issues despite economic constraints. Among other things, she cited the 2015 “Diversion First” program that offers counseling to people with mental illness who have had encounters with police.

She called the flood of new candidates “an embarrassment of riches” after years of efforts by county party leaders to get more people interested in local politics. Still, she said, McKay is the right person to succeed her.

“He’s not overly conservative; he’s not overly liberal,” Bulova said. “Jeff is as solid as a brick and has excellent judgment.”

Local advocacy groups say they are thrilled by the intraparty debate. Scott Peterson, a co-founder of the Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions, said his organization has long been frustrated that the county has not done more to deal with greenhouse-gas emissions, such as pressuring local businesses into reducing their carbon footprints.

Now, McKay and McElveen have pledged to move Fairfax toward getting 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.

Hoping to one-up them, Chapman said he would commit to reaching that goal by 2030.

“It is exciting,” Peterson said. “I mean, a primary election. Who would have thought?”