The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fairfax County could be headed for political transformation

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova (D) is contemplating whether she will run again. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Fairfax County could be headed for a political transformation in 2019, with Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova and one other longtime Democratic supervisor indicating that they might not seek reelection and one of the board’s two Republicans saying he will step down because of a growing blue wave.

A group of younger candidates is gathering in the wings, frustrated by crowded classrooms, traffic congestion and the rising cost of living in the county of 1.1 million — Virginia’s most populous jurisdiction and its undisputed economic engine.

Bulova, who has been on the board for 30 years, says she will announce next month whether she’ll pursue a third term as chair. Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), 69, has told friends that she is unsure whether she’ll run, and Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), 74, declined through a spokeswoman to say whether she’ll seek a fifth term.

On Friday, Republican Supervisor John C. Cook (Braddock) announced that he won’t run again, citing “grave concern” about the tone of political discourse since the election of President Trump. The other Republican on the board, Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), faces a strong Democratic challenger.

An influx of new faces could redefine a governing body known for avoiding controversy and, critics say, struggling to address new problems in the growing county.

“Some of the same people have been in charge of Fairfax County for 25 years. The county has dramatically changed in that time,” said Ben Tribbett, a Democratic political consultant based in Fairfax.

He said the new candidates, who are at least a decade younger than those they would replace, illustrate “a yearning for a reflection on the board of what Fairfax County is now, versus what it was in the past.”

This model of wealthy suburban living is starting to fray

Bulova, 70, said she intends “to use the Thanksgiving holiday to talk with family members and friends.” The possibility that she will step down has moved Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), a close ally, to begin lining up support to become her successor.

McKay, 43, raised $26,000 between January and July and made several campaign-style appearances outside of his southeastern Fairfax district in recent months. A run for Bulova’s job means that his own seat on the board would be open next fall.

“When Sharon makes an announcement, it’s very likely I’ll be making an announcement shortly after that,” McKay said. “There’s probably going to be more than normal change, by Fairfax County standards, on our board, and I’m honestly looking forward to that. There’s an opportunity here to add some new voices.”

That possibility seems strongest in the Providence district, where over three terms Smyth has helped oversee the ongoing redevelopment of Tysons, plus the development of the Mosaic residential-retail complex in Merrifield.

Several Democrats in the county said Smyth has told them she is undecided about whether to run. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. Smyth did not respond to messages seeking comment about her plans.

If she does run, Smyth will face at least one Democratic primary election challenger in June: Erika Milena Yalowitz, 39, who is vice president of the Providence District Council of homeowner groups. Fairfax County School Board member Dalia Palchik, a 35-year-old Democrat, is also considering a bid for Smyth’s seat.

Both women have worked in the district’s growing Latino neighborhoods and would probably try to mine community frustrations over the pace of road construction and other infrastructure improvements in Tysons.

“There are still many places where we don’t have sidewalks or streetlights,” said Yalowitz, an Arlington County court officer who lives just outside Tysons with her husband and 4-year-old daughter. “I would happily walk with my stroller through my community. But it’s very difficult.”

Hudgins, who declined to share her plans, has represented a district in western Fairfax for four terms. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in recent years, and her husband, Willie Hudgins, died in 2015. So far, nobody has announced a bid for her seat.

How Rep. Barbara Comstock lost her Northern Va. district

In the western and central portions of the county, Cook and Herrity face a strong backlash against Trump that was evident in the recent midterms.

Cook, whose district of McMansions and aging strip malls is where Bulova got her start as a supervisor in 1988, said Friday that the “ideological litmus tests, wedgy issues and personal attacks” that have become common in politics persuaded him to leave the board after next year.

“I’m not the only Northern Virginia Republican who is sick of the environment and where the party has gone,” Cook said in an interview.

His decision opens a path for James Walkinshaw, 36, who serves as chief of staff to Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) and announced that he will seek the Democratic nomination in June for the Braddock seat.

The district has grown steadily bluer in recent elections. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) won 70 percent of the vote there this month, compared with just over 50 percent in 2012. And 68 percent of midterm voters in Braddock backed Connolly (D), who won the district by 3,000 votes in 2014. He ran unopposed in 2016.

“The challenges that will be in front of us in 2020 will be a lot different,” said Walkinshaw, who wants to focus on rebuilding infrastructure and a more aggressive county policy on climate change. “New perspectives will be vitally important.”

Herrity’s district also went overwhelmingly for Kaine and Connolly in the midterms, a marked change from past elections.

The graying of America is stretching suburban tax dollars

Herrity, 58, said he is mulling a bid for the chairman’s spot should Bulova decide against running. If he seeks a fourth term as Springfield supervisor, he will face a challenge from Democrat Linda Sperling, 42, a marketing executive who serves on the Fairfax Transportation Advisory Commission. Sperling, who has sons ages 2 and 5, said she hopes to represent the interests of county residents with young children.

“I’m looking at a good 15 to 16 years of having kids in Fairfax County Public Schools,” Sperling said, citing affordable housing, school funding and public transportation as her chief concerns. “I really have skin in the game in the way this county is going to look in the future.”

Sperling criticized pension reforms Herrity championed that the board will vote on next week, which would reduce retirement benefits to new county employees. And she attacked Herrity for opposing Sheriff Stacey Kincaid’s decision earlier this year to end a cooperation agreement with federal immigration officials that made it easier for undocumented immigrants in custody to be deported.

Herrity stood by his support of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreement, saying repeat offenders who are undocumented tend to target other immigrants. He said Sperling was uninformed on the pension issue.

“There is pretty broad agreement on the board about the fact that we need to do something about rising pension costs,” Herrity said. “She’s got to catch up on the issues.”

Supervisors Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), Daniel G. Storck (D-Mount Vernon), John W. Foust (D-Dranesville) and Kathy L. Smith (D-Sully) all said they intend to seek reelection. So far, none of those incumbents have opponents. 

Storck, 65, said he hopes turnover in next year’s election leads to a more decisively progressive stance on some issues, mainly affordable housing and the environment.

“Our county is not positioned to be as much a leader in those areas as we need to and should be,” he said. “We were a rural and suburban county, and now we’re an urban and suburban county, and that means that we have challenges that are really different than a generation ago.”

Bulova, who oversaw the county’s efforts to dig out of the 2008 recession during her time as chairwoman, said she would endorse McKay if she doesn’t run. He has emulated her pragmatic leadership style as chairman of the board’s budget and legislative committees.

“Our board has been a moderate board, a fiscally responsible board,” Bulova said. “I would like to think that, whatever changes might occur, folks who run and win will be able to carry through on that tradition.”