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Virginia Voters: Low Turnout, High Dudgeon

Not a whole lot of Virginians came out to the polls Tuesday, but those who did made some things pretty clear: Democrats remain more than a bit miffed about George Allen and the whole macaca business, Republicans would like to remind their party's leaders that theirs is supposed to be the party of low taxes and skepticism about state spending, and the electorate is poised to make some serious changes this fall.

The smattering of primary elections held in this year when more voters are likely looking ahead to the '08 presidential sweepstakes than are concentrated on state politics cannot offer any absolutely firm conclusions, but the results are dramatic enough to lead both parties to do some serious thinking.

One of the most impressive and delicious results was the ouster of Democratic state Sen. Benny Lambert by Richmond Delegate Donald McEachin. This was a grudge match driven in good part by McEachin and his fellow Dems' desire to punish Lambert for having been the most prominent Democrat and the most prominent black politician in the state to have endorsed George Allen last fall in his U.S. Senate reelection bid. That purportedly traitorous act made Lambert Enemy #1 to many Dems, and the voters apparently concurred. Lambert defended his decision as a tribute to Allen's support for historically black colleges--certainly a worthy cause, but to many Democrats, not nearly sufficient to make up for Allen's racial and other insensitivities.

Will this derail Allen's slowly mounting comeback crusade? Hardly likely. With Virginia's statewide races over the next couple of years so much up in the air, there may well be a place on a gubernatorial or senatorial ballot for Allen, who, after all, did lose to Jim Webb by only 9,000 votes.

But Lambert was not the only sitting state senator to lose his seat in this June primary. Two moderate Republican incumbents lost to conservative challengers who accused the sitting senators of having morphed into big spenders just like the party's now widely disliked standard-bearer, the president of these United States. Martin Williams of Newport News and Brandon Bell of Roanoke are gone goodbye, and while hard core Republicans will celebrate this as a reassertion of the party's pre-Mark Warner-Tim Kaine era commitment to chopping spending and eschewing taxes, plenty of Democrats will also be cheered by these results. That's because Kaine and the Dems had already planned to make this fall's campaign--the entire Virginia legislature is up for election in November--about how the Republicans are supposedly so far to the right that the state needs to push the Senate over to the D side to provide safety and balance. These primary results will only strengthen the Dems' hand--not necessarily in those firmly Republican districts, but elsewhere around the state where the party split is closer.

In northern Virginia, three Republicans in deeply divided districts may find themselves in even greater trouble after these primaries. Ken Cuccinelli, Jeannemarie Devolites Davis and Jay O'Brien were all struggling to survive even before this vote. Now, their Democratic challengers will be able to make a stronger case that a Democratic takeover of the Senate is a real possibility.

Locally, perhaps the most fascinating race was that for Fairfax supervisor in the Providence district, the traditional kingmaker part of the county that produced county board chairman Gerry Connolly. Incumbent Linda Smyth narrowly fended off a challenge from political novice Charlie Hall (a former reporter and editor here at the Washington Post), who campaigned against the county's newfound zeal for "smart growth" development to increase density around Metro stations. Hall's campaign captured the frustrations of people in Vienna and other areas where residents resent the county government's approval of large new residential and mixed-use developments. The idea behind the developments is to curb sprawl by boosting density in areas with access to transit. But that's not very popular among many people who already live in those areas. Support for that smart growth concept has never been nearly as strong in much of Fairfax as in Arlington, Alexandria and Montgomery County. But Smyth's victory is a feather in Connolly's cap too, and an endorsement--though not a very strong one given the narrow margin--of the idea that Fairfax needs to move in the direction that those other suburbs have traveled in the past decade or so.

By Marc Fisher |  June 12, 2007; 10:56 PM ET
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That's just what Fairfax needs -- a former hack reporter in a government leadership position.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 13, 2007 9:32 AM

Look, according to Smyth, voters like what she and Connolly are doing. When the voters want more density at any cost with more gridlock resulting, and throw in an elevated train, how can an a former hack reporter win against those dreams?

Posted by: Anonymous | June 13, 2007 10:01 AM

Because you contrast Fairfax's record of "smart growth" practices with Arlington's, I'd like to point out the difference in how the jurisdictions have gone about implementing those policies.

Arlington conducted a comprehensive, years-long approach that had citizen input at its foundation and all along the way.

Fairfax County's approach has been to invoke the magic words "smart growth" and "transit oriented development" to justify density at specific sites, without looking at the larger picture of the increased density's effect or effectiveness. Citizens concerned about these matters (at the Metro West development and in Merrifield) urged the point that chunks of density wedged in stable residential areas don't achieve the goals of stopping sprawl and creating livable, walkable communities. These citizens were dismissed as NIMBYs who just didn't want density in their neighborhoods.

Just a few months ago, Dr. Robert Cervero, an urban planning expert from UC Berkeley, came and spoke to the Tysons Task Force about planning the Tysons Corner area around the proposed rail stations there. He said that to be successful, transit oriented development must be planned comprehensively as a series of connections to other areas of development. "Islands" of development don't work, said the expert, "It's not just a matter of plopping down densities and building hotels."

This sounds a lot like what those citizens were trying to tell our Board of Supervisors.

For Fairfax County to employ the authentic principles of "smart growth" and "transit oriented development" (as opposed to merely using them as justifications for intensifying development) it needs to employ the foundational practices of comprehensive planning and citizen engagement.

Posted by: Laurie Genevro Cole | June 13, 2007 10:31 AM

Where's the live blog of the Roy Pearson trial?

Posted by: Custom Cleaner | June 13, 2007 1:01 PM

Where's the pants trial coverage? Emil Steiner was providing great coverage. What happened?

Posted by: Pants! | June 13, 2007 1:48 PM

Where is my pant's trial blog???? Fisher you've fallen down. Steiner was doing a great job of this yesterday. This is DC's OJ trial, we're desperate for minute-by-minute coverage, and the Post is letting it slip by.

Posted by: Bill | June 13, 2007 1:59 PM

It would be a mistake for Linda Smyth to think that those people who voted for her are just utterly in LOVE with Smart Growth and extensive development around transportation centers. Hardly. I voted for Smyth because she seems to be effective in the day-to-day operation of Providence District and shares many of my concerns, and I wanted to give her a second chance to be even better. But I darn sure didn't vote for her to give her permission to build high-rises all around the Metro stops. The notion that people who live close to the Metro don't own or operate cars is a faulty one. More residences will mean more traffic and more congestion. Concerned about urban sprawl? That's a Loudon County problem, not a Providence District one. It's a safe bet that the lion's share of her constituents don't want high-density development ANYWHERE. Ms. Smyth ignores these political FACTS at her own risk.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 13, 2007 4:41 PM

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