War, Economy & A Bitter Showdown In NoVa
Hard to believe, but Gerry Connolly and Leslie Byrne do agree on one thing: No matter how bitterly they snipe at each other, no matter how much money they spend on their campaigns for Congress, no matter how much they talk about this being a watershed election, the turnout June 10 in Northern Virginia will be miserably low.
In their face-off for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 11th District, Fairfax County's highest elected official and Virginia's first female member of Congress are so busy beating each other up you'd hardly know they were running under the same party label.
Byrne says Connolly is a "hypocrite" who "works for a war profiteer" and failed to put Fairfax on record as opposing the Iraq war from the start. (Can you even begin to imagine how history might have unfolded had the world known that Fairfax opposed the war?)
Connolly says Byrne is a liar and serial loser who plays dirty and ignores "the issues of the day -- the environment, energy, the economy -- to make her whole campaign about how she was there first on the war. Well, how does she know that? Every Democrat is against the war."
Name-calling aside, they perceive the electorate differently. Connolly says the top issue voters care about right now is the economy; Byrne says it's the war.
The two offer different solutions to pressing local issues. Byrne tells voters there's still hope for putting a Metro line through Tysons Corner via tunnel rather than elevated tracks. Connolly says that's a pipe dream and a distraction from the central task of getting funding for the rail extension to Dulles Airport.
But get them talking about who will vote in the primary and Byrne and Connolly sound identical notes.
"Very, very light, maybe 5 percent," says Connolly.
"Six or 7 percent, mainly the party activists," says Byrne.
Wasn't this supposed to be the year when voters were energized, when Democrats were on the cusp of what Byrne calls a "sweep even bigger than post-Watergate"? Here's the chance for Northern Virginia Democrats to flip a House seat from red to blue -- the winner of next week's contest will face a relatively unknown Republican, Keith Fimian -- and voters issue a collective yawn.
What's that about? In this dormant democracy, most members of Congress either go unchallenged or face token opposition in districts so gerrymandered that many voters barely know who represents them. So shouldn't voters get juiced when they finally get a real choice? Or do all those years of nearly automatic reelections result in a perennially jaded electorate?
Watching Connolly and Byrne work a Memorial Day street fair in Vienna and a house party of Democratic activists in Oakton, I saw two different kinds of political appeal. (Two other candidates, Doug Denneny and Lori Alexander, are in the primary as well.)
Voters, especially women, approached Byrne, who has served in the Virginia Senate and U.S. House (Tom Davis beat her in 1994), to talk about the war and the imperative to strike a blow against the president's party.
The candidate says even those voters who don't put Iraq at the top of their list realize that the war drives everything else. "This area is pretty savvy, and they understand the federal budget -- that if you spend it there, you have to cut it here," Byrne says.
Connolly tended to draw more enthusiastic reactions, but mainly, voters wanted to talk to him about issues he faces as chairman of the county Board of Supervisors: roads, schools, parks, bike trails, development.
Picking up on many voters' sense that Fairfax is well managed, Connolly says he's needed in Washington to nudge the federal government back toward competence -- a good argument in a district heavy with federal workers frustrated by back-to-back presidents who seemed driven to outsource and deregulate.
"I hate it when I look at the federal government and see how dysfunctional it has become," Connolly says. "At the county level, you have to produce. Why can't we expect and demand that at the federal level?"
In these last days before the vote, Byrne and Connolly are both racing to the left, chasing the most likely primary voters, who live on the party's liberal wing.
Byrne mocks Connolly for "pretending to be a raving liberal when he's really a businessman's Democrat who is enamored of developers and people who make money off the war." Connolly defends himself as the most electable candidate, but he, too, faces left: The cover of his campaign brochure is a collage of liberal causes that includes images of a peace symbol, "ERA Yes" and "Keep Abortion Legal" buttons, and a JFK poster.
There will be plenty of time for the winner to tack back to the center before the November election. And the politicians profess to be puzzled about why turnout is so low.
By Marc Fisher |
June 1, 2008; 9:01 AM ET
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