The sales-tax referendum they supported was defeated. But in the eyes of the community, Clifton's David Guernsey and Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield) are winners.
Both were feted by Leadership Fairfax Inc. at its 2002 Northern Virginia Leadership Awards ceremony, Nov. 9, at the Westfields Marriott. McConnell received the Public Service Award, and Guernsey received the Community Trustee, Individual, Award.
"It was a nice surprise — I was very honored and appreciative," said McConnell. "Northern Virginia is full of folks working hard to improve the community," added Guernsey. "It's quite an honor to be included among those — like Jim Dyke and Til Hazel — who won it in the past."
Leadership Fairfax is a nonprofit organization that trains people to be leaders and is dedicated to the ideals of community trusteeship and volunteerism. Guernsey's and McConnell's names were submitted for awards and chosen by a special panel.
Guernsey was recognized for his leadership in a regional effort trying to solve transportation and environmental problems in Northern Virginia. McConnell was honored for her leadership in transportation, special-education and law-enforcement issues affecting Fairfax County.
McConnell is in her 19th year as supervisor. In 1964, she founded and became CEO of Accotink Academy, which now has four schools. And in 1969, she established the first school for children with learning disabilities in the Washington Metropolitan area.
She's strongly advocated fire and police equipment-and-staffing needs. In 1984, she originated the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) — which carries more than 12,000 people a day, and she's vice-chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.
It was McConnell's idea for a sales-tax referendum, but she wanted a 1-cent increase, with a half-cent each going to education and transportation. "Everybody said, 'Why did you stick your neck out?'" she said. "But we weren't getting money any other way. As a businesswoman, I knew the state and county had no money, so we had to do something."
Actually, she said it would have saved money. "We'd get the school system totally taken care of, and it would have probably reduced the property tax because we could have reduced our debt and the millions of dollars we pay in interest," she explained. "If schools had stayed on the tax referendum, I think it would have passed."
However, the public-safety bond issue she championed succeeded. "I worked hard to get the Joint Communication Center for VDOT, state [and local] police and fire and rescue together," said McConnell. "In the event of another attack, we need to have all these people together to more efficiently serve the residents. It's a top priority of mine, and it's important to homeland security."
For the same reason, she's pushing for completion of the last stretch of the Fairfax County Parkway, going from Rolling Road in Springfield to the rest of the parkway at Route 1. "It's important to me as a national-defense mechanism, as an escape route [in a national emergency]," she said.
And she's worked 16 years to get the funding to complete the widening of Route 123. It will finally be widened to the Occoquan Bridge in Prince William County. Said McConnell: "It's the main link between our counties, besides I-95 and Route 1."
As for leadership, she's "not a detail person — I have to have a vision of things. You have to look ahead. You've got to have people who believe in you and follow you. And if you can convince them to do so, that — to me — constitutes a good leader."
McConnell was also honored by the Virginia Transit Association for 2002 Outstanding Contributions by a Public Official. But regardless of recognition, she said, "You still do the job. If you're going to do public service, you've got to be dedicated."
Guernsey, too, has a distinguished history of community service. He's former chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and Arlington Chamber of Commerce and currently chairs REGION, a coalition of 16 major Northern Virginia business organizations. He's president and CEO of Guernsey Office Products, which he founded in 1971. He has five sales offices and three distribution centers.
He's won numerous awards related to small-business advocacy and the office-products industry and, in 1982, was named Virginia's Small Business Person of the Year. That's why his latest honor meant so much: "It wasn't for my business, but [for] efforts on behalf of my community."
For several years, Guernsey's lobbied for more money and greater assistance and attention to Northern Virginia's transportation and education needs. He helped lead the campaign for the sales-tax referendum for transportation and was bitterly disappointed when it failed.
"Voters didn't have an appetite for it because the pain wasn't bad enough for them, yet — but it will be, in time," he said. "In the meantime, we'll stay with it, still developing strategies." He'd like an incentive plan to get businesses on board for telework, but realizes much more needs to be done.
"We would have generated $5 billion [from the sales-tax increase] — that's serious money," said Guernsey. "So now we'll repeat the past, Band-Aid solutions."
But he won't stop working on solutions to the region's traffic problems, and that's in keeping with his attitude about leadership. "I think the truest test of leadership is that gut-check moment when you believe something is the right thing to do — but others believe just as strongly that it isn't — and you still step forward and fight for it," he explained.
"You can't shrink from opposition," continued Guernsey. "If I had to do it all over again, I [would]. Sooner or later, the voters will [get tired of the traffic congestion] and do what Montgomery County did — make wholesale changes."
He said persistence is a key factor in good leadership. "Any endeavor worth fighting for is going to be a long-distance run," said Guernsey. "It'll have lots of obstacles, and you've just got to persevere through each and every one of them."
He also noted that most effective leaders have a high energy-level, and he advises up-and-comers to not be bashful about speaking their minds: "Do your homework, come to conclusions about the right way to do things — and then weigh in."