When Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien (R-39th) runs for re-election in November, it'll mark his third election campaign in three years.
First came his re-election as 40th District delegate, then came the special election for senate in the redrawn 39th District, and now comes the regular election for that seat. So what keeps him doing it, after 12 years total — 11 as a delegate and one as a senator — in the state legislature?
"Aside from the desire to be in public service — which I got from going to West Point — the thing that keeps me in it is the return I get on my investment," explained O'Brien, 51, of Clifton.
"I can be a part of providing legislative initiatives that make a positive difference for Virginians — and then I hear from my constituents that they're pleased with the results," he said. "I enjoy the response I get to my work, and that makes public service very fulfilling."
In November's race, O'Brien will vie against Democrat Greg Galligan of Alexandria, and he welcomes the challenge. "I think the public is entitled to an exchange of ideas in a campaign, and they'll get it," he said. "And, hopefully, they'll be able to draw comparisons."
O'Brien's supporters are confident that he'll, once again, come out on top, and they believe he's truly the best man for the job. David Ralston, an attorney and board member of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, says O'Brien's "overwhelming experience" stands him head and shoulders above the rest.
"HE'S A SEASONED legislator who's proven that he can get things done," said Ralston. "He's an influential member of the General Assembly, and he's well-respected by the leadership in both the House and the Senate."
Little Rocky Run's Larry Bronstein has known O'Brien for 30 years, since they were in West Point's class of 1973. They also served in the Army together at Fort Myers in the mid-1970s, and Bronstein's family and O'Brien's — wife Sevea and five children — are longtime friends.
"Jay is a real patriot — a duty, honor and country guy — and he's also a family man," said Bronstein. "Those are the kind of values I subscribe to, so it makes it easy to support him politically. I think he represents the core values of the district and reflects the attitudes of the majority of the voting public. And he turns these values into action down in Richmond."
In the upcoming election, O'Brien sees taxes, homeland security, education and transportation as the major issues.
* He said most state legislators have a great interest in simplifying Virginia's tax code. The problem, he explained, is that it's based on an agrarian economy and hasn't moved into the 21st century.
"It can't be viewed as a way to raise the taxes of the individual taxpayer — I would oppose that — but as a restructuring of taxes," said O'Brien. "We must make it easier for individuals and businesses to comply, without raising their taxes."
Noting that Galligan raised the issue of estate taxes, calling it a "tax benefit for 400 dead Virginians," O'Brien said it was "a naive characterization" of the effort. "We're trying to keep small, family businesses and farms in those families — and intact," he said. "Dead Virginians don't pay taxes. What government should do is encourage families to save and invest, with a mind toward passing that benefit on to their heirs. It's a noble goal and I applaud it."
* REGARDING HOMELAND SECURITY, O'Brien was the chief patron, for two years running, of bills about driver's licenses. "They were a direct result of 9/11," he said. "In the 2002 session, we added strong residency requirements; and this past year, we added the legal-presence requirement. You have to show that you're allowed to be here, and the Virginia driver's license will have the same expiration date as your federal permit to be here."
It's the first time Virginia has done such a thing, and O'Brien hopes this legislation is a model for the nation in "seeking to restore credibility in our state documents — especially driver's licenses — to avoid the tragedies caused by terrorism."
* As for education, he says the educational imperative for some people is raising taxes. But over the past 10 years, many others have sought accountability in education.
"The result was the SOLs, and Virginia has one of the best, state-managed, testing programs in the nation," said O'Brien. "Our SOL scores continue to go up and we're being compared on a national level on the SATs — and they continue to improve. This program is bearing fruit, and the governor recently announced a continuing investment in SOLs."
Still needed, he said, is a greater percentage of in-state enrollment in Virginia's colleges and universities. But, added O'Brien, "I think we have an awful lot to be proud of, so I don't accept the notion that our schools are failing."
He worked closely with Del. David Albo (R-42nd), former Del. Jack Rust (R-37th) and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-11th) for the creation of the new south county high school in Lorton. Besides the availability of the property, he said, a key factor was the legislation allowing for a public/private partnership to fund the construction.
* In the realm of transportation, O'Brien said the Springfield Mixing Bowl project is on schedule. "I use Old Keene Mill Road all the time and, in many ways, local construction has improved while this project is going on," he said. "Route 123 construction continues to go apace. The next big hurdle is the Occoquan Bridge — and a continued fight to change the transportation funding formula."
CURRENTLY, HE SAID, the state's funding formula for secondary roads is based on vehicle miles traveled. "Therefore, an inordinate amount of funding goes to the wide-open areas," said O'Brien. "Here, we've got people in gridlock, but we've got all the cars. Last session, I offered legislation to change the funding formula to [one based on] registered vehicles."
The bill passed overwhelmingly in the House of Delegates and failed in the Senate, but it had bi-partisan support in the Senate from the Northern Virginia legislators. "It shows the nature of the Virginia Senate," said O'Brien. "It's resistant to new ideas and it will be a continued fight."
"But I have the experience of 12 years as a legislator to bring about these changes," he said. "A part of legislative success is new ideas, but another part is relationships — and knowing the tempo and process in Richmond to see these things through."
O'Brien's legislative record is available at www.jayobrien.org, and he's proud of it. Of particular note is that he was the original patron of Megan's Law in the General Assembly and, this year, was a proponent of the Amber Alert. Other significant legislation was O'Brien's teen-driving reforms in 2001.
"Just now, we're seeing a serious reduction in teen [auto] fatalities and serious injuries since those reforms took place," he said. "People were pleased with that. Before, parents thought our program was too young and too risky for their kids. And as a parent of five, I felt that the program in place didn't train them enough [to be behind the wheel]."
In the legal arena, O'Brien supported the elimination of parole — "which, I think, has reduced violent crime immensely," he said. He also supported the welfare reforms of the mid-1990s and "the notion that people do need help from government, from time to time, but not as a way of life if they're capable of taking care of themselves."
AS FOR HIS OPPONENT in the upcoming election, O'Brien wants to set the record straight, in response to a published comment of Galligan's. "He implied that we [in the state legislature] need to work closely with the governor — as if we're not," said O'Brien. "When we're sworn in to office, implicit in that oath is [the vow] that we'll do what's right for all citizens, regardless of party."
Emphasizing that he has an "excellent, professional relationship" with Gov. Mark Warner, O'Brien noted that the governor just appointed him the Northern Virginia legislative representative on a new council dealing with the state's military residents, National Guard members and reservists.
It's the Virginia Citizen Soldier Support Council and will handle matters affecting military personnel. Besides his military background and the fact that he's still a colonel in the Army Reserve, O'Brien says the appointment shows the governor's confidence in him as a legislator.
Most of all, though, O'Brien wants people to know "how much of an honor" he's always felt it is to serve them — and then be able to come back and ask again for their vote. (His campaign may be reached at 703-750-0936). And those pleased with his efforts will continue casting their ballots for him.
"I'm confident he will fight to keep taxes low and will continue the pro-life fight," said Ralston. "And he's been a great supporter of education." Added Bronstein: "When it comes to protecting our people, economy and way of life, I think Jay is the perfect representative to carry on that fight for us. He's made of the right stuff."