Del. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen blames it on his parents. When he returned to Fairfax in 1996 after growing up in the city, he started to get involved in the community, like his parents before him. His involvement led him to serve on Fairfax City Council for two terms starting in 1998.
"You see an opportunity, you think maybe I'll take a crack at it," Petersen said.
From City Council, Petersen, a Democrat, successfully ran for the delegate seat representing the 37th District. With the upcoming election, Petersen, 35, hopes to continue serving Fairfax in Richmond.
"I think when I got down there, I didn't realize, in some respects, how entrenched some of the institutional interests were, particularly by the lobbyists and some of the special interests," Petersen said. "There's a lot of inertia in Richmond. And that's OK, you expect that. You don't expect radical change to happen, and you don't want it to necessarily.
"The one criticism I have of Richmond is the representatives down there are removed from their constituencies. The difference is, when I was on City Council in Fairfax, our meetings were on TV, and people would watch us and make comments, and people would be at our meetings and make comments, and your constituents were around you at all times. When you're down in Richmond, your constituents are a hundred miles away, and lobbyists are around you at all times. And that's a major difference, why I feel a lot of delegates can lose touch. And that to me is what you have to fight against every single day, to make sure you don't lose touch."
That focus on Fairfax is why leaders like Supervisor Gerry Connolly (D-Providence) support Petersen.
"We wanted a delegate willing to be a partner with the local government," Connolly said, citing Petersen's calls checking in with Fairfax County government on issues such as the local options sales tax and transportation and education funding. "Chap's somebody who'll work with us. ... He takes the time to learn the issues, to listen."
Janice Miller of Fairfax, a campaign volunteer, agreed.
"I think he's very interested in putting the interests of his constituents first. And I think that's really important," Miller said. "I really appreciate the fact that he takes the time to touch base with his constituents."
Besides serving on City Council from 1998-2002, Petersen, an attorney, had also worked as a legislative aide for his cousin Linda "Toddy" Puller in 1995, then delegate for the 44th District.
He lives in Fairfax with his wife, Sharon, and their two daughters, Eva, 4, and Mary Walton, 1.
"City Council was a great experience because even though it's a smaller district than the one I currently represent, there's so much of a hands-on feel or practice to it. In the City Council, we had a 70 million dollar budget, and you really had to know where every nickel and dime went," Petersen said. "It's very demanding, and people expect you to be familiar with every neighborhood and stop sign, and it's really retail politics. For me, it was great. I learned a lot about budgeting, land use, and I certainly learned a lot about being careful of how to spend people's money, or didn't spend people's money."
AS PETERSEN campaigned throughout the summer, the issues of taxes, education, state services like public health, and transportation were among the concerns shared by area citizens. For taxes, Petersen continues to support equalization, which gives counties and cities equal taxing authority. Two bills he authored during the last General Assembly session proposed giving counties the taxing authority to raise tobacco, or cigarette, taxes up to 50 cents, with generated revenue going toward school renovation and construction.
The current rate in Virginia is 5 cents, while Fairfax City and the CIty of Alexandria charge 50 cents.
"How can we help localities diversify their tax base so it's not totally property tax reliant?" Petersen said. "... I think the question is, how do we fund our core priorities so we're not borrowing money on things we ought to be paying for up front. You need a system tax equitable and that people believe in."
On education, Petersen supports reducing class size and accelerating the school renovation process, particularly for older schools like Woodson and Fairfax high schools. Petersen also approved of improving funding for higher education but opposed tuition caps.
"Access to higher education is becoming increasingly complicated, because we have more children in the pipeline, but we still have the same existing facilities," Petersen said.
For transportation, Petersen had three points. He supports having a constitutional amendment to preserve the transportation trust fund from being used for non-transportation purposes; using spot improvements such as HOT lanes and overpasses on Fairfax County Parkway to alleviate traffic; and having expanded public transit options in the area. Besides favoring extending the Orange Line from Vienna to Centreville, Petersen also supports smart growth around Metrorail stations.
"Transit has got to be part of the equation. You have to make both Metro and VRE more accessible. Which means, basically more parking, and you need to encourage better land use, more density around Metro stops," Petersen said, referring to split-rate taxation legislation he sponsored in 2002, which encouraged high-density growth in certain areas. "In order for transit to be successful, you have to have mixed-use community, and in order to have mixed-use community, you ought to extend tax preferences or tax breaks to folks who invest and build around that transit station. That's just good land-use planning."
Although Petersen has a "sharp mind," his weakness is that he's not in the party with power, said Del. Vince Callahan (R-34th).
"He's hampered by the fact that he's in a minority party," Callahan said.
But as Petersen looks forward to the fall election, he reiterated his mission as a state delegate.
"This is a service business. Being a state delegate is like being the neighborhood barber. Your job is to listen to people, listen to your clients, and try to be as responsive as you can. And the most important thing is to stay grounded in your district: be accessible to people, be polite to people, and try to visit as many people as you can to try to understand their issues.
"No matter where you stand, and whether folks vote for me or not, I'm here to represent them. And I love doing it. ... It's been the job of a lifetime."