Candidates for Board Chairman and state Senate honed their messages and refined their pitches last week, as they faced off at one of their first joint appearances of the fall campaign season. The candidates mostly stuck to Northern Virginia's perennial campaign issues - taxes and traffic - as they shared the stage at Tuesday's forum at Pimmit Hills School.
The Democratic candidates touted their past records and urged voters not to rock the boat, while their Republican challengers sought to portray themselves as fresh faces who can get things done.
Providence District Supervisor Gerald Connolly (D), running to replace Katherine Hanley (D) as Board Chairman, emphasized his role on the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and said his "experience and leadership" distinguished him from his opponent. State Senator Janet Howell (D-32) who is running to keep her seat in a closely contested race against political novice David Hunt, noted that she is one of only a handful of women in the state Senate and ticked off the bills that she has shepherded through the General Assembly, including one requiring that names, photos and addresses of registered sex offenders be available online.
She also said she supported raising the cigarette tax and providing counties with the same taxing authority as cities, which would provide money for state services and help reduce real estate taxes. Those efforts were unsuccessful last year in the Republican-dominated legislature.
Hunt noted that as a Republican he would be in a better position to work with the leadership in Richmond.
Supporting unsuccessful legislation was not good enough, he said. "You've got to show results."
Mychele Brickner, the at-large School Board member vying against Connolly for Board Chairman, said she would limit increases in real estate tax bills to an annual maximum of 5 percent through a prudent spending plan.
"When you look at the budget of Fairfax County, we have got to set priorities," she said.
The only candidate who strayed from taxes and transportation was Jeremy Good, an independent Board Chairman candidate, who said he represented the Green Party, even though he did not get the party's endorsement. Good spent most of his time talking about national and international issues such as the war on terror and environmental destruction.
AUDIENCE MEMBERS, mostly members of the Pimmit Hills Civic Association, peppered the five candidates with questions on taxes and transportation that reveal considerable dissatisfaction.
"I still can't understand why more than two-thirds of the revenue in Virginia comes from Northern Virginia and less than 20 percent comes back here," said Joe Baker, former president of the Pimmit Hills Citizens' Association. "Can anyone explain that to me?"
Connolly agreed that the state was underfunding Northern Virginia. "Only 3 percent of our budget comes from the state," he said. "We have to do better."
Brickner also said she would like to see change but added, "We don't have the numbers of delegates that would be required to get something changed. I don't know that we're going to see change anytime soon."
Howell, a veteran of Richmond battles, said the Northern Virginia delegation has tried to partner with lawmakers from other areas of the state "but we're outnumbered."
Hunt promised that, if elected, he would be able to create those coalitions. "It all comes back to leadership," he said.
OTHER QUESTIONS focused on why Metro trains were so crowded during rush hour, and why there were so few sidewalks and bike trails in their community, making it difficult to walk to Tysons Corner mall and to Marshall High School.
"I am the only candidate in this race that is talking about a transportation bond," said Brickner. "The last time we had a transportation bond in this county was in 1992."
Connolly said he would continue to work to get developers to pay for some of those improvements.
Connolly also emphasized his dedication on extending Metrorail west, calling himself a "leader on the Board in getting rail to and through Tysons Corner on the way to Dulles."
Brickner took a slightly more cautious approach citing a concern for cost overruns.
"These cost overruns aren't going to be borne by the federal government and I doubt the state is going to pick them up," she said. "Fairfax County would be left bearing the brunt of it."
Good drew a link between military spending and transit projects. "For the amount of money that we're spending on our military in one day we can build rail to Dulles," he said.
WHILE CONNOLLY sympathized with voters' concerns, he also stressed that Fairfax County was in an enviable position.
"We've built something special in Fairfax County," he said. "That's because we've worked hard," and he urged the audience to keep the county on the same path.
The Board's efforts paid off in a string of national awards, as well as the county's designation last year as the best managed county in the country, said Connolly, an eight-year Board member
But his tenure on the Board makes Connolly vulnerable to charges that he has already had two terms to fix the county's nagging tax and transportation problems. On Tuesday night, Brickner wasted no time in exploiting that vulnerability.
"Over the past eight years not much has been done on the Board of Supervisors to address traffic gridlock," she said.
IN CRITICIZING the current Board, Brickner left herself open to claims that she doesn't have the necessary experience to do the job. As a result, part of her campaign strategy is to emphasize her at-large status on the School Board.
"I want to clear up a misconception about who is the candidate with the experience in this race," she said. "I've been elected countywide to represent the entire county. In my last race for School Board I was elected with over 90,000 votes countywide. My opponent received less than 15,000 votes in his race."
Anybody who said she lacked experience, she said, "is just flat-out lying."
Chris Wiles, who sat in the audience with his wife Jennifer McKeever and their infant son David, said the forum gave him a chance to hear the candidates for the first time.
"I thought it was very helpful in finding out what the issues they focused on were," he said.
The family lives in a rented apartment in Pimmit Hills. "We still can't afford a house in Fairfax County," put in McKeever. "Fairfax County is a great place to live and we'd like to live here."