In the hotly contested 42nd District race for the House of Delegates, one issue has risen above the tit-for-tat rhetoric.
Democrat Greg Werkheiser, 31, calls it "budget reform."
Del. Dave Albo, 43, the district's Republican incumbent, calls it a "budget rip-off."
The issue — which has become central in the run-up to the Nov. 8 election — is last year's $1.34 billion sales tax increase, which enhanced state spending on education, public safety and human services.
Werkheiser, an attorney from Springfield, said the 2004 effort spearheaded by Gov. Mark Warner (D), Democrats and moderate Republicans was a good deal for Fairfax County because it gave the county's school system more than $28 million in additional education dollars.
"The lawmakers who hammered out that deal were from a moderate voting bloc. If I'm elected, I would be a part of that group," Werkheiser said. "I think the future of Virginia will rely on moderate politics."
Albo, who has represented the southeastern corner of Fairfax County since 1994, opposed the tax increase because he said it only returned to the county $72 in education spending for a typical family, which now pays an additional $300 in sales tax each year.
"Mr. Werkheiser's pitch is that Dave Albo failed to vote for Gov. Warner's tax increase that put Virginia's financial house in order," Albo said. "The pro-education vote, I'm eternally convinced, was a no-vote on this thing."
The budget action, Albo pointed out, also lacked any new funding for much-needed transportation improvements in Northern Virginia.
"They never call it a tax increase," Albo said. "They call it budget reform. I call it a budget rip-off."
THE RACE BETWEEN Albo, an attorney specializing in DWI law, and Werkheiser, a former Warner speech writer, is garnering attention from across Virginia.
As the two candidates head into the final stretch of the campaign, both reported raising a combined total of more than $650,000 and have spent upwards of $319,000 — making the race easily the costliest this year and one of the most expensive in Virginia history.
The rapidly growing district, which includes 76,000 households in Springfield, West Springfield, Laurel Hill, Lorton, Fairfax Station and Mason Neck, is a true swing district.
In 2004, U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D) narrowly won the district's precincts. And the district also voted Democratic by a slim margin during Warner's 2001 bid for the governor's mansion and in the 2003 Fairfax County Chairman race, which Gerry Connolly (D) won.
But at the same time, 42nd District voters have also routinely elected Republicans Albo, U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (11) and State Sen. Jay O'Brien (39).
At this point in the Albo/Werkheiser race, it appears the voters might go either way, with both Republicans and Democrats ardently believing their candidate can win.
One X-factor in the race, however, is the Laurel Hill area, which has grown by 40 percent since 2001, the last time Albo faced a challenger in an election. Both candidates said they believe the influx of 10,000 new residents will help them win on Nov. 8.
Because the race is so competitive, both Albo and Werkheiser are drawing support and campaign contributions from outside the district. None of Albo's top-25 contributors reside within the 42nd District, while three of Werkheiser's largest contributors live in the district.
Eric Lundberg, chair of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, said the reason the race is proving to be such a battle is because Albo is poised to take the chairmanship of the powerful House Courts of Justice Committee. The current chair, Del. Bob McDonnell (R-84) is stepping down from his House seat in his run statewide for attorney general.
If Albo becomes chair of the committee, Lundberg said, the Democrats would be hard pressed to ever defeat him.
"Once he ascends to the chairmanship, Del. Albo will be nearly impossible to unseat," Lundberg said. "This is the Democrats' last shot."
THE 42nd DISTRICT RACE will not only be a referendum on Albo's vote against the 2004 budget package. The two candidates have laid out starkly different visions for Virginia on a range of issues.
Internal polling by both campaigns has indicated that the district's voters are most concerned about the region's transportation woes.
Werkheiser said Albo has failed to end Northern Virginia gridlock during his 11 years in office. One of Werkheiser's priorities, he said, would be to alter the state's funding formula to drive more transportation dollars to Fairfax County.
"I think it's ridiculous that Del. Albo believes he should return to Richmond, despite his complete and utter inability to get the leadership in his own party to bring a fair share home to Fairfax County," Werkheiser said.
Albo, who said the funding formula works fine, pointed to efforts that led to the completion of transportation projects in and around the 42nd District, including the Springfield Interchange, the Springfield/Franconia Metro station, the Fairfax County Parkway and the Lorton Station VRE Station.
Albo introduced a bill during the last General Assembly session that would have imposed "abuser fees" on motorists convicted of driving under the influence, reckless driving and excessive speeding. Inspired by a similar law in New Jersey, Albo's bill was projected to generate as much as $188 million for transportation projects statewide. Albo said he would re-introduce the bill next session if he is re-elected.
Albo is known for passing get-tough-on-crime legislation targeting gangs. Last session, for example, Albo successfully sponsored a bill that authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty in cases where a gang leader orders a murder. If Albo is re-elected, he said he would introduce a bill allocating $8 million to Virginia State Police to expand undercover and intelligence operations against gangs.
"I've carried every single piece of gang legislation over the past three years," Albo said. "Virginia now has the toughest laws in the nation."
Werkheiser said his opponent's approach of simply cracking down on gang members misses the point. While enforcement is a necessary piece of halting the spread of street gangs, Albo has neglected to push for effective prevention programs, Werkheiser said.
If elected, Werkheiser said he would emphasize expanding after-school programs and other proven methods of diverting at-risk young people away from violent gangs.
FAIRFAX COUNTY'S SOARING property taxes are also among the race's hot-button issues. Despite a 13-cent reduction in the local property tax rate, typical homeowners in the county are paying an average of $4,448 — roughly 85 percent more than in 2000.
Albo wants to require local governments to cap property tax increases at 5 percent, forcing Fairfax County and other jurisdictions to slash services.
"I'm getting literally hundreds of calls on this topic," Albo said. "People want Dave Albo to do something about it."
Werkheiser said the fundamental reason property taxes are high is because lawmakers in the General Assembly have failed to fully fund education and transportation. For every dollar Fairfax County taxpayers send to Richmond, he said, only 27 cents is allocated to Fairfax County. If elected, Werkheiser said he would work with legislators from both parties to build a consensus and bring more tax dollars back to Northern Virginia.
"Virginia has become so poisoned by divisiveness among the two parties," Werkheiser said. "We need a moderate who can bring people together and solve our problems."
Deirdre Coyn, a Springfield resident who volunteers on Werkheiser's campaign, said she is supporting the Democrat because he founded the Virginia Citizenship Institute — now a part of the Sorensen Institute at the University of Virginia — which teaches leadership skills to young people from both parties.
"He has what I feel is great bipartisan leadership potential," Coyn said.
BOTH CANDIDATES agree that a major challenge looming for the 42nd District is the effects of the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission's decision to relocate nearly 20,000 Defense Department workers to the Fort Belvoir area. Along with contractors and support staff, the population in southern Fairfax County could grow by as much as 80,000.
"I don't think anybody ever imagined they would take 18,000 jobs out of Crystal City, where they were perfectly happy, and move them to Fort Belvoir," Albo said. The federal government, he said, has a responsibility to help pay for the infrastructure improvements made necessary by BRAC, including a $1 billion rail extension to Fort Belvoir.
Werkheiser, who called BRAC the "800-pound gorilla" in the 42nd District, said he would also work to extend Metrorail to Fort Belvoir, as well as establishing incentives for businesses to promote telecommuting, which would keep some of the additional drivers off the clogged roads.
"We can't have the same failed state leadership over the next 12 years," he said.
THE CANDIDATES have tried to keep the race relatively fun, despite the occasional partisan potshot.
Werkheiser's volunteers, for instance, have created three wooden signs shaped like frogs that are an homage to the old Budweiser ad campaign. The "WerkFrogs" are displayed throughout the district, often on the Fairfax County Parkway.
"The frogs have been a big hit," he said. "They get people talking, that's for sure."
But the race has not been without its nastiness. Werkheiser supporters have criticized Albo in letters to the editor about his job at the Albo & Oblon law firm, because he often defends accused drunk drivers. By helping to craft the DWI laws in the General Assembly, the critics say, Albo is guilty of at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Albo refuted the conflict of interest allegation, saying his expertise has benefited all Virginians.
"The main reason our DWI laws are the toughest in the country is because myself and the other legislators on the Courts committee are experts," he said.
For their part, Albo's supporters have sought to make political hay about revelations that Werkheiser received 10 speeding tickets over the last decade.
Werkheiser said voters are more interested in issues than his driving record while in college.
"It was a slap," Werkheiser said. "It was petty. People care about substantive issues."