Janet Oleszek loves to cook, especially Greek food like lamb with tahini sauce.
The Fairfax County School Board member (At-large) grew up watching her mother experiment with different ethnic dishes in Sacremento, Calif. and brought her skills to Washington, D.C. when she moved to the area in the late 1960s.
"She really is a gourmet cook. I would rather eat something she has prepared more than almost anything else," said Cassy Benson, who lived with Oleszek on Capitol Hill during the 1970s.
The two women met in the office of U.S. Rep. John Moss (D-Calif.) almost 40 years ago, when Oleszek was a congressional intern and Benson was Moss’ staff member. They have remained close friends ever since.
As housemates, Benson remembers when she and Oleszek taught themselves to make sushi and said she learned a lot about cooking when the lived together.
RECENTLY, Oleszek’s opportunities to prepare food or indulge in her other hobbies — like traveling — have been limited. After kicking off her State Senate campaign this spring, Oleszek has devoted most of her evenings to door knocking in the sprawling 37th District, which runs from Fairfax County’s western edge to Springfield.
"My kitchen is stocked with stuff that is moldy because I don’t have time to cook," said Oleszek.
The candidate only misses a night of campaigning when the Fairfax County Board has something scheduled. Oleszek, was elected as one of the board’s three countywide members and refuses to miss a meeting, said campaign manager Jonathan Murray.
"I have worked on many campaigns and Janet is the hardest working candidate I have ever seen. She is out there every day she can be," said Murray, who has been involved in politics for five years.
A KEY FACTOR is Oleszek’s decision to step down from the School Board and run for the Senate was her opponent and the 37th District incumbent, Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R). Oleszek said he doesn’t represent the 37th District, which supported Gov. Tim Kaine and U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, both Democrats, in recent elections.
A self-described conservative, Cuccinelli opposes embryonic stem cell research, abortion and new taxes. He has supported school choice, gun owner’s right and legislation to define marriage as between a man and a woman. A recent study showed that Cuccinelli is on the losing side of votes more than any other member of the Senate, which has been controlled by a moderate Republican majority during his most recent term.
"The guy is just really extreme. He doesn’t even caucus with his leadership." Oleszek said in a recent interview. "I feel pretty strongly that we are inadequately represented right now."
OLESZEK defines herself as a mainstream Democrat who supports stem cell research and abortion access. Unlike her opponent, she thinks Fairfax County should be able to restrict guns in public buildings and other places like airports.
As a senator, Oleszek would also focus on regional priorities like increasing Fairfax County’s share of state transportation and education funding.
"To improve quality of life, education is huge for me," said the candidate.
Oleszek chaired the School Board’s state legislative committee as an at-large member. She said she remains concerned that Fairfax County Public Schools is too reliant on local revenue and should receive more funding from the state government. She added that the state money should be not be used for school voucher programs or to finance home school and private school functions.
Gridlock in Northern Virginia also has a detrimental effect on the quality of education in Fairfax. Teachers who live in Loudoun and Prince William counties are choosing to work closer to home because of longer commutes caused by congestion.
"We are losing our teachers a carpool at a time because the traffic is a barrier to getting to their job. This is why they are bailing out of Fairfax," said Oleszek.
The candidate fears there will soon be a similar type of employee flight in the private sector when employees decide to find jobs closer to where they live unless more is done to fix Northern Virginia’s transportation crisis, she said.
"Transportation, schools and safety. People have said these are their top priorities and it is not clear he [Cuccinelli] is [working on these issues] at all," said Oleszek, a resident of Fairfax County for 34 years.
She added that the state money should be not be used for school voucher programs or to finance home school and private school functions.
THE SENATE RACE in the 37th District is a top priority for the state Democratic Party. Several party activists believe that Democrats have a shot at gaining control in the State Senate if a few key candidates in Northern Virginia, including Oleszek, win their campaigns.
"[The Democrats] could do an awful lot more as demographics change here," said Oleszek.
The Democrats push to reclaim the Senate — particularly in light of the outrage over the Republican supported abusive driver fees — has brought out several volunteers to the Oleszek campaign, including Nelson Henderson.
Henderson, a retired federal employee who lives in Springfield, canvasses for Oleszek almost every Saturday. He would like to see the state government allocate more money to Northern Virginia, especially since the region generates more tax revenue than any other part of the state, he said.
Henderson listed the environment, transportation and education funding and uninsured children as his other priorities.
"The Republican candidates. They worship guns and want fewer reproductive rights for women. These are false issues. They are not important. The legislature should be dealing with real issues," said Henderson.