Passing the Gavel

Passing the Gavel

After 24 years, Elaine McConnell will leave the Board of Supervisors in December.

Elaine McConnell has lived in Fairfax County long enough to remember when Old Keene Mill and Rolling roads were two-lane streets, before condos filled neighborhoods and the Beltway inflicted its first growing pains.

In December, the Springfield District supervisor will step down from her 24-year career with the Board of Supervisors, taking with her a legacy of fighting for her community and working to make transportation better across the area.

"I think I’m most sad about leaving all these wonderful people I’ve worked with over the years," said McConnell in her office at the West Springfield District Government Center. "But I had to give it up."

McConnell and her husband Mac moved to Springfield from Jacksonville, Fla. in 1961, when he was reassigned to work as a federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. She started a series of preschools, called the Accotink Academy, while raising her three children and did not get involved in politics until invited by former supervisor Jack Herrity.

"Jack came to me and asked if I’d run," McConnell said. "When I got in, it was the first time we had a Republican majority on the board, and the General Assembly wasn’t too keen on that because it had been a Democratic stronghold."

Her colleagues on the board at that time, including Herrity, Kate Hanley and Tom Davis, helped lead the way for the early stages of Fairfax County’s transformation from sleepy bedroom community of Washington, D.C. to the region’s economic center.

Herrity’s son, Patrick, announced his candidacy for McConnell’s seat the same day she said that she would not run for another term in the November election. Fellow Republican Stan Reid had announced his intention to seek McConnell’s seat last December and Democrat Mike McClanahan recently threw his hat in the ring.

McConnell said she likes how Patrick Herrity has set a high priority for transportation, much like she and his father did when they served together.

"Pat’s had the experience in local politics, he’s done a lot in his community," she said. "Most of the issues we feel good about, we have the same goals."

At the top of that list is the completion of the Fairfax County Parkway, planned for the past 10 years to run through the Engineer Proving Ground in Springfield.

With a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) plan set to bring 18,000 Army and civilian personnel to the site by 2011, the need for the Parkway is even more urgent now, McConnell said.

She has not always agreed with how the road should be completed with Supervisors Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) and Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), who share responsibility on the property.

McConnell said she remembers the exodus from her hometown of Jacksonville when an Army base there was closed in an early round of BRAC changes some years ago.

"I saw what that can do to an economy," she said. "I’m fearful that if the Army pulled out those 22,000 people, even half of them, you’d ruin the housing market because there wouldn’t be people to fill the 10,000 houses on Fort Belvoir."

MORE ENERGY should be spent on accommodating the arriving workers than fretting over the road construction, McConnell said.

"We should cooperate with the Army as much as we can and get help with the roads," she said. "We need to understand the Army needs our help. They shouldn’t be asked to take on our problems when they have to get supplies to our soldiers overseas."

The BRAC discussions are among the only times she hasn’t been in full agreement with her Democratic colleagues. The same cannot be said for some members of her party.

"There was a time in the early 1990s when I supported a bill that would’ve raised the sales tax by one penny, which would’ve gone toward transportation," McConnell said. Her Republican colleagues were upset with her suggestion, which was eventually defeated.

Of the new transportation plan approved by the General Assembly a few weeks ago, McConnell said she’s "not completely happy" with it, but it will have to do.

"The plan is the best we can get, but it’s not what we could’ve had if we raised the sales tax," she said.

A lifelong Republican, McConnell said supporting what is best for county residents is more important than following party lines.

"I have seen so many good Republican friends leave the party because of party politics," she said. "I do my job for the people, my job is to support the will of the people. I do what I need to do, and I’ve never compromised my principles. I can look in the mirror and be happy."

Once she steps down in December, McConnell said she plans to spend more time visiting her schools, including one in Florida, playing the organ and finishing a book she began writing more than 40 years ago.

"I started a book called ‘Daddy Wears a Golden Badge,’ but I never finished it," she said. "When I was writing it, there was a man from Hollywood interested in optioning it [for a movie]. Maybe someone else will be interested once it’s finished."

She hopes the Board of Supervisors that follows her will continue to work on transportation issues and concentrate on issues of education and public safety. She would also like to see one of her pet projects, Patriot Park, completed.

"I won’t miss the 1 a.m. meetings or the 14 hour days, I can tell you that," she laughed.

IT IS CLEAR that her colleagues will miss her.

"Elaine has been a pleasure to work with," said Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence). "She has a warm personality, she really empathizes with people. It's difficult to imagine the board without her."

Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) called McConnell a "voice of reason" on the board, especially when budget time came around.

"She puts partisan politics aside and has the county's best interests in mind when making any decision," Bulova said.

Following one particularly trying budget meeting, Bulova said McConnell and Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) challenged each other to a friendly baking competition.

"She and Gerry are both terrific cooks," Bulova said. "But I think she really outdid Gerry that day."

Of his cooking counterpart, Hyland said he will miss McConnell, who he has served with during his entire political career.

"You always know where Elaine stands," he said. "What she said, she felt, there was no other agenda. "

Hyland credits McConnell’s dedication to fiscal responsibility and representing her constituents faithfully and doggedly for her longevity on the board and said he will continue to be impressed by her quick mind.

"She is the only person I know who you can give a long list of numbers, and when you're done, she'll tell you the total," Hyland said. "Elaine is one of my favorite people. She'll be sorely missed."

Supervisor Penny Gross (D-Mason) said that despite a rocky start, she and McConnell became strong allies and good friends.

"Elaine is a wonderful institutional memory and a great fan and friend of the county," Gross said. "She'll tell it like it is. Sometimes she pushes us [on the board] in a direction we wanted to go, but we weren't quite there yet."

Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-At-large) said McConnell was not shy when she felt he was out of line.

"I truly value her counsel and I'll miss that," he said. "Elaine is known for putting common sense and the needs of the community ahead of party loyalty."

For her successor, Connolly is encouraging whoever fills her shoes to "try to be a listener, try to learn and work with colleagues for the benefit of the county. Local government is all about getting things done."

McConnell is not the only supervisor leaving the dais this year.

Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) worked for the woman unseated by McConnell, Marie Travesky, prior to being elected to the board himself.

"The de facto mother of the Fairfax County Police Department is Elaine McConnell," said Kauffman, due to her steadfast support of the police across the county, whom she often refers to as "her boys."

Her departure from the board will be a "huge loss of common sense," Kauffman said. "But I hope this will free up time for her to finish her book, hug her cats and do whatever she wants. "

McConnell said she's certain she won't be a retiree who spends her days lounging on the beach.

"I can only take about a week or two of sitting around before I need to find where the action is," she said. "I’m looking forward to having time to myself for the first time, but not the loss of the wonderful people I've met."